According to the World Health Organization’s Global Status Report on Violence Prevention 2014, and data from 133 countries representing 88 percent of the world’s population, nearly one in five women were sexually abused early in life. Although sexual trauma can occur at any age, adolescents and young women are disproportionately victims. Data released by the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics showed 30 percent of females raped in England and Wales in 2015 were under the age of 16 when assaulted, while most victims were between the ages of 15 and 19. Similar conditions exist in the United States. According to data for the years 2009 and 2010 from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, 61 percent of female victims of sexual assault were younger than age 18.
The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. According to the United States Department of Justice, 93 percent of juvenile victims of sexual assault in the US knew the perpetrator — 34.2 percent were family members while 58.7 percent were acquaintances.
Most remain silent about sexual abuse because they fear retaliation or perceive the assault as a private matter. Only a third of girls and adolescents tell anyone. This was true of me. I kept the secret. For nearly two decades I resisted even acknowledging I had been molested and only acquiesced when I was so troubled by flashbacks I had no choice but to confront my reactions to the abuse.
In our silence, many of us blame ourselves. According to Bessel van der Kolk: “It’s hard enough to face the suffering that has been inflicted by others, but deep down many traumatized people are even more haunted by the shame they feel about what they themselves did or did not do under the circumstances. They despise themselves for how terrified, dependent, excited, or enraged they felt.”1 This is especially true when the abuse was coerced rather than forced, or if the survivor felt sexually aroused. “The result,” as van der Kolk wrote, “can be confusion about whether one was a victim or a willing participant, which in turn leads to bewilderment about the difference between love and terror; pain and pleasure.”2
Those of us who have been sexually abused also find ourselves burdened with an experience most others, at least unconsciously, organize their lives to avoid, which influences how we respond to our histories. We too want to leave parts of ourselves in the shadow of civilization and carry on unencumbered by an experience that sets us outside the bounds of social acceptability, regardless that sexual trauma is never the victim’s fault. However, once ‘cast out,’ as it were, it is often difficult to regain a foothold in our old lives. A profound sense of loss is common, even when sexual trauma occurs in the earliest years of life.
Much like stowaways on a ship, we come to perceive at least parts of ourselves as living outside the boundaries of a protective society. Many feel undeserving of their goals and aspirations. Others chronically avoid what might nourish them. Still others habitually act in ways that make certain their rejection, if not alienation. Some become too numb or addicted to recognize threats to their safety. Few consciously make the connection between their silenced histories of sexual trauma and feeling like social outcasts.
Yet the silencing of histories of sexual trauma is toxic, if not deadly. When we don’t give voice to our suffering and receive the support we need, and instead hold our pain within, we increase the likelihood of physical diseases, addictions, eating disorders, suicidality, and self-harm. Without opportunities to bring the unconscious affects of sexual trauma to conscious awareness and resolution, we are more likely to act on unconscious memories and defenses, including acting from a place of shame, which can increase the risk of sexual revictimization.
For all people, especially during the first three decades of life, the developmental task of forging an identity is rarely easy. Yet for those of us with histories of early life sexual trauma, bringing ourselves authentically to the world can be too much to bear when judgment or rejection is the anticipated response. Instead, many try to block out painful memories and live with a fragmented psyche. In this process of creating protective defenses around deeply wounded parts, we can feel empty, even strangers to ourselves. Furthermore, development can stall as isolated parts remain unintegrated and split off from other aspects of personhood.
When sexual trauma happens early in life, and is kept secret, fantasizing is a common way of escaping fear, anxiety, and painful memories. Fantasizing can be used to defend against situations and people we don’t feel prepared to deal with, and which cause anxiety, if not fear. Such fantasizing may take the form of imagined narratives or dialogues that are used to rehearse possibilities, in effect ‘trying on’ different selves as a way to seek resolution of uncertainty and feeling threatened. This is a healthy use of the imagination, especially when it leads to finding solutions to real world problems. However, if the fantasies are too unrealistic or destructive to support meaningful change, or are used solely to self-soothe, over time the imagination becomes more a place of escape that an opportunity to discover creative solutions. As long as we remain isolated in our pain, we are more likely to be burdened by the need to use the imagination to construct inner defenses.
Victims of sexual trauma and other forms of interpersonal violence also get caught in fantasies of grandeur or invincible power — the imagination’s defense against further devaluation and oppression. One example of this use of the imagination is the movie Precious when the protagonist has fantasies of being famous in response to experiences that cause her to feel degraded and ashamed. Through fantasizing, Precious found ways to bolster her self-worth. She lacked people in her life who could protect her, make sense of what was happening, and support her recovery. She instead relied on fantasies to make herself feel better and numb the pain.
Most societies collude with our need to use the imagination to escape memories of sexual abuse, just as most societies have implicitly expected girls and women to remain silent about their sexual trauma histories. According to journalist Catherine Clement, “every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes.”3 We glimpse the silenced narratives of sexual trauma in representations of sexuality, relationships, girls, adolescents, and women found in literature, movies, songs, advertisements, and pornography that depict a shadow world of sexual exploitation. The culture’s imaginary zone also influences how survivors cordon off memories of sexual trauma, showing us what is and is not acceptable, as well as how to narrate our lives. Yet through changes in the culture’s imaginary, there is the potential to alter how both individuals and the collective deal with the reality of sexual trauma.
When humans first began to speak some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, their utterances likely conformed to collective myths, thus contributing to a shared imagination. Their myths also organized the rituals they used to bring the collective together in their efforts to heal traumas and illnesses. We moderns also need collective ‘myths,’ or narratives, to give form and meaning to our imaginations.
In reaction to profoundly alienating traumas like sexual abuse, I believe we anticipate a societal response that makes sense not only of what happened, but also helps us story our histories according to the larger narrative of our culture or community. Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote, “A sense of identity means a sense of being at one with oneself as one grows and develops; and it means, at the same time, a sense of affinity with a community’s sense of being at one with its future as well as its history—or mythology.”4 Historically, survivors of sexual trauma have lacked a sense of being part of a mythology, or narrative, that helps us integrate our psyches as well as reintegrate with the collective.
Instead, after sexual trauma many come to interpret themselves according to age-old tropes or resist them: the whore, the seductress, the slut — those slurs used to devalue women and justify their assault. Even if like me, you never told anyone what happened, there nevertheless seems to be an archetypal reaction to sexual trauma that involves inner struggles with self-perceptions according to societal distinctions between purity and defilement used to categorize women according to their sexual histories. Regularly, sexually violated girls and women feel irrevocably defiled by sexual trauma, just as many view those with histories of sexual abuse as both culpable in their victimization and tainted by it. Rather than integrated into the community through the cultural imaginary, sexual trauma survivors have been scapegoated.
Fortunately, women are changing the cultural imaginary, giving voice to the wounds so many have suffered in silence, and challenging how survivors of sexual trauma are perceived and treated. Through art, literature, film, memoir, dance, comedy, and music creatives are remaking stereotypical images of the sexual abused. They are also asserting their right to use the creative function of the imagination, rather than silently depend on fantasizing as a defense. Indeed, telling the history of abuse and taking the path of recovery may not be possible without enlisting the imagination — a point I explore in future posts.
Recovery from sexual trauma is a radical act that often begins with a shift in how we imagine ourselves in the world, including no longer seeing ourselves as suffering alone. Even when we cannot find support in our immediate communities, we can use the imagination to create a sense of solidarity with other survivors. This imagined community then becomes the fountainhead for confidence in both oneself and the possibility of recovery. For some, a sense of solidarity can only emerge through the imagination because of their community’s attitudes towards sexual trauma survivors, or the continued threat of their perpetrator, which makes silence the safest option.
Historically, there has been resistance to acknowledging the centrality of the imagination for both coping with, and recovering from, traumas like sexual abuse. The emergence of modernity, and the attempt to create a secularized world unhampered by spiritual beliefs, resulted in the relegation of the imagination to the artist and the mentally ill. Furthermore, Freud’s false claim that women’s accounts of sexual abuse were merely fantasies has overshadowed the significance of the imagination for surviving sexual trauma and overcoming its affects.
Yet the global spread of communication technologies and media has radically challenged distinctions between the real and the imaginal. Arjun Appadurai argued in Modernity At Large, “… there has been a shift in recent decades, building on technological changes over the past century or so, in which the imagination has become a collective, social fact.” The result, he claimed, is “Ordinary people have begun to deploy their imaginations in the practice of everyday lives.”5 In the mental health field, the contents of psychoses and delusions are increasingly interpreted as storying real experiences of persecution and abuse. Such changing attitudes towards the imagination appear to have emerged in part because of the inability in our media saturated world to govern, or even prohibit, the intertwining of the real and the imaginal in the construction of personhood. And this is a change we can exploit in our efforts to bring our narratives and identities into reality.
Questions to ponder: How comfortable are you with your imagination? Do you use fantasies to escape uncomfortable emotions or situations? Do you avoid fantasizing and feel distrustful of your imagination, if not fear it? How does media, movies, fiction, art and/or music influence how you perceive, or relate to, your history of sexual trauma?
1 Kolk, Bessel van der. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking, p. 13.
2 Ibid., p. 14.
3 Cixous, Helene, & Clement, Catherine. (1975). The newly born woman (B. Wing, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, p. ix.
4 Erikson, Erik H. (1974). Dimensions of a new identity: The 1973 Jefferson lectures in the humanities. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, pp. 27-28.
5 Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: Cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, p. 5.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).