Women and Sexual Trauma

From our book A Womb of Her Own (Routledge 2017) Kristin Davisson, Psy.D. writes as follows:

Women’s bodies and selfhoods are inexorably tangled in a cultural and relational matrix that degrades our autonomy as well as our safety. Our bodies are vessels to be penetrated, objectified or possessed. Our minds and choices are infiltrated by those persons and systems which hold over us the power to subjugate our existence. Sexual trauma, both implicit and explicit, is all too common a plight for the female gender. Like many women, my personal feelings about this reality contain deeply held anger, fear, disillusionment and often, shock at the lack of progress we have made. These feelings are held in sharp contrast to my everyday selfhood as a woman, often perceiving to be in possession of her safety and enjoying the trust and company of others. How can both realities exist? This identity of “double consciousness” is often the result of “looking at oneself through the eyes of others,” unable to reconcile the repeated oppressions occurring on a psychosocial level (Du Bois, 1903). Whether we are direct victims of violence, harassment, lower pay, reproductive control or we live in constant awareness of these limitations on our gender, our lives as women are shaped by the irrevocable risks and inequities we face. It also bears mentioning that for women of color, this reality is a “double bind,” increasing the insidiousness of the acts perpetrated against them and reducing the resources for healing and justice.
The authors in this section focus on the specific experience of sexual trauma, the violation of the female body and psyche, as well as the systems, institutions and cycles of interaction that maintain and condone such abuses. Katie Gentile considers the direct and repeated sexual assault of young women on college campuses and the systemic failure to institute restorative justice and measures of protection. She examines the process by which institutions separate themselves from the “perpetrator,” and thus, the violation itself, removing any accountability for repair, protection or change. She illuminates the concept of community and bystander interventions, creating accountability and preventive efforts for the system as a whole. As a former counselor in numerous college counseling settings, this chapter resonated with me as it highlighted the tragic oversights as well as the opportunities for change reflective in most institutions of higher learning.
The second chapter takes on the answer to the question, what of women that aren’t direct victims of sexual violence? How are they impacted by the exposure, knowledge and narratives of the suffering around them? The preliminary research I summarized in this chapter suggests that secondary exposure to trauma results in conflicts in self, identity and object-relatedness for women “witnessing” sexual violence. The qualitative interviews give specific voice to the conflicts and emotional challenges women face as they support a close friend after her assault. The emotional words of these women linger with me as they suggest a lasting impact on our existential selfhood and sense of safety in an often harsh and threatening world.
Lastly, Susan Kavaler-Adler emphasizes the complex interplay of intrapsychic factors that increase a woman’s susceptibility to (male) object choices which further victimize, oppress or subjugate her. In a poignant case, she provides an example of a woman trapped by introjects that disallow her a true object choice. This dialogue addresses the multifaceted interplay between societal, interpersonal and intrapsychic factors leading women to accept deferential status to a malignant partner. This method of understanding provides a bridge between interpretation and victim-blaming, offering an avenue for self-empowerment, insight and autonomy, ultimately providing an escape from the oppressive internal and external forces that constrain our choices as women.
All three authors use psychoanalytic theory to make sense of a patriarchal society whose structures and institutions create and reinforce gender inequities, serve as obstacles to justice and communicate to women their subservient status. Further, psychoanalytic understanding is used to gain perspective on a gendered experience which at its core must accept, or at the very least acknowledge, the daily threat to its own body and autonomous self.
With roots to Freud, the relationship between psychoanalytic understanding and sexual trauma has been a tumultuous one. With the abandonment of seduction theory for his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud changed the direction of analytic inquiry away from listening to the abhorrent wrongs perpetrated against women and towards pathologizing their unconscious motivations. Of note, Freud himself appeared conflicted about this and continued to battle with the significance of sexual trauma for the remainder of his career (Freud, 1905; 1915). Psychoanalytic feminist voices such as Nancy Chodorow and Juliet Mitchell have set the tone for utilizing such ideas to examine the construction of gender roles and critique patriarchy itself (Chodorow, 1978; Mitchell, 1974). In their wisdom, they suggest keeping the integrity of psychoanalytic ideas while considering the context in which they were shaped as well as the intended or even, misunderstood impact of their time. Authors in this section follow in their footsteps by considering psychoanalytic theory as a way to conceptualize not just the problem, but also the resolutions to the overwhelming and sinister nature of sexual trauma As these injurious circumstances occur with excessive frequency in the lives of women, we can come together as survivors, witnesses, clinicians, scholars, volunteers, first responders, friends, allies and partners to strengthen the fabric of our communities and change the dialogue around this issue.