I suppose the only way to begin such a post as this is to come right out and say it. Because that's the nature of trauma. It's surprising, unexpected, bewildering, and leaves everything different. Beginning at the age of six, I was sexually abused by someone that I loved and trusted. The abuse lasted for seven years. I can say this now, because I finally understand that this isn't MY shame. I can say this because I finally feel as though I have healed; I have finally come to terms with my abuse; I finally trust myself; I finally like myself, and I am no longer afraid. Of course saying this doesn't mean that I still don't get sad from time to time, or that I never have bad days. But on the whole, I am happier and healthier than I have ever been.
Experts say that sexual assault and sexual abuse is about power, and that the hardest thing to face for the survivor is his/her loss of power. Yes, the power that I should have had over my own body was taken from me. The power that comes from feeling safe in the world, from feeling like a valued and valuable person, the power that comes from having healthy self-esteem, was all unjustly taken. But for me, facing and healing from this reality was not the most difficult thing. What caused the most emotional pain, what was the hardest to face, was the reality that my abuser considered my very humanity inconsequential, if not non-existent. That most sacred and most valuable part of who I am didn't matter to him. What should have been absolutely apparent—my personhood, my dignity—he didn't recognize. To know that someone could desecrate the most sacred aspect of who I am and not even realize the gravity of such an act, was frightening, heartbreaking, and the betrayal crushing. My abuser didn't see my humanity, and of all the things that happened, it was this singular fact that I felt was the most violating.
Like most victims of childhood sexual assault, I did not tell anyone. I couldn't understand why this person who I loved and trusted would do such a thing to me. So I thought that he was abusing me because I didn't have the same amount of dignity that other people had. I was different. I didn't deserve respect. This profound and utter sense of shame colored my whole world. Although exteriorly I was normal, inside every action of mine was motivated by fear. This vague, yet overwhelming feeling of 'badness' pervaded everything I did. I worked over-time at being perfect because I couldn't handle any sort of criticism, no matter how gentle. The thought of someone disliking me was more than I could bear. Someone being angry at me, even if I was angry first, elicited my fight-or-flight response. My blood pressure rose, my heart rate would increase, and I would become absolutely panicked. What if someone discovered my secret? That is, what if someone found out that I really didn't have any value? What if they discovered that I was just pretending to be smart, merely pretending to be kind and good-natured? What if they discovered that I was pretending to have dignity? What if they discovered that I was really a fake? Then what? That what was an unthinkable possibility for me, one that I worked hard at concealing. I became a people-pleaser, unable to handle any kind of negative thoughts about me. I thought it was my duty to ensure everyone else's happiness, even at the expense of myself—another reason I never told anyone about the abuse. I knew it would make my parents very sad to learn of it, so I took it upon myself to protect them. And this is how I lived my life until about five years ago.
It is with this background that I would like to address this letter that I came across some months ago on Feministing.com, as well as the whole "sex-positive" ideology. I really felt for the writer of the letter and have often thought about her since.
It seems to me that a culture that thinks that sex can be casual will never understand the utter violation that is a sexual assault. If sex can be casual a sexual assault would be equivalent to a slap in the face—infuriating, unjust, but after a couple of days stewing over it, one would just have to get over it and move on. In fact it might be this misunderstanding that guides so many people to say that exact thing to survivors. "It happened. You can't do anything about it. Just get over it." To one who feels as though her very humanity has been stripped from her, this sounds like, "You don't have any right to feel the way you do, because, frankly, you are not that important. You don't matter that much, like a little 25 cent ring that gets lost. No big deal. No use fretting over something so trivial. Just move on." This has the effect of reinforcing the message from the abuser: You don't have value.
If sex is no big deal, then my experiences and the experiences of so many other survivors don't make any sense. If sex is casual, why do I have PTSD? Why do the majority of survivors exhibit behavioral signs of having experienced a significant trauma? Why are survivors so much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and to attempt or commit suicide? Why, even when I never experienced physical pain or violence in connection with the abuse did I have a complete personality change as fear became the predominant emotion of my life? Why have I struggled with flashbacks, nightmares, and cutting? Why do the majority of women and girls who have eating disorders have a past of sexual assault? If sex is something to do casually, for fun, to experiment with like it's a new haircut—WHY?
Given these questions that run through my mind, I consider another option. What if sex is like a sacred fire? Something good and powerful, but something which must be treated with respect, because if misused it can cause great destruction? What if, as the theologian Christopher West suggests, sex is intimately connected to the meaning of life itself? Biology suggests this. After all, in the natural order of things, we are all here because two people had sex (and actually much more than two considering all ancestors). What if a person's most sacred essence was closely connected to their physical reproductive organs? If this were true on a deeper, spiritual level, it is mirrored on the physical level in that the sexual organs contain our actual code that is transmitted to offspring. What if sex is so powerful, so holy, so meaningful, and so profound that we have not yet begun to plumb the depths of its meaning? Mr. West states that sex is like a rocket ship. Pointed in the right direction, it's meant to lead us to the heavens. But pointed elsewhere, it can lead to massive destruction. As a casualty of such destruction, this makes sense to me.
I agree with the sex positivists that the old notions of female sexuality are misogynistic. We need to move beyond the whole Victorian angel/whore paradigm, that doesn't allow for human complexity in women. If we are perfectly innocent, we are angels, and if we are not we are whores—no middle ground. I understand that the emphasis on female purity is degrading when we are treated like chattel, and our male relatives must ensure that we are not "damaged goods" when we are given to our future husband in a deal in which men are the business partners and women are the goods being exchanged.
What if sexual purity is good? Not because women are worthless unless we are perfectly virginal, but because people—male and female—have dignity? And this dignity states that they shouldn't be treated like they are someone's playground equipment, like someone's experiment to be disregarded if it doesn't turn out as expected?...What if you are so valuable, that only the person who has proven his sincere and selfless love and reverence for you should receive such a gift as your whole self, that is, if you choose to give him that gift? What if the person who gave himself totally to you respected you, loved you for who you are and was willing to sacrifice for you?
My body agrees with this thinking. My body tells me that sex isn't casual, that impersonal hook-ups are not okay. In my own journey of healing from my painful past, I know that I not only had to heal from the abuse I suffered as a child, but also from the sex that I experienced as an adult that was completely consensual, but in which, nevertheless, I was still being used. This was as true from the sex which occurred in a relationship, as the sex that occurred in the context of one-night-stands where I did not desire a relationship.
What if purity is something to strive for, not because dignity is something that can be lost, (it can't), but because dignity is something that must be respected?
The sex positivists have it right in that sex should not be treated like it is something bad and shameful, something to be done out of "duty", and then only in the missionary position. Yes, sex is good. Or perhaps, it can be good. It is meant to be good. But casual sex severely limits its "positivity." I mean, if sex is merely physical, then the pleasure one receives is merely physical. But if sex is physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual, then the pleasure one experiences is physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. To me, sex is positive when I can trust the person I am making love to with knowledge of the secret recesses of my body as well as the secret recesses of my mind and heart. Sex is positive when it is free from fear of not measuring up, fear of the relationship ending, fear of not being beautiful enough, not being wanted enough, or fear of not being truly seen. Sex is positive when I know that the man I give myself to would give his life for me, that he honors me, that he loves the totality of who I am inside and out. Sex is positive when the man who gives himself to me is generous, trustworthy, honest, and when he is my best friend and confidant.
Today, sex is very different for me than that which I had experienced before I knew my husband, and before I went on my journey of healing. Now, I never feel used. I feel affirmed, loved, and cherished; I feel like someone so precious and irreplaceable. And sometimes, I am so moved at the respect and love that my husband shows me, and at the amazing and profound person he is, that I am literally moved to tears. I think this is how sex was meant to be experienced, something that is life-giving (again the metaphysical reality mirrored in biology), respectful, uplifting, and joyful. I wonder how many people go through life, perhaps so wounded and scarred, too cautious to believe that love like this is possible for them, or even too cautious to believe that it exists at all. I know that love like this is possible. I also know that you deserve nothing less.