by Dr. Jem Tosh
(Content warning: Discussion of trauma and s*xual abuse)
As a qualitative researcher I spend most of my time thinking about language (and sometimes images). I write, present, teach, and talk (a lot) - language is central to my work and my life. The very definition of sexual violence (or 'definitions', I should say) has taken up most of my academic career over the past ten years. I have studied how psychology has defined it, how popular culture represents it, how legal discourse in different countries explains (and explains away) a sex crime, a victim, and a perpetrator.
We also know the hugely important role of silence in sexual abuse. Whether it's the abuser telling the child to keep a 'secret', or the threats of further violence if the victim ever tells anyone, or the shame and self-blame that results from living in a rape culture that leaves victims terrified to tell anyone, even when no explicit threat is made.
Talking about the experience can be helpful, it can begin a process of naming and exploration to help understand what has happened, as sexual abuse can be more confusing than you might expect.
Saying the words, 'I was raped' or verbally stating that you are a victim or a survivor (or even a warrior) is a powerful moment of reclaiming your experience, your truth, and your voice. But it can be incredibly difficult, especially if there are few people you can trust enough to tell, or even those you do trust may let you down by responding unhelpfully (e.g. 'are you sure?', 'maybe you just misinterpreted it?', 'maybe you will be more careful from now on' etc.).
Talking about the experience can be helpful, it can begin a process of naming and exploration to help understand what has happened, as sexual abuse can be more confusing than you might expect. Talking therapies, with the right therapist, can be very helpful. It can give you a non-judgemental space to explore and understand your experience over time. (Beware, though of those that victim-blame or pathologize. If your therapist starts focusing on 'risk taking behaviours' and analysing you - it might feel helpful at first, but this advice goes against the vast majority of research on rape, and ultimately can make you feel responsible for the violence, rather than the abuser).
More and more I hear that talking therapies aren't enough - and they're not. Just like those gender theorists, who argue that gender is 'just' a social construct that we can change at will underestimate the powerful and important role of embodied gender identity (whether cisgender, gender fluid, or transgender), so too can talking therapies fail to address trauma that is non-verbal.
When a memory is traumatic it can change the way that event is remembered - such as through images and emotions rather than with language.
So, if you're a survivor and you have been talking about your experience for a while, other approaches may also be helpful to you. For example, EMDR therapy - which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - sounds really weird and way too good to be true, but it's not. What does rape have to do with how your eyes move? Nothing, really, but your memories do. EMDR is a method of accessing a traumatic memory and reprocessing how it was stored. When a memory is traumatic it can change the way that event is remembered - such as through images and emotions rather than with language. This can lead to fragments of a memory being remembered in a way that is disconnected, deeply frightening, and cannot be reasoned with.
For example, I recently had a flashback while swimming in a public swimming pool. I have been swimming for years with no problems - so I was very confused as to why all of sudden I was terrified of the water. It took me some time to figure out - but an unexpected class of all men participants coming into the pool and surrounding me triggered a memory. This memory didn't come to mind at the time, just a non-verbal sense of panic that flooded my body and no amount of talking could calm it down.
EMDR therapy allows you to remember that scary moment without triggering a flashback, you can think it through, express your feelings at the time, and reprocess it (by looking at a light or finger that moves from side to side). Over time, the memory becomes like watching a movie, something bad that happened a long time ago that doesn't scare you (as much) any more.
What about the body? Verbalizing and acknowledging the violence is one thing, and revisiting memories and healing the emotions that flooded you with fear, contributing to nightmares and flashbacks is another - but what about aches and pains, body numbness, and somatic issues that result from sexual trauma? Even hypervigilance and an inability to relax, or chronic fatigue can be a result of a traumatized nervous system.
...what about aches and pains, body numbness, and somatic issues that result from sexual trauma?
For some victims the pain of abuse can lead to dissociation and numbing - a numbing of both the emotions that resulted from the event (talking therapies and EMDR can help access these) and the body. When areas that were hurt are constantly sending signals to the brain in their overactive state, the brain can shut them off for the purposes of survival. Over time, when the threat is gone, this numbness can lead to problems, such as being unable to sense whether you are hurt, tired, or even hungry. It can produce a separation between body and mind, a resentment, or even hatred of the body.
Reconnecting with the body can be done through many different techniques, including massage (even self massage), yoga (e.g. yoga specifically for trauma and abuse survivors), and mindfulness. Mindfulness can be used to focus on your body - such as completing 'body scans' as you are out walking or sitting on a train. Start at your toes and work your way right up to the top of your scalp - what do you notice? Are there areas that you can't feel? Can you sense tension, pain, or even the temperature of different parts of your body?
You can use the same detailed focus on your environment to remind you to live in the present - that the abuse is (hopefully) in the past and that you are safe now. What can you see, hear, smell, and touch? This can be a useful method of keeping yourself grounded, calming your nervous system, and reduce the likeliness of a flashback. In addition to yoga, breathing exercises and meditation can be used to calm the nervous system too (the part of your body that jumps into action when threatened - the fight or flight response as it is typically called).
These are just some of the ways that we can begin to address our physical embodied pain from a history of trauma. Journaling about all the methods you use, and keeping a record of what helps and what doesn't can be a great way of combining the talking therapeutic approach - of voicing your experience in a safe space - and reflecting on how to heal those parts of you that don't speak.