By Abby Naumann
Note from the author: this article contains discussion of sexual abuse and healing. Please use appropriate caution and self-care, as well as awareness in the comments section. You can read the student code of conduct, the procedure for filing a sexual harassment complaint, and the sexual harassment policy at IHEID at https://www.graduateinstitute.ch/antenneh or contact Antenne H at AntenneH@graduateinstitute.ch. For emergencies in Geneva, please call cantonal police at 117. Other emergency numbers can be found at https://www.graduateinstitute.ch/students/wellbeing/emergency-numbers.
On this plasticky and chocolate-fueled holiday which draws so much attention from our lovers and our wallets, survivors of sexual abuse often have other preoccupations. Here, by abuse, I refer to any sexual abuse of power — be that assault, harassment, manipulation, exploitation, or other situations of coerced or forced sexuality. Here, by survivors, I refer to those who have faced this abuse and come out the other side, a group both tragically and victoriously dominated by women. In the US, the CDC reports that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience physical sexual violence during their lifetime, and in 2018 an online survey reported 81% of women experienced sexual harassment, higher than previously thought.
As someone who does not usually talk about my adverse experiences in the subject, I feel compelled on Valentine’s Day, a day when so many will be celebrating or mourning their romances, to reflect on what it means to be a survivor of any kind of sexual abuse, and the debilitating blow to one’s self-esteem and ability to form intimate connections that often comes with it.
Ownership. When I reflect on sexual abuse of all kinds, I find one word comes to mind: ownership. It is something that survivors may feel is stolen from them and something for which they search desperately in the aftermath. I include ownership of one’s whole self: one’s body, mind, and sexuality. Survivors struggle with the knowledge that this self-ownership was completely disregarded by the abuser, who felt that their ownership of survivors’ bodies and minds superseded that of the survivors’. What’s more, Survivors of sexual abuse struggle to own even their experiences, hence the shame that comes with being a victim.
I think on this Valentine’s Day not only of myself and my experiences, but of my female friends on their own healing journeys from sexual abuse. No two pains are alike, and my heart aches when I imagine their suffering. I speak of suffering of all varieties — be it the embarrassment, objectification, and lack of safety that comes from street harassment and stalking to the complete body-mind separation and lingering trauma coming from physical sexual violence. I applaud all these survivors, and do not presume to judge one pain or triumph over the other. I caution friends, family, and colleagues of survivors to do the same. Trauma, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder.
I also reflect on one particular issue that comes up again and again in conversation with survivors. That is so-called negative or over-exposure, and the issue this causes for self-ownership.
Owning your sexuality. Sometimes, this exposure comes in the form of so-called sexual ‘acting out,’ where a survivor is perceived as promiscuous when they work through their sexuality and body ownership. If you cannot imagine the pain of someone whose sexuality was abused, you cannot imagine their struggle as they seek to regain that mind-body connection. Whether a next-door neighbor or a prominent celebrity, survivors have different ways of working through that need to regain ownership. If you needed one fewer reason to slut-shame someone, here it is for you in brief: you do not know what someone is working through when you shame them about the choices they make about their body. I feel this often applies to celebrity survivors of abuse, who face added pressure and public opinion and who others are quick to label and denigrade.
Owning your experience. Sometimes, the caution of exposure is a well-meaning practice whereby people caution survivors against sharing their stories. While they may seek to protect survivors from negative reactions and criticisms, they also reinforce a culture of shame. Survivors seek to own their experiences, and when they were not culpable for what happened to them, what exactly does their silence protect, other than their abusers? Psychologists tell us again and again the value of grieving and having our experiences heard. Survivors have a right to own their healing process, their grief, and their experience.
Owning your own judgement. A final thought I have on Valentine’s Day is the struggle for intimacy which so many survivors of sexual abuse face. The overwhelming majority of survivors knew their abuser — family, friend, neighbor, colleague, boss, intimate partner, etc. How does someone trust again when their trust was so badly betrayed? Again, I come back to ownership. This time, I am talking about ownership of the self. Regaining the ability to trust comes secondary to the ability to trust in oneself and one’s own judgement, often at the root of a survivor’s pain. When someone can trust themselves to make the right decision, to sort out the villains, then trusting becomes gradually less painful.
In closing, to all the friends, families, and colleagues of survivors (odds are, you are one): please take a moment this Valentine’s Day to reflect on all the loved ones in your life and the ways in which you can support their healing processes. Have you made yourself available and open to hearing others, that someone might feel comfortable coming to you for help if they needed it? Have you rushed anyone’s healing process, telling them to ‘get over it’ or asserting it is ‘just a matter of time’ ? Do you, or have you, hurt someone in your life, and are you willing to give them the apology and accountability they deserve, if they should ask for it?
And to all the survivors out there: you are strong, you are loved, you are valuable, and you are POWERFUL. Know that if you choose to share your experiences, there are those who will hear and support you. Know that if you are hurting this Valentine’s Day, you are not alone. And know that no one can take your dignity, your sense of self, or your value from you without your permission — it has always and forever been yours.
About the author: Abby Naumann is a masters candidate in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute and native of St. Louis, Missouri, USA.