I once heard the story of a man who had been sentenced to prison for brutally raping a woman. A counselor, who was trying to reform him, told me this story. As a child, the man’s mother would punish him by sticking his hand in boiling water. He had reasons to hate at least one woman. But when asked why he had raped a woman, he didn’t say because of his mother, or that he hated all women, but rather that he perceived the woman he raped as better than him. By raping her, “she became lower.” When he said this, he made a gesture with one hand, bringing it down closer to the ground. That was the woman he raped. The other hand, the one he used to represent himself, he raised.
I was told a similar story of a man living in a shanty town outside one of the larger cities in South Africa. He was friends with the woman he raped when they were children; he was also friends with her brother. They all played together after school, as children do. She started to excel in her studies and got a place at university. He still liked her very much, even admired her. But he couldn’t stand the fact that she was doing better than him. So he raped her.
According to Sandra Butler, who studied the psychology of perpetrators, “When all else in their lives fails, they have been led to believe that the exercise of the power of their genitals will assure them of their ultimate competence and power.”1 Whether sexual trauma is an effort to ‘even the score’ or shore up a weak sense of masculinity, the victim is a scapegoat, sacrificed for the purpose of discharging emotions and fantasies that challenge a fragile ego. Through their skewed interpretations of patriarchal values and norms, perpetrators have come to perceive sexual abuse as a method for ridding themselves of fear, anxiety, shame, and other unwanted aspects of themselves. Through sexual abuse, they make themselves feel ‘more’ by making someone else feel ‘less’.
We live in a world in which the need for scapegoats is increasing. The desire to return to a simpler, more ordered reality can mask dependency on scapegoats for the preservation of patriarchal dominance hierarchies. Those prone to scapegoating rely on facile distinctions between good and evil. They evade the chaos and uncertainty they feel within themselves by controlling others. They prefer to be full of hate rather than feel vulnerable and ‘like a woman’. They don’t want to relate; they want to dominate.
No doubt, women are also afflicted with this disease of patriarchy. Many of us have absorbed misogynistic attitudes and reject or devalue ‘feminine’ aspects of ourselves. We may also think in terms of being pure versus tainted, and would prefer to identify someone else as ‘less than’ ourselves as a way to shore up a fragile sense of self.
Fortunately, recovery is not just about healing ourselves. When we commit to integrating a fragmented psyche and living with embodied awareness, we create within us a way of being that challenges the social logic on which patriarchal dominance hierarchies rest. Social and psychological integration go hand-in-hand. Integrated societies rely on members who are aware of and accept responsibility for the different parts of themselves — including feelings of inadequacy and vulnerability most prefer to avoid.
Through our willingness to acknowledge all aspects of ourselves we are more able to resist the temptation to scapegoat or devalue others. This may be the biggest lesson recovery from sexual trauma teaches. It’s terribly painful to learn the destructive power of scapegoating. We had no choice in that lesson. But now that we know it’s damaging effects, we can consciously choose to create within ourselves the sense of integrated awareness and self-acceptance that supports not only recovery, but also the integrative model of societies we so desperately need.
Questions to ponder: As you commit to your recovery, do you find yourself feeling greater compassion towards others as you feel more compassion for yourself? What are some ways feeling integrated and self-accepting of yourself change how you relate to what you don’t like in others?
1 Butler, Sandra. (1978/1996). Conspiracy of silence: The trauma of incest. Volcano, CA: Volcano Press, p. 65.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).