How a queer nude beach helped me begin to heal from trauma

Man with arms wide open on the beach at sunrise
Photo: Shutterstock

As someone who has been in therapy since adolescence, I thought I was equipped to deal with incidents that affected my mental health. But about two months before moving to Barcelona, something unexpected happened when a freak storm stranded me in New York City following a convention I attended.

Desperate to find somewhere to stay since my canceled flight was in the middle of the night, I contacted a casual friend who I knew was a night owl and lived in the city. To be completely transparent, I only knew this person when I drank. Each interaction we had usually entailed a night out with multiple cocktails. After a quick conversation and getting approval to spend the night, I hailed a taxi and headed to Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.

As soon as I walked into the apartment, a vodka cocktail greeted me. Without me asking, I was given another and another. I felt myself dipping between consciousness. This wasn’t the first time I was tipsy or drunk, but it was the first time I felt like I was not making that choice for myself. 

The world went dark, and I woke up next to said friend, completely naked and with a massive headache. I asked what happened, and he said, “We went out for more drinks.”

I asked why we were naked, and he said, “We started having sex.” I told him I did not remember anything, and he said, “Yeah, I was a little worried I was too forceful. You seemed out of it.”

A sinking feeling came over me, and I felt I was drowning in my thoughts. I kept telling myself that I deserved the shame I was feeling because I chose to drink. It was my fault, and I should have said no.

I went back to the airport, still convinced it was my fault. A month later, the same person invited themselves to my apartment in Miami, Florida. Still thinking what happened in New York was a result of my drinking too much, I did not mind having the person in my home. On his last night, I felt the same pressure to drink. After more than five drinks and almost losing consciousness, I noticed this was a pattern. This person was getting me drunk just to have sex with me while they were more sober.

This awakening turned my world upside down. I was sexually assaulted, and I was not equipped to deal with it while moving to another country. 

The first few months in Spain were difficult. I was emotionally overwhelmed, and everything and everyone was triggering. I didn’t feel safe, even in places I knew there was no danger. The feeling of being dirty or tainted conflicted with all the new experiences I was having. My mind was being pulled into pieces, and there was no space or time to give myself grace.

During all this chaos, a friend of my roommate came to town. In the beginning, I barely noticed him. He was from a city called Valladolid and was here for the week. During one outing on our terrace, I noticed him staring at me. I recognized this stare as either of two things: He’s interested, or I’m about to become part of a hate crime. As the week progressed, he opened up more, and we made plans to head to the beach. I let him choose the beach since he was more familiar with Barcelona. 

On the day of the beach trip, I was nervous. I hadn’t been alone with another (possibly) queer person since what happened, and my emotions ranged from excitement to dread. Getting closer to the beach, I noticed more and more queer folks roaming. This wasn’t strange, since I knew Barcelona to be a safe space for queer travelers across Europe. What was strange (to me) was the beach being littered with nude sunbathers, mostly male.

As soon as I noticed this, I asked my escort why he brought me here. He replied, “I just wanted to see what happened.” As we plopped down on the hot yellow sand, trying to avoid direct contact with the scathing European summer sun, anxiety crippled me to the point where I couldn’t speak for a few minutes. Seeing nude bodies was exactly what I didn’t want, and I felt myself sinking into panic and negative thoughts. My inner voice was screaming at me. I felt confident enough to understand that nudity and sex were two separate things depending on the context, but my emotions couldn’t comprehend it all in the moment.

My partner noticed me being quiet and asked if everything was okay. I nodded my head uncomfortably and suggested we jump in the ocean. Normally, this side of the Mediterranean doesn’t have the most desirable water, but on this particular day, you could see your toes digging into the sand beneath the surface.

I stared at the sky while floating belly up for an uncomfortably long time, attempting to organize my thoughts before returning. Sitting down, I felt myself become a bit more relaxed. Instead of covering my body, I felt a sliver of confidence forming in me. My legs stretched out, and instead of tucking my arms around my chest, I placed them on the side, like a complete starfish on the sand. 

I probably looked odd, but I started feeling free, and that is all that mattered. Seeing all the nude bathers frolic without a care made me feel stable. I kept my swimsuit on, but still, my body was on full display. It did not at all feel like people were judging me.

The sun was shining, and everyone seemed pretty happy. It was a picturesque moment, and seeing the nude body in a safe environment made me feel secure. I wasn’t being attacked or provoked, I was spending the day at the beach with a new friend, and it felt good. I was slowly separating the concepts of nudity, violence, and control, and it felt like I was crossing a milestone. 

Leaving the beach, I reflected on what happened. I inadvertently gave myself exposure therapy, and even though this was not a cure-all, I felt proud. My healing journey had just begun, and I finally saw a smidgen of my inner light coming back.

Dealing with sexual trauma is different for everyone, and healing might not be everyone’s path. That is okay. There is no standard on how fast you should heal or what that looks like. I learned to give myself grace, and that started at Platja de la Mar Bella in Barcelona, Spain, with a thousand or so naked queers.

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