Photographer and writer Megan Bowers-Vette spent 12 months interviewing 50 survivors of sexual abuse and assault from New Zealand and Australia, all of whom agreed to be identified and photographed. Here, two of them tell their stories.
I had some difficult early teenage years growing up, becoming a sexual person. Being poorer than my classmates, I found it challenging portraying myself as someone desirable and attractive without all the "stuff". I found boys confusing and didn't know if they were interested in me or not.
I don't remember a lot of things but have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has brought a few things that have been dormant back into my mind.
One of the first memories that came back to me was when I went to a party with a guy and was drinking alcohol. I was 14 and I ended up getting drunk off vodka for the first time. His aunt bought it for us and then she fell asleep upstairs and didn't check on us. He raped me in front of his friends. I was half asleep and didn't realise that made me fair game because I was trusting. I assumed that they were my friends.
I remember coming to and having moments of lucidity, including crying in his bathroom at one point. Ever since then, I've always had this feeling that rich people's bathrooms make me cry, which is an unusual cue. Having grown up in a modest home, the polish of that bathroom really stood out in my mind.
Going back to what happened, the way he approached it was very playful. Obviously he was drunk too. I wasn't quite with it but eventually I realised what had happened. Everyone had seen my bits, which concerned me the most. It was the humiliation of having people see. They weren't harassing me; it was more giggling as if it was consensual. But, how can it be consensual if I was unconscious?
It didn't feel like a violent trauma, it was playful and there was an innocence to it, except for the fact that I didn't know what was happening. If he'd asked me to sleep with him, I probably would have. The fact of the matter was that I didn't know what was happening and didn't give consent.
After it happened, I was very distraught about what it meant, and what people would think of me, being that my sexuality was so public. My friend (who was at the party but not there at the time) and I ended up going home. I think his aunt found out and dropped us off in the middle of the night. My friend was holding me and I was crying and then when we got home my mum sent me to bed to get warm. She thought I was just tired and grumpy.
I actually ended up speaking to this guy afterwards. In retrospect, it's a funny situation but I felt some responsibility to make it right. I felt that if I could position it as a friendship, it made it seem less wrong. Everything could be all right, and everything was fine. And it was. I forgot that episode over a long period of years.
ANOTHER TIME, I must have been about 17 or 18. I went on a date with someone and he slipped something in my drink. GBH in a sugar cube in my glass of wine. I realised just before I passed out that he hadn't drunk his. Later on, when I woke up, I had my underwear on backwards and I was bruised. I was quite sore in places.
I oscillated between realising that something happened and then talking myself out of it and giggling about how silly I was for putting my underwear on incorrectly. Accepting that I had been raped meant I would have to accept responsibility for it all over again. I ended up having sex with him later on that night, to make myself feel less like he was in the wrong. I ended up trying to establish a relationship with these abusers to make it all okay.
I can't make sense of that on an individual level. I understand this through the power of social norms to shape our expectations, assumptions and interpretations about what sexual violence is – to the point where we may not recognise it for what it is. I was brought up with a very pragmatic outlook on life. If something bad happens we move ahead, keep going for our goals and don't let anything hamper us from that. There was a lot of merit to that; it just meant my healing was delayed until I could make sense of these experiences from an adult vantage point.
While I was going through the PTSD and unravelling the past, I came across some really unhelpful and invalidating responses from people that stifled my recovery, and led me to question myself. People with no connection to the past events, who simply refused to believe me. I still wonder if that relates to racism, being considered "untrustworthy" or "undeserving as Māori" – and to sexism and being considered "unruly as woman".
For me, the memories were intertwined with support from my ancestors, cushioning some of the pain and warning me of what was unfolding. With the support of Māori counsellors who understood that, I was better able to understand their reassurance and ultimately, believe in myself, and my own - and ancestral - intrinsic knowledge.
I have always maintained that I am "nobody's victim". No one can diminish the mauri (spirit) that exists within me, between my whānau (extended family, friends and colleagues) and whakapapa (ancestral connections) from the past, present and future. These experiences of sexual violence have not and will never define me. I am so much more than what has happened to me. And if you too have had awful experiences, remember that you are also so much more!
It took me six years to let myself start to believe that what I experienced was sexual assault. It took me seven years to understand that even though I thought I was cognitively putting myself in that situation, and I thought I wanted to be there, I had in fact been groomed, taken advantage of, manipulated and raped. It took me eight years to begin to shift the blame from myself, to him.
I was always a bit different from everyone else my age growing up. From borrowing my intermediate teacher's music collection and having bright orange mohawk haircuts to choosing to stay in class and play on the computers at break times meant I was somewhat of a social outcast but this never bothered me because I was undeniably me. Then came puberty, the acne, the braces, the confusion around sexual orientation, high school and the bullying. All of a sudden the things I loved the most about myself are now the things everyone else was telling me I should hate.
High school became a miserable time for me, everything in me wanted to express who I was on the inside but the constant fear of my peers meant there was a constant battle inside, who am I? Where do I belong? Will anyone ever like who I really am? Will I ever find friends like me? Then "he" showed up, and everything changed. I was 15 by this stage and still trying to find myself, and I guess in some respects be found. A new student teacher started showing up in my school, someone I knew in the LBGTQIA community introduced him to me.
He told me he was doing a paper on gay students in our school and asked me if he could ask me some questions and, for the first time in a long time, I felt like someone was interested in what I had to say. We sat at a picnic table and he asked me questions during a study period when nobody was around to hear my answers. Looking back on it now, it was all so obvious what he was doing but I was blinded by my need for attention.
We exchanged numbers. He used the excuse of offering support and guidance navigating the school environment being queer. We sent text messages back and forth and built what I thought was a friendship. He invited me to his home on the weekend. He told me he would get in trouble from the school for having students at his house so I couldn't tell anyone. I rode my BMX 25km to his house and told my mum I was going to the skate park with a friend.
This was the first of many visits to his house, I remember being shocked at the excessive amount of black and white nude male images framed in the lounge room but he explained they were artistic and helped me appreciate them. He also had a housemate who was away for the weekend and I didn't think anything of that either. He made me feel safe, cared about, gave me someone to talk to, at a point in my life when he knew damn well I had no one and this helped me ignore the many red flags with the situation.
Slowly as I began to relax more and more the conversation began to get more and more sexual, but after all, that was what his paper was about right? Once he found out that I was a virgin with both males and females, he took it upon himself to introduce me to all kinds of gay porn, starting with Japanese cartoon Henti porn and slowly working up to more extreme films pushing the boundaries more and more. As any 15-year-old would watching porn I started to get aroused and he offered to "teach" me how to give a blowjob.
As the weeks went past he showered me with gifts, gave me notes at school and became less and less of a teacher and more and more of a friend. Funnily enough he wasn't working at our school for very long but I never did find out why. It was around this time he asked me to be his boyfriend but of course, this had to be kept secret, I mean what 28-year-old would want his friends finding out he was dating a 15-year-old anyway?
He got me a sex toy without me asking, so I could practise before we had sex. The sex ... the sex hurt ... I hated it ... but at least I was getting it, right? At least I was making him happy?
Our "relationship" lasted a few months. I can't remember exactly how long, or even how it ended but what I do remember were all the strange things that didn't seem strange at the time but are now burned into my memory. Like the way he would circle on his calendar the days he got to see me but only a half circle if we didn't have sex. The computer he had full of nude photos of other boys my age, some of whom I knew. They were, of course, all just "modelling" for his photography, but when he took photos of me it was just on a cheap camera. The way I never met any of his friends, never got invited to any of the theatre shows he was involved with, in fact I didn't know a single thing about his life outside of his time with me, it was all about me.
This so-called relationship left me with many mental health issues, depression, anxiety, abandonment issues, issues trusting men, self-worth issues, none of which I attributed to this abusive time in my life, and I probably never would have made the connection if it wasn't for my next run in with him six years later. I was working for a production company on a theatre show he had a role in, unbeknown to me until we locked eyes. He on stage, me at front of house. I remained cold and professional towards him but his old ways shone through and I was not blind to it this time round.
At the next night's rehearsal he handed me a print of a naked portrait of me he had painted at some point after our relationship ended. After closing night of the show and a late night packing down, I left the theatre into the dark empty car park to find him waiting at my car.
Positioned in a way so I could not walk away nor get into my car, he forced me to hug him and he tried to tell me he still loved me, even though we had not seen each other or spoken for all those years. Only after some stern words could I get him to let me go and let me leave. I quickly drove away, taking off my shirt that now stunk of him. Bringing everything back to the surface, my brain started to finally process this experience. It was on this cold drive home that I finally admitted to myself that I had been raped.
Now that I knew what he had done was rape, I now needed him to realise it too. So I confronted him via Facebook. It was apparent that he thought that his little car park stunt had worked, as he immediately engaged in conversation in a friendly manner. I needed him to say it, I needed for him to admit what he did to me was rape, so I pressed and I pressed and it wasn't long before there it was on my computer screen in plain text next to his name: "It was manipulation and rape, for you emotionally and for me legally."
I still have the screenshots of that message on my computer, unsure of what to do with them, every now and then I look at them to remind myself that although I have all this work to do on myself, it's not my fault, it's his. Despite how much he f***ed me up, I still have a loving wife, great friends, a better understanding of people. He's not in control any more.
How did the US Project come about?
The Us Project came about from just wanting to do more with my photographic practice really. Learning about how much power photography can have in the world left me feeling that what I was shooting was just a load of crap really. We can all look cool on Instagram and have nice pics but what's it actually doing for anybody. So then I realised this is what I could do, because its what I have personal experience in [sexual abuse]. It's not nice but I'm open enough and brave enough, so I thought, "Let's give it a go." I have also always been told I photograph my subjects respectfully and make them feel at ease and trusting of me, so I thought, in general, that I had the skill set to carry this out with beauty and respect.
Unsually, in this situation, all the participants in the project were happy to be identified, why do you think this was the case?
I personally am over anonymous projects around this subject. In my mind it only perpetuated the idea that there's something to be ashamed of, or if you have been through sexual assault, that its something you should keep hidden from the people around you. I think: "Stuff that. What is there to be ashamed of?" It wasn't my actions, it was those of another, and if anyone should feel shame, it isn't me. I was going to put my face in it from the beginning so I wanted others who were willing to do the same. So right from the beginning I was attracting people who are part of a different future and yes, they are brave. From the beginning there has been a little mantra we have all embraced: "Show your face, Say your name, Speak your Truth." It's been a bit of a little slogan for the project participants.
How many of the 50 subjects featured were men? Was it important to tell these stories?
Four. And yes. Maybe even the most important. It's so much harder for the men to open up. I don't know why but all I know is I received dozens of emails from men wanting to tell me what had happened to them but not wanting to be in the project. The four wonderful men in the project are the bravest and their stories are incredibly important.
What's your hope that people will take from the project?
Reality. #Metoo is great and all but how much do we actually understand now, apart from the magnitude of it? This is a very deeply ingrained issue in society that needs to be fully understood for any kind of real change. Understanding comes from listening. What I want is for people to get the reality of it.
The US Project has been published as a book, on a website and will be shown in exhibition from March 5-11 at Studio 541 in Mt Eden, Auckland.
Where to get help:
• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334.
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.