Content note: This article discusses childhood sexual abuse.
As a child and young adult I experienced covert sexual abuse, a phrase coined by Ken Adams and described by Bob Weiss as “more subtle… indirect, sexualized use/abuse of a child.” According to Weiss, this type of sexual abuse “involves indirect (not hands on) sexuality — sexuality that is implied or suggested rather than physically acted out.”
It was while doing “inner child work” in group therapy that I realized this phrase named the “icky” feeling I had when interacting with my abuser. Had I not moved to California from New York and been open to entertaining a much more “woo-woo” approach to therapy than the talk-to-an-older-Jewish-person-on-an-overstuffed-couch-after-walking-up-five-flight-of-stairs norm of New York therapy, I would have perhaps never found my way to this term and the ensuing relief of naming my experience. Going outside my circle of literary dorks and exploring a form of self-analysis that was not familiar or comfortable to me taught me a crucial piece of what I needed to learn.
As time went on, it became apparent that the therapist leading the group had limitations. This is so often the case when we’re exposed to the toxicity of dominant social institutions and, in the absence of doing active work not to replicate them, instead perpetuate them. In this case, the therapist blamed me for a man taking advantage of me while I slept. He declared it was the woman’s responsibility to set sexual guidelines and that if I slept over, I was sending mixed signals.
No one in the group objected.
I had to dump this therapist and the group, as they were collectively buying into the persisting myths of patriarchy that say, Have vagina? Will make trouble.
As I was leaving, the therapist let me know I hadn’t finished my work. Thanks, old white man. I know. But I have finished my work here.
The Myth Perpetuated by Patriarchy
In patriarchal societies, we’re taught to have a “public self,” which means pushing down the truth of what we’ve experienced. The dominant narrative states that sexual abuse doesn’t exist, or is less prevalent than it actually is. The dominant narrative still blames the people who experienced the abuse for not putting down “boundaries” or for being a “slut,” which is used to describe any woman who has sex at all. Women are taught, in a variety of ways, that sexual abuse makes them damaged, unwanted, or unlovable, and that they “asked” for it.
More Radical Reads: Making My Way Back: Recovering Pieces of Myself After Sexual Assault and Divorce
I can’t tell you how many men I’ve dated who treated my sexual abuse as a sort of odd delicate state, took a superior stance because of it, and saw it as a hardship to “accommodate” me. I have tried explaining that my experience is not odd; on the contrary, it’s the norm. Most women a person will date have been affected by sexual abuse of some kind, whether it be individual/familial or communal/societal, or some combination of the two. There is no woman living in society today who is not affected by the dominant narrative, the messaging of media, the war on women’s bodies.
When I say these things, men look at me like I’m some sort of vagina conspiracy theorist.
But the truth is that the ideas we have of normal are fucked. They’re a construct created within the structure of a patriarchal, capitalistic, and white supremacist system. The “norm” has been created to protect and serve those in power and keep the hierarchy in place. It’s a fiction, a story, created to protect the public image of those in power while silencing the voices of those who have been abused by them.
To accept that ALL WOMEN are affected by sexual abuse and rape means questioning the system we are in. It means looking at how abuse continues, how the government uses advertising and media messaging and misogyny as tools of propaganda to try and make us believe we’re crazy, since the norm looks so drastically different from our lived experiences. (It is no mistake that education is being attacked; those who don’t think critically are compliant, unaware of how to dissect the fuckery they are living in.)
Our paths to healing from sexual abuse are individual and collective, as the abuse is both individual and collective.
Though I left that group therapy group, I presented an alternative view to the oppressive, abusive norm that was active there. With a bag full of feminist psychology books from my local library, I told that man that despite his seventy years and his practice and his study, he was dehumanizing me. That his rhetoric was archaic and damaging. That the “safe space” this was supposed to be was not safe because of him.
And I would like to think I planted a seed. Perhaps if he didn’t decide to work towards being more informed and a better therapist for women, women in the group may have started to analyze how a man, even with years of experience in a field, who is smitten with his own abilities and status does not know their truths better than they do.
More Radical Reads: When My Body Wasn’t Mine: Reclaiming Radical Love After Sexual Trauma
Our particular situations, the people involved and the ways we make room for ourselves afterwards are individual and unique and in a certain sense, no one can tell us exactly what the path looks like for each of our healing. However, the circumstances that create the prevalence of sexual abuse are societal and communal and the healing of this broken system takes a coming together and seeing the commonalities as well as calling out the structures and constructs that perpetuate this abuse.
Similarly, we must follow an internal strength and direction that is still forming, that may leave us temporarily alone. At the same time, our speaking empowers others to do the same and provides opportunity to find solidarity and shared experience.
We gain strength through this found community in order to resist the dominant structures that has created a culture that alternately normalizes and denies the existence of sexual abuse.