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Trauma and Sexual Violence

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Although all forms of trauma are damaging, trauma that comes from sexual violence is uniquely difficult. Borrowing the definition from the Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center, "Sexual trauma can be many things and we use this as an umbrella term to describe any sexual act that is imposed on another person without their consent. Oftentimes the word 'abuse' is used to indicate that the violence was ongoing or long-term. This can be a one-time event or an ongoing experience and does not have to be physically violent."

Sexual trauma can be difficult to talk about and, as such, survivors may struggle to express themselves or get help. Many survivors report feeling shame in the aftermath of sexual trauma, even though they did nothing wrong. Survivors might feel confused on how they can pursue healthy sexual relationships without worry or being triggered. However, survivors of sexual violence may be physically or emotionally retraumatized when engaging in sex with a partner. If they don’t feel safe talking about it, it may create barriers in their closeness. A survivor might feel guilt when feeling like they are hiding something. Many survivors also feel that they are hiding something and struggle with conflicting feelings. They may also worry about being believed if they speak about it.

Unfortunately, this isn’t simple paranoia. Many survivors face re-traumatization after they speak about their experience, or if they go to law enforcement. This is due to the many myths and double standards of the patriarchy system

For example, imagine you come home to find your house has been burglarized and you call the police. When the police arrive, they begin to cross examine you, and say "You’ve lived here for 10 years. If you went a decade without getting robbed, how do you expect us to believe you were robbed now?" Or, "If you can’t guarantee with 100% certainty that you locked the door, how do we know that you didn’t invite a robber into your home by not being vigilant?" We can clearly see that is illogical reasoning, however, this is the very same flawed line of questioning survivors face when they report sexual violence, and has been a pattern which we see happening to survivors for hundreds of years. As such, survivors may experience a new layer of trauma as they grapple with the initial traumatic event. This is what we call victim blaming, which is extremely common. In order to avoid this new layer of re-traumatization, survivors might never tell their story. This is why we emphasize that sexual assault statistics are conservative — because we know a margin of survivors may opt to not tell their story. This in no way diminishes their experiences or survivorship.

However, as issues of sexual violence remain taboo conversation, these myths and double standards exist and continue to do harm. For example, much of the criminal justice system operates under a fictional imagination of what is called "ideal victimhood." This has much to do with how sexual violence has been depicted in our cultural media and in our mainstream social history. According to Dr. Lori Haskell and Dr. Melanie Randall:

“Social expectations to conform to the stereotype of what real or 'ideal' victims (Randall, 2010) look like mean that [individuals] who are sexually assaulted are expected to do the following:

  • offer physical and/ or verbal resistance to unwanted sex;
  • express clear and explicit non-consent to unwanted sexual contact; 
  • discontinue contact with the person who has been inappropriate sexually or who has assaulted them; and
  • demonstrate perfect or near perfect recall, including a consistent and linear narrative of 'what happened.'"

These are, of course, unrealistic expectations. They do not represent how most [people] who are sexually assaulted actually cope and respond. As a result, these myths, biases, assumptions, and expectations interfere with how victims’ testimony about their experiences is heard and understood in sexual assault trials, and how legal actors in the criminal justice system assess their credibility. This has incredibly harmful impacts, and continues longstanding narratives of discrimination, which is how sexual violence continues to happen in our society.

We see symbols, observe power dynamics, and attach meaning to patterns at such a young age that we tend to think of them as naturally given instead of socially constructed. In other words, we tend to see them as just "naturally the way things are in the world" instead of imagining this is a particular practice of one patriarchal social system that does harm to people. It could be different, however, we have to make a conscious choice to unlearn it, challenge it when we see it around us, and not impart it onto our children. Patriarchy is a social system and ideology which places men as the central agents of authority, and relies on a gender binary (a strict mythological division between masculine and feminine), although these are limited polarized definitions, as opposed to fluid understandings of the gender and sexual identity spectrum. These mythical divisions of gender imagine the binary to match a set of characteristics, or stereotypes. These expectations are ever-present around us in society and create very real harm, in addition to being psychologically intrusive.

For example, a 2015 study by J. Hersch found that sexual remarks about workers’ competence based on their gender were widely considered to be 'acceptable behavior’ in professions which are stereotypically  thought to conflict with essentialist notions of femininity (ideas that all women must be sensitive, nurturing, caregiving, kind, passive, etc.). These stereotypes create false depictions of what kinds of people do what kinds of jobs or tasks, and are an example of how patriarchy imposes sexual harassment and such phenomenon as the pay gap. These are practices which have been reproduced for centuries and only began to be challenged in a more public forum when feminist literature began to be marginally produced in the 1970s naming it. Nonetheless, harassing gender-based attitudes and behavior is still widespread not only in the workplace, but in public, online, and in the domain of sports, education, and politics. Deeply rooted in gender discrimination is racism and classism as well. For example, while feminist movements began to catch momentum in the 20th century, they often left out the experiences and needs of transgender women, women of color and working class women. For example, while many feminist movements fought to give women the right to work, this overlooked the reality that most women of color had been overworking for centuries. This is what we refer to as 'white feminism,' and why equality movements must be intersectional and include the lived experiences of everyone. This is also why it is important to understand the trauma of sexual violence as intersectional- meaning for example that we must consider how Black women experience sexual trauma in unique ways due to larger systems of racism and discrimination

This is why media, the normalization of violence, and such phenomenon like victim blaming, the humorization of rape in comedy, and the low conviction rate for sexual abusers not only contributes to violence and supports it happening again, but it also perpetuates re-traumatization against victims.

As these examples showcase, the traumatization of sexual violence is a component of modern social systems, like in court rooms and media. This is what is meant when we refer to 'institutional trauma,' or when discrimination and trauma is 'institutionalized.' The term 'rape culture' can also be heard in association with this concept. This means it’s bigger than any one person — it’s built into how we produce our society. This is also why the reform of criminal justice systems and the adoption of trauma-informed care is essential in re-imagining systems and services for survivors. As such, many components of social justice invite society to instead reflect on how help heal the wounds of people in society who experience trauma in relation to harm from institutional systems like racism, classism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, religious discrimination, and histories of sexual victimization.

Humans are diverse and so are their experiences. There is no one single way to experience, respond, or  heal correctly. Nonetheless, we do see some general overarching trauma responses which, according to the Loyal Counseling Center, are one or more of the following:

  • Fear responses to reminders of the assault;
  • Feeling like you are losing control of your life or you mind;
  • Re-experiencing assault over and over again through flashbacks;
  • Problems concentrating and staying focused on the task at hand;
  • Guilty feelings;
  • Developing a negative self-image; feeling “dirty” inside or out;
  • Depression;
  • Disruptions in close relationships;
  • Loss of interest in sex and;
  • Fear and anxiety cause physical, mental, and behavioral reactions, all of which may lead the assault survivor to feel as though he or she has no control over her life.

Trauma produced from sexual violence has three main consequences: physical, mental, and behavioral.

According to the Loyal Counseling Center, survivors may be particularly triggered by the physical states they experienced in relation to sexual violence. "Weeks, months, or years later, the victim may experience a similar reaction (rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, tense muscles, and so on) as reminders of the assault." The mental response refers to the ways in which sexual violence has taken up unwanted space in a survivor’s mind. Victims are frequently burdened with unwanted thoughts and taxing mental stress which generate negative emotional states. Behavioral changes happen as a result, as survivors may avoid activities that remind or trigger them to think about sexual violence. The more the brain experiences each component, the stronger the phenomenon can feel. This is similar to mental bandwidth of sorts. The more survivors are triggered, the less safe they often feel in the world. When we refer to creating 'safe spaces,' we are talking about the creation of designated forums and environments where others are mindful of potentially triggering conversation, subject matter, or stimulus. This is also why you might see trigger warnings associated with certain content or as a general courtesy. Trigger warnings recognize how harmful some topics can be when the reader is not prepared to undertake that kind of content, and explain in general terms beforehand the ways in which someone may be negatively impacted by content. That way, they have the option of avoiding themes that may push them into unwanted mental states that undermine their control and wellness.

"Trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" have often been given a bad rap in certain political arenas and conversations. They aren’t overly sensitive overreactions to negative topics; instead they are practices of mindfulness in which others understand the impacts of trauma and actively behave in ways which do not seek to reproduce its consequences for someone else.