I Can’t be Both

Artwork: “I Can’t be Both”, 2019
The duality of being a survivor and perpetrator of sexual violence in one body.

Artist: Neha Bhat
This artwork was exhibited at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Trauma Resilience Centre, Bangalore and the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan, among others.

I Can’t be Both – Of Suckling Fruit and Open Wounds

“By distancing ourselves from people who have committed harm and disregarding the circumstances and conditions of perpetration and survivorship as a duality, we lose our best opportunity to learn how to prevent sexual violence in the first place.”
Sonya Shah, Director, The Ahimsa Collective

Also available to view in the Hakara Journal, a bilingual journal of creative expression

With the #metoo movement in focus, multiple stories of sexual violence have surfaced in the mainstream globally. While those who identify within the binary of having been harmed and having harmed seek pathways towards their healing, those who identify as both lack access to competent trauma therapy services globally. This series of artworks is part of an art-based research project focusing on my therapeutic relationship as an art therapist, a queer woman and a survivor of sexual violence, to a group of unnamed clients in India and in the U.S. who identify with the dual identity of being both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence within one body. Some survivor-perpetrators revealed their struggle with understanding consent in their adult life due to incest whereas others felt helpless lacking control over boundaries due to childhood sexual abuse. Each art piece investigates the confusing, shame-inducing and often, violence-causing nature of this duality, and my relationship to it, through pattern, texture, poetry and text, within the context of trauma-informed art therapy.

Six pieces of visual artwork along with six pieces of accompanying poetry were created in this series, based on the oral narratives of six racially, socio-culturally different people who struggled with this duality. The viscerality of fruit in juxtaposition with the sensuality of flowers among other elements of nature have been explored in this  work. These elements have been presented as patterns of shape, color and material interacting with different parts of the human body in real and surreal ways, in an attempt to mirror a visceral response in the eye of viewer. Patterns are layered under more patterns, pointing to the depth of each narrative, and the impossibility of a “binary solution.” to sexual violence.

Image 1
Mixed Media on Handmade Paper, Neha Bhat 2018.

Narrative 1: Everything I know about sex is from my babysitter. She was 31, I was 12 years old. She was sweet, caring, gorgeous and in an open marriage with her husband. I was devoted to her pleasure. I am now 26, she has long left me, for someone less needy than me, but I still love her. Why am I so broken? Last year, I slept with a girl I was casually seeing when she was drunk. Deep down, I knew she was too drunk to consent, but I went ahead anyway. I don’t know what to do. Nothing works for me anymore.

She held me like a baby,

my sweet girl,

My darling Ni,

when I was 12, and she 31.

When she suckled fruit,

Its nectar seeped,

Deep down,

Into the cracks of my back,

By the wrinkles on my face,

Into the salty wound

That she left

Each time I thought of her.



I, chaotic,

Came upon another,

One of her,

Succulent, sweet and gorgeous,

I couldn’t stop,

I didn’t stop,

Why didn’t I stop?

I should have stopped.

I Can’t be Both: Of Juicy Papayas and Bitter Tongues

Image 2
Mixed Media on Handmade Paper, Neha Bhat 2018.

Narrative 2: Me and my cousin played sex games with each other in bed when we were 7 and 8 years old. It went on for 6 years after that. I hated it and then I started liking it. Is this sick? Pleasure and pain are one for me. I’m now 42 years old, I’m broken. I was called out on facebook last year as being a molester of one of my friends as part of the #metoo movement. I don’t remember doing it but I remember feeling bad when I touched her. I tried apologizing but I know it is not enough. I don’t know what to do.

Ladka kya hain,

Kya hain ladki,

Tumhari chonch,

Meri chhadi


What is a boy,

What is a girl

A bird’s beak

Lies within

The creeks of

My underwear

Mummy didn’t see us,

Playing with our toys,

Hold my tongue

Close to yours,

Before you suckle

Before you chuckle,

I won’t tell her,

And you won’t too.

I Can’t be Both: Of Peeling the Layers of my Burning Skin

Image 3
Mixed Media on Handmade Paper, Neha Bhat 2018.

Narrative 3: When I was 5 years old, our family driver, G played a “sex game” with me. All I remember is coconut trees, open skies and a weird sensation in my body. I told my father and G was fired the next day. I don’t know if it was rape or not because it was not traumatic for me. I thought that event had no impact on me until I realized, at 21, that I had violated my girlfriends’ boundaries during sex. This old sex game flashed in my mind, and I pushed her to play it with me, as we were being intimate but she did not like it. I now realize that so many of my relationships have been unequal, where I’ve been the caretaker of younger partners. I have had the upper-hand in them sometimes, but I feel powerless all the time. I don’t know what to do.

Oh, skin

Burn inside me,

Let me vanish

Beneath the covers

Of your memory,

For I wish to undo

What I did and didn’t do,

What I did and didn’t know

Peel my layers

One by one,

Until I no longer

Have to be

Who I am.