Some would like to think recovery from sexual trauma means the part (or parts) of the self identified with the abuse disappear once the trauma is resolved and the psyche has integrated. This idea of recovery holds elements of heroism, as if a great obstacle is removed, and then life becomes unencumbered by the past. Whereas recovery brings contentment and peace, and resolves stagnation and inner conflict, it is also an initiation into grieving. There may always be moments when we wish our lives (if not the world) would have turned out differently. Instead of the action-figure ending of Hollywood Blockbusters, recovery from sexual trauma is more like mourners who wish their loved ones had survived.
Sexual trauma narratives are a lot like grief narratives. They center on the moment of a loss and a longing for an old self who will never return. Healthy grieving, however, keeps the dialogue with the deceased going, even if only in one’s imagination and dreams. In this way, the relationship never truly ends. We hold within our lost loved ones as we forge into a new life without their physical presence.
Prior to recovery, the grief of the sexual trauma survivor is more like what psychologists call complicated grief.1 In complicated grief, the deceased is described as “too dead.” Something feels unfinished in the relationship that makes letting go feel impossible. The mourner stays frozen in the past relationship with the deceased, unable to establish a new narrative that places loss in the context of who the mourner is becoming without the departed.
For the sexual trauma survivor, the part of the self identified with the abuse is like the “too dead” lost love of complicated grief — the one never properly mourned, and thus never integrated into the life that is presently unfolding. Like those who have been stuck in complicated grief know, the feeling is profoundly alienating. The world seems to carry on around you, unaware of the heartache that not even time seems to soften.
The unresolved grief may be hidden behind the rage of betrayal. Sexual abuse, especially in the first decades of life, is a perversion that cannot be isolated from the girl or young woman’s desire to be desired. For most young women enculturated into equating beauty with power, being desired is tied to self-worth. Sexual trauma exploits this connection, and makes her pay for her wish to be attractive. She becomes as transactional as the products bought to enhance beauty and sexuality. Through sexual trauma, the lesson learned is sex can be completely dissociated from emotions, which turns sex into something that can be exchanged like any commodity. Judith Herman observed this to be especially true of survivors of incest: “The father, in effect, forces the daughter to pay with her body for affection and care which should be freely given. In doing so, he destroys the protective bond between parent and child and initiates his daughter into prostitution.”2 Naturally, the survivor of sexual trauma feels rage. But this does nothing to resolve the grief.
Most early life sexual trauma survivors are coerced, and sex may become perceived as something men and women trade for secondary gain rather than as a pathway to shared pleasure or deepened attachment. Sexual trauma forecloses a sense of mutual desire found in mature sexual relationships between equal partners. Instead the abuse, especially if it is ongoing, can cause a perverted sense of specialness — a way to compensate for being manipulated and subjected to profound differences in power. By keeping the abuse secret, she also learns the power of manipulation — she too has something to hold over someone else. At least in her fantasies, she can create evidence of her power, even if it is a card she never plays.
A sense of being the special one chosen of all the relatives, classmates, or neighborhood kids can also be used to avoid revulsion and feelings of betrayal. These fantasy-based feelings of specialness and power are but makeshift defenses against an experience that annihilates authenticity. Such feelings also keep at bay the grief that goes unacknowledged.
The feeling of being desired and somehow special is but a grandiose and fragile defense against the profound loneliness that results from both the encounter and the secrecy surrounding sexual trauma. There is no escaping the taboo of sexual trauma and the liminal existence outside social mores that it creates. Herman shared the following from “Christine”: “I used to think because I’m so different, I must be special, there must be something God had planned for me. I used to feel superior to everyone. I needed that because I didn’t have any friends.”3 When the secret of sexual trauma must be kept, it is impossible to genuinely become close to anyone.
Biology also contributes to alienation. Sexual abuse is a trauma and dysregulates the body. States of hyperarousal and hypoarousal cause the survivor of sexual trauma to seem different to her peers. Bessel van der Kolk wrote:
“The sexually abused girls … don’t have friends of either gender because they can’t trust; they hate themselves, and their biology is against them, leading them either to overreact or numb out. They can’t keep up in the normal envy-driven inclusion/exclusion games, in which players have to stay cool under stress. Other kids usually don’t want anything to do with them—they simply are too weird.4
Especially when there is a history of incest, survivors seem physiologically propelled to become the sexual objects their abusers made of them. According to Van der Kolk:
“The abused, isolated girls with incest histories mature sexually a year and a half earlier than the nonabused girls. Sexual abuse speeds up their biological clocks and the secretion of sex hormones. Early in puberty the abused girls had three to five times the levels of testosterone and androstenedione, the hormones that fuel sexual desire, as the girls in the control group.”5
This ‘not being normal’ further aggravates the need for entitlement, feeling special and empowered, which some sexual trauma survivors intuit can be gained through their sexuality (fueled by altered physiology). Belonging may be sought through “sexual” status. In her study of incest survivors, Herman noted, “As initiates into forbidden sexual knowledge they felt themselves to possess almost magical powers, particularly the power to attract men. They seemed to believe that they had seduced their fathers and therefore could seduce any man.”6
Such grandiosity may be acted out, leading to sexual promiscuity, or it can drive inner fantasies of grandeur. An example of such fantasies comes from the movie Precious, in which Precious is a teenage girl who is physically and sexually abused by her mother. At times when Precious feels overwhelmed, she fantasizes about being a movie star, the paramount sex symbol, far away from (and above) the social awkwardness, bullying, and abuse. Another example is found in the movie Beast of the Southern Wild, which does not include sexual abuse, but rather a five-year-old girl whose alcoholic father treats her as if she were his partner (so-called covert incest), and fails to maintain appropriate roles. In this movie, when the young protagonist is overwhelmed, she imagines being saved by wild beasts, thus never having to confront her profound aloneness and fear.
Whether the survivor seeks specialness through a string of sexual partners or through the imagination, both are attempts to avoid grieving the self lost through betrayal. Without opportunities to openly grieve, wounds of sexual trauma find expression in fantasy, misplaced anger or rage, addictions, self-harm, suicidality, profound self-loathing, and/or connecting with people who treat them as their abuser once did.
Often the sexual self is the most difficult part to grieve, especially if sexually promiscuity was a response to the abuse. Few are unaware of the scapegoating of those stereotyped as slut. To be enculturated into patriarchal societies is to become well-versed in attitudes towards girls and women perceived as sexually promiscuous.
In her study of girls identified as sluts in American high schools, Emily White noted, “To become the slut is not to be associated with a group or a tribe; rather; it is to be singled out.”7 The consequences of being singled out extend beyond high school. Girls identified as sluts went on to have severe mental health problems. According to White, “Girls reported suicide attempts, stays in psych wards, a life on and off medication, in and out of addiction.”8 “Karen,” for example, moved from her hometown to escape the ridicule, but found she continued to be self-destructive in response to remembering earlier events of stigmatization and bullying that threatened to “unravel her fragile self-possession.”9
The parts of the self ostracized by both ourselves and others are often the most difficult to grieve. The process is much like what Jungian analyst Ursula Wirtz described as a descent into the underworld.10 The descent takes us into the darkness of ourselves where we are confronted with the task of grieving those parts we prefer to reject or avoid (a journey that often requires guides and other loving, supportive souls). Through the alchemical lens promoted by CG Jung, this process is described as a negredo state involving contact with what is dismembered and petrifying within, which is a necessary stage on the way to renewal. In this Hades of our imaginations, we resuscitate what is too dead within us by mourning the memories and beliefs that kept us frozen in the past.
Grief is a great healer. In states of grief, there is not enough strength to continually carry weighty beliefs absorbed from the culture that subjugate and fragment women’s bodies and psyches. Nor is there enough strength to continually bear the burden of one’s own self-hatred and devaluation. In grief, there is only enough energy to hold a vulnerable and yielding heart. Stripped of illusions, it’s possible to begin again.
Ironically, the more we heal, the more we grieve. With each gain we make towards recovery, we become more aware of what we have lost. No longer do we focus on overcoming trauma, but rather learning to “assimilate the ebb and flow of re-experienced grief with equanimity.”11 This observation, made by trauma specialists, is also stressed by spiritual teachers. According to Zen Buddhist Norman Fischer, ‘To be alive in the present moment is to be full of grief and wonder and feel responsible for the entire calamity of human history.’12 This is a tall order, one that speaks to the level of courage the human spirit is capable of reaching. And for all the suffering sexual trauma causes, recovery has the redeeming possibility of spiritual awakening.
Suggestions for journaling & reflection: How has sexual trauma impacted your sexuality? How has grief, or the avoidance of grief, showed up in your life? Has spirituality been part of your recovery? If so, how?
1 Kerr, Laura. (2014). The betrayal that was love. In E. D. Miller (Ed.), Stories of complicated grief: A critical anthology. Washington D.C.: NASW Press.
2 Ibid., p. 4.
3 Herman, Judith. (1981/2000). Father-daughter incest. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 97
4 Kolk, Bessel van der. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking, p. 163.
6 Herman, p. 97.
7 White, Emily. (2002). Fast girls: Teenage tribes and the myth of the slut. New York: Scribner, p. 58.
8 Ibid., p. 73.
9 Ibid., p. 82.
10 Wurtz, Ursula. (2015, October 31). Civilization in Transition Conference V: Historical and Cultural Trauma. Santa Fe, NM.
11 Wan der Hart, O., Steele, K., Boon, S., & Brown, P. (1993). The treatment of traumatic memories: Synthesis, realization, and integration. Dissociation, 2(6), 162-180, p. 175.
12 Fischer, Norman. (2018, June 2). “Dharma Talk.” San Francisco Zen Center. San Francisco, CA. Lecture can be accessed at https://livestream.com/SFZC/events/8037826.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).