Content warning: sexual violence, abuse.
‘On some days I know it wasn’t my fault, but if I’d gone straight home that night instead of staying out then it wouldn’t have happened’.
As a Psychotherapist specialising in the impact of sexual abuse, I see this emotionally-laden back and forth with all of my clients coming for help on this issue regardless of the specifics of their experience. Anger, shame and anxiety are some of the emotions that surface during this process, which my clients are in the difficult position of having to learn to manage in order to fully recover.
Re-Building a Sense of Self After Trauma
No-one seeks psychotherapy because they are a feminist, but personal identity is a theme in psychotherapy for everyone. This comes into a particular focus for those who have experienced sexual abuse, as part of its impact is to deconstruct key aspects of your existence – sometimes by making your traumatic past come back to life in the present. The internal battle for feminists who have experienced sexual abuse is how to re-align their political beliefs with their sense of self during the process of re-learning how to exist in their bodies, minds, relationships, and wider society.
Whilst setting up and co-ordinating the specialist counselling service at Support After Rape and Sexual Violence Leeds it struck me that at one point 25% of referrals came from female students, and that they were the most vocal about their feminist ideals in relation to what they had experienced. When this theme emerges in psychotherapy and counselling the question then becomes: how can I help people to re-integrate this positively into their shattered sense of self?
Identifying as a Feminist and Survivor
Another impact of sexual abuse is retreating into yourself because the world is no longer a safe place and, sadly, often this is true for the survivor’s mind and body too. Humans need to see themselves reflected back at them (think of babies who smile and need that smile back), and for some people this means turning to their feminist ideals as an anchor to understanding what happened. In some ways this is helpful because other people’s voices are telling you that there were powerful forces outside of you that caused this to happen, which is true. But usually we can keep ourselves safe from harm, and a new ‘truth’ emerges which is ‘I should have been able to stop it’.
The danger of this truth is that it feels real, and therefore a solid condition against which survivors can hold themselves. It feels real because the world says ‘You were drinking’, or ‘You didn’t leave the relationship straight away’, or even ‘You didn’t say no’. These are reinforced by all the societal myths about why sexual abuse happens. These stem from the patriarchal structure that allows sexual abuse to happen in the first place, as the enabling of perpetrators and disempowering of survivors continues on.
Why not turn to feminism which allows people to be vocal in the aftermath of losing their voice? Why not seek reassurance in a movement that dissects the dynamics of the patriarchy to demonstrate exactly how the things that try to destroy you can be fought against? In psychotherapy for sexual abuse the words you choose (if you have any) to describe what happened, how it felt then, and how it feels now are hugely important in taking back control of yourself and your life. If ‘feminist’ is a part of this, then it must be welcomed into the process.
If you’d like to get help through psychotherapy and counselling, please get in touch.