Chronic feelings of anger, or acting impulsively in states of rage, are some of the most debilitating effects of sexual abuse. Like all emotions, anger and rage rarely occur in isolation. They often combine with shame that leads to self-judgment as a bad person and with fear of retaliation. There may even be the belief that outbursts of anger are evidence of being like the abuser. When anger takes the form of revenge fantasies, it can leave a person feeling emptied of humanity and filled with bitterness.
To be a woman and show anger, or act aggressively, has historically been stereotyped as unfeminine. For centuries, a woman’s anger or wrath was even seen as proof of madness. Yet it is not the expression of anger that reveals women have lost their minds, but rather the need to hold our anger within that can make us feel crazy. When anger is habitually directed towards oneself rather than constructively expressed or transformed, self-harm, addictions, eating disorders, and even suicide can become efforts to escape the internalized aggression.
The conditions of hierarchical societies, in which women have traditionally been the bottom rung, greatly influences, if not determines, how women express anger and rage. Given the number of women who have histories of sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, histories of subjugation are as influential as socialization for how women deal with their anger. Anger is not an emotion safely expressed by the subjugated. On the contrary, the open expression of anger or aggression is more often a sign of empowerment. When a monkey’s RAGE system — the emotional system neuroaffective science associates with anger and aggression — is intentionally stimulated, the monkey will not only exhibit increased aggression, it is also more likely to ascend the hierarchical ranks of its social group.1 Humans have shown similar tendencies, especially in males.
Women risk taking part in their own submissiveness when we prioritize being desirable, likable, pleasant and appealing. As if caught in a dissociative fugue, the cultural imaginary is enchanted with feminine agreeableness. Talk of a woman’s need to know how to fight off a potential abuser, or need to prioritize safety over social acceptance, disrupts fantasies about families and relationships that depend on girls and women naively trusting that if they are only good and kind, all will turn our well and fair. (Yes, I would agree: being a feminist can sometimes be a buzz kill. Good thing too.)
Thanks to over a century of feminist activism, girls and women are now creating their own ideas about womanhood, including taking control of how their bodies are treated and how they express their emotions. That said, sexual abuse is an act tied to centuries-old ways of dominating women. When we are sexually abused, we find ourselves pulled into archetypal dramas of predator and prey. We struggle with our bodies and emotions as women did who were subjugated before us, including difficulties with expressing our justified anger and rage.
Looking back on experiences of sexual abuse, many of us wonder why we didn’t fight back; why we didn’t do something to protect ourselves; why we became immobilized; or why we silently acquiesced. Too many blame themselves for inaction and wonder if it was something they did that caused the abuse. I doubt any of us ever considered that centuries of adaptation and neurobiology instinctively took over, as if our bodies assumed submission was the best survival strategy given women’s place in the social hierarchy.
As mammals, our first defense against threat is to activate the social engagement system, which includes the ability to cry out for help and resolve threats with the help of supportive relationships. If this fails, we evolved to then rely on more primitive fight-flight defenses. If they fail, we then use the most ancient reptilian response and immobilize in a state of emotional and physical dissociation, unable to feel the pain of assault. We don’t have to think about this hierarchical defense system; it instinctively adjusts to the conditions we find ourselves in.
At some point in human history, it must have no longer been safe for women to cry out for help. It must have no longer been safe to fight off the perpetrator or run away. At some point in human history, women who survived sexual assault did not cry out for help, did not fight back, did not flee. Perhaps that was the same point in human history when tribalism became the predominant social structure, and women were increasingly treated as property that could be traded to increase wealth and alliances.2 Perhaps this was when women became largely defenseless against their own subjugation.
Women’s socialization for the conditions of oppression shapes women’s experience of anger. As a result, it may seem natural to feel anger as part of a triad of emotions that include shame and fear — shame for showing anger and fear of retaliation for doing so. Shame is an emotion that arises from social conditioning. Its expression — especially through posture and facial expression — communicates submission to those with more power. Shame relays awareness of not only failure to uphold social norms, but also that you are less likely to be a threat (at least at that moment).
A common reaction to sexual abuse is the fear that the perpetrator(s) have somehow ‘infected’ the mind, if not the soul. Psychologists refer to this as an introject that takes on the qualities of the perpetrator. For example, the creators of the model of structural dissociation point out that an emotional part (EP) of the personality can take on the emotions and behaviors of the abuser, as well as holds their perspectives.3
This can be frightening and very disturbing. Later in this project, I will devote some time to the topic of the introject. Here I want to contrast the anger and rage often felt after sexual abuse with the predatory aggression of abusers. Too many of us harshly judge our own anger, and perceive expressions of anger as evidence of being a bad person or like the abuser. Yet to be healthy and recover, we need to become accepting of all our emotions, including anger. We also need the capacity to mobilize anger, if not rage, to protect ourselves from harm. We have to become comfortable with our own power, and distinguish our power from the type of power that was used to abuse us.
I have found it helpful to differentiate between anger, aggression, and predatory aggression. They are distinct. According to psychologist Jim Averill, anger can be defined as
“an emotional state that involved both an attribution of blame for some perceived wrong and an impulse to correct the wrong or prevent its recurrence.”
In contrast, Averill describes aggression as an attempt to force another
“into taking, or refraining from, some action against his or her will and not for his or her own good.”4
Averill’s definitions suggest anger is often about seeking justice and safeguarding equality. In contrast, his definition of aggression implies coercion of another. However, if we look at aggression from the perspective of the one being assaulted, aggression can also be associated with self-defense. Thus, both anger and aggression are sometimes necessary for creating conditions of equality.
When aggression is used to exert power over another, such as occurs during sexual abuse, it does not necessarily involve anger and rage, but rather anticipated pleasure. In studies of emotional systems activated by predation, Panksepp and Biven observed, “When predatory animals stalk and kill their prey, they appear to experience anticipatory pleasure rather than the harsh barbs of RAGE.” During predatory acts, the SEEKING emotional system is activated, which directs mammals towards pleasurable experiences, such as the feeling of satiation after a good meal. The SEEKING emotional system primes us to expend energy on difficult tasks, like a lion hunting prey, because of the good feeling that our efforts will eventually bring.
Panksepp and Biven suggest that rather than seeing rape as an aggressive act, it is more accurate to see it as an act of predatory aggression in which there is anticipatory pleasure for dominating another human being.5 Although this may be a disturbing situation to imagine — that someone anticipates the pleasure of witnessing another’s subjugation — I think it is important to distinguish this type of aggression as distinct from the type of aggression, and even rage, women often experience after sexual abuse.
All humans are capable of anger, rage, and aggression. According to Panksepp and Biven, there are circumstances that “unconditionally” activate the RAGE emotional system: “a restriction of physical activity or irritation to the surface of the body can easily provoke this feeling. At a secondary level, people and animals also feel angry if the aspirations of the SEEKING system are thwarted, such as by the sudden withdrawal of anticipated rewards.”6 In conditions of perceived resource scarcity, the activation of the RAGE system can also be expected.
Being subjugated to oppression and traumas like sexual abuse create profound feelings of helplessness. As a result, the RAGE emotional system becomes primed to react to even the smallest threat. This can feel like being angry all the time. If you are also afraid anger and rage are evidence you are a bad person, or somehow like the abuser, then anger becomes compounded by feelings of shame. I know how painful this experience can be. Needing to protect against feeling helpless becomes an impasse to feeling joy, enjoying intimacy, and developing a healthy relationship with anger.
Next week we’ll look at how to work with anger and the Fight EP that arises in response to sexual abuse. Having a healthy relationship with both anger and aggression is central to recovery from sexual abuse. Whether your problem is turning your anger inwards, or impulsively acting out feelings of rage, you deserve a relationship with anger that does not include shame, or the fear of further oppression or revictimization. All women deserve to constructively express anger without feelings of shame or fear.
Questions to ponder: How do you relate to anger and aggression? Do you turn your anger and aggression inward and towards yourself? Do you act impulsively on your anger? How has sexual abuse affected your anger? Does it help to think of predatory aggression, such as rape, as distinct from the aggression that is necessary for self-preservation?
1 Panksepp, Jaak, & Biven, Lucy. (2012). The Archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 163.
2 Flannery, Kent, & Marcus, Joyce. (2012). The creation of inequality: How our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
3 Hart, Onno van der, Nijenhuis, Ellert R. S., & Steele, Kathy. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company, pp. 82-83.
4 Quoted in Panksepp and Biven, pp. 145-146.
5 Ibid., p. 165.
6 Ibid, p. 149.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).