Trigger Warning: Contains mentions of sexual abuse
discovered punk music when I was 19-years-old and grappling with the realization that I was sexually abused as a child. The mosh pit was my safe haven, a space where I could express my rage, grief, and sadness without question. As I accidentally stepped on people’s shoes, elbowed them in the ribs, and glided on a bed of hands and fists, I felt more at home in my body than I ever had.
The Southern California punk scene was dominated by Burger Records, a music label that valued the DIY spirit of garage rock with bands like Cherry Glazerr, FIDLAR, Hunx and His Punx, and Ty Segall. Their shows were filled with sweaty teenagers and young adults sporting the infamous burger badges, denim jackets, and Doc Martens.
In my goth-inspired punk aesthetic of Betty Paige bangs, velvet crop tops, a smiley piercing, and a growing collection of grayscale tattoos on my arms, I fit right in. I’d go to as many shows as I could with my roommate. We’d smoke Camel cigarettes in her car as she drove us down the freeway towards The Observatory, a popular music venue for punk shows in Santa Ana.
The anticipation of waiting for the mosh pit was the most thrilling part of a show. My muscles tensed waiting for the moment I’d jump into the swirling mass of bodies, letting the wave of aggressive dancing carry me away. With arms braced, I’d deflect the weight of people pushing, shoving, elbows jabbing until I’d spring from the eager fingertips of those outlining the pit.
There is a melody to the chaos, a cadence in movement out of sequence. Relinquishing oneself to punk rock involves letting the body respond to its basic instincts: to stand its ground when thrown off balance, to protect when affronted with clenched fists or a stray combat boot.
It also means trusting what can’t be known; if you fall, you hope strangers pick you back up again. When surfing on a crowd in constant flux, you depend on an ocean of hands to help you defy gravity.
In the midst of screeching guitars and loud thumping bass, I forgot my angst of living in a place that felt soul-sucking. In the dark hallways of the Observatory, in DIY spaces, in someone’s apartment, I could detach the hanging weight of my trauma from my shoulders, tie it around my waist, and thrash in the pit until it was trampled by patent leather shoes.
For years I used my body as a blank slate for my anger, a vessel that I ignored and abused because I internalized the backward logic that I was to blame for what happened. As an adolescent, I starved myself to elude the lingering eyes of men. My eating disorder helped me disappear, but it also pushed me deeper into self-loathing. I couldn’t shake the reality that my body was something I couldn’t get rid of, even when it felt violated, uncomfortable, and dangerous.
Survivors of sexual assault often feel like their bodies don’t belong to them, that they’re no longer entitled to feel pleasure or pain. Rape culture convinces victims that our bodies are malignant, uncontrollable, and perpetrators of crimes and abuse. In a society that doesn’t punish rapists and assailants, survivors internalize how to sentence themselves–how to beat unruly bodies into submission, how to disengage from sensation, and how to become invisible for the sake of survival.
I thought harming my body in a physical, tangible way could alleviate the emotional and spiritual pain I experienced. Since my abuser never made a mark on my body, I was in denial for years about whether or not he actually hurt me. Our culture reaffirms that if there isn’t proof of assault, then it didn’t happen.
Victims of sexual abuse, especially in childhood, often experience post-traumatic stress disorder in a unique way. In Gaby Hinsliff’s article for The Guardian about an organization determined to help victims of sexual abuse, she writes about how :
“the World Health Organisation formally recognise(s) the existence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder…it differs from other forms of PTSD in that sufferers tend to have “a completely pervasive and rigid negative belief about themselves,” says the inquiry’s chief psychologist Bryony Farrant.”
It took me years to recognize the symptoms of my abuse: the way I left my body during sex, how I smoked cigarettes until I wheezed, the way I used drugs and alcohol to mask my depression and anxiety. What do you call a girl who feels like a ghost, even when she still walks amongst the living?
Punk rock embraced my monstrosity. The genre has always been a home for misfits and rebels, and concerts are the culmination of their weirdness. Whereas it’s inappropriate to stomp on people’s toes or knock them over in most circumstances, punk shows have an entirely different code of etiquette.
As long as you help others off the ground when they fall, don’t expect an apology when you get a black eye or the wind knocked out of you.
In this scene, my anger was not only welcomed but encouraged. The mosh pit was as much a spinning mass of bodies as it was a whirlpool of repressed emotions. Where else can you experience the full extent of rage, hopelessness, anguish, and heartbreak and not be judged for it?
The violence of the mosh pit was unlike any of my attempts at managing my feelings with self-harm. Even when covered in sweat and beer, my limbs throbbing and my ears ringing, it was cathartic. The experience forced me to be conscious of my body and its limitations. When I needed to catch my breath, I’d take a step back. When I felt like soaring above the crowd, I asked a friend for a hand to lift me.
I wasn’t disassociating, letting life passively happen to me. When I was shoved, I pushed back. I danced and got the shit kicked out of me and laughed because I could feel myself reacting to other people’s bodies, responding to the boundaries of skin that bind and separate us. Mosh pits blur and stir the concept of barriers, as participants never abandon their physical autonomy even when they yield to the unpredictability of the pit.
Through my eating disorder and substance abuse, I tried to control my body because I had no authority as a child being mistreated by an adult. My abuser used me as a receptacle for his own trauma, transferring his wounds onto me so he could forget they existed. But the body never forgets; it responds to truth even when our hearts and minds deny it.
My abuser once asked my best friend if she was addicted to pain when he saw how many tattoos she had. I rolled my eyes, disgusted with his ignorance. She only laughed and said: “I enjoy the feeling of needles on my skin.” Her response evokes a complicated relationship with the meaning of consent and hurt, especially as a survivor of sexual assault.
What does it mean to experience pain when it’s expected, and even welcomed? Consensual pain is a negotiation, a conversation between our desire to expand and our limitations. That’s how mosh pits felt to me: a voluntary agreement to pain that was pleasurable because it was on my terms. There was always a way out, one that only I could control.
Sexual trauma blurs one’s sense of healthy boundaries. When the lines are crossed, what else is there to do except redraw them? Redefine, reestablish. A method of finding a way back to yourself, when the hurt shatters those feelings of security and safety.
Sexual abuse numbed me; it was my method of survival against sensations and emotions that traumatized me. Punk rock stirred my apathy and stoked my anger. It gave me permission to rage, which in turn, translated into allowing my body to feel the visceral experience of aggressive moshing.
Punk rock acted as a mediator between the person I was before and after the abuse. It bridged the gap between hurt and catharsis, reminding me that living in my body could be a choice, just as not existing in it was one as well. Punk rock gave me that chance. It saved my life.