Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Stigma of Sexual Abuse

A good friend of mine recently posted an emotional anti-porn argument that, unfortunately, really pissed me off, so much so that I had to give myself a few days to cool off before writing this.

Now, I'm not a big fan of porn, rejecting it not so much from an ideological perspective as from an aesthetic one. It's hard to enjoy watching two women having sex when they're doing it wrong. (That's a topic for another day.)

Anyway, the post angered me because the arguments she used relied upon long-discredited theories that have stigmatized survivors of sexual abuse for far too long. Like many long-discredited ideas, the stigmatization of sexual abuse survivors begins with the often misogynistic, sex-obsessed theories of Sigmund Freud.

Thanks to the 20th century's favorite Victorian era pseudoscientist, survivors have long been pegged as mentally ill, infantilized, etc. In a popular imagination infused with Freudian psychobabble, they are viewed as deprived of agency, autonomy, and self-determination. The survivor is thus treated as a permanent child who must be protected from those who would exploit her weakness.

On the opposite pole from Freud are people like Alfred Kinsey, who argued that abused children were traumatized not by the abuse (which shouldn't upset them in his mind) but by the "prudish" sexual attitudes that stigmatized incest and pedophilia. Kinsey often belittled survivors as "hysterical."

The truth is that sexual abuse of children is a horrible crime that affects one in three girls and one in seven boys by the time they turn 18. It can, but does not always, have lasting psychological effects. Only 40% of survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience long-lasting effects serious enough to require therapy in adulthood. Few experience long-lasting effects severe enough to permanently deprive them of the ability to live a normal, healthy life. Few if any are traumatized enough to become "permanent children" unless pre-existing or independent psychological conditions are exacerbated by the abuse.

Which brings us back to why I'm angry. Studies, like those quoted by my friend, depend not on the solid evidence but on the "permanent child" psychobabble that stigmatizes survivors. If a porn actress was abused, well, she's a porn actress because she was abused and is incapable of knowing any better. If a woman who was abused is promiscuous, well, it's because she was abused and is incapable of knowing any better. If you watch a porn actress who was abused or sleep with a promiscuous woman who was abused, you're exploiting a "child."

There's no one to one abused child to slut/porn actress/drug addict/mental patient/abuser ratio. Too many people pretend that there is one. Some do so out of genuine compassion and empathy and have all the best intentions. Others do so because it's convenient for their ideological crusades. (I would place my friend among the former.) Either way, it really ticks me off.

Treating adult abuse survivors as if they are children demeans and degrades them. It contributes to the unwarranted shame they often feel, leading far too many to a permanent silence that effects their self-image and ability to have healthy relationships.

It's damned hard to have a healthy, adult relationship with someone when you think that if they knew about your "secret," they'd treat you as if you were a child or a retard or a mental patient. It's damned hard to have a healthy, adult relationship with someone who finds out and begins to treat you just that way.

I can hear some of you now, fuming at me for being so damned insensitive to the poor, innocent abuse survivors who need our constant "support" as they struggle to live life despite their "infirmity." Well, let me give you this preemptive response:

My name's Melinda Barton and I'm a survivor of childhood physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. I refuse to be ashamed of what happened then. I refuse to be ashamed of what I am now. I am not a porn actress, a slut, a drug addict, a child abuser, a mental patient, or a child. I am not a symbol for your crusade. I'm a mature, responsible, human adult with a free will and a strong, healthy mind.

I was a child then and did not have the power to stop what happened, but I am damned proud that at nine years old, I had the courage to speak out. I am an adult now and the power is mine. I will not grant power over my destiny to a man not worthy to lick the dirt from my boots. I will not, under any circumstances, accept being treated as a child or as some pet-project like a baby bird with a broken wing. I reject your pity and your judgment. I demand that which is mine by right as a human being: dignity and respect.

To my fellow survivors: You don't have to accept being stigmatized or traumatized. If you've experienced childhood sexual abuse and feel that it is effecting your ability to live your life as you choose, please seek help. The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network is there for you. If someone tries to treat you like there's something wrong with you because of what happened or like you should feel shame for what you are, tell them to kiss your ass. Claim your power.

2 Comments:

Blogger Stacey said...

MOST victims of sexual abuse suffer psychological consequences. The traditional manifestations of those consequences are legion, but one very common manifestation is promiscuity, as a means of exercising control over the victim's sexuality. This is researched fact - it's seen constantly in sexual assault survivors, whether the abuse happened in childhood or adulthood. Recognizing this isn't stigmatization, it's recognition of a sad mental state. Period.

Don't confuse sympathy with infantilizing. I am a victim of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse myself, and am shown the appropriate level of sympathy upon revealing this information to people. Nobody's ever treated me like a child or coddled me.

Alfred Kinsey was a bit of a nutjob.

Porn is the biggest existing exploitation. It's disgusting, and it takes advantage CONSTANTLY of women in dire situations. Whether you disagree with any one of my points doesn't really matter - as a feminist, this is an issue you should stand by me on.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Stacey, for future reference, please don't assume that your experience is everyone's experience or even most people's experience. I am aware that you suffered abuse as we've discussed this. I did not mention that in the post b/c I DO NOT reveal such private info about people in public fora.

As far as the psychological consequences, yes most do. If you read the post carefully, however, I stated that for most, these effects do NOT last into ADULTHOOD. A strong support system and therapeutic intervention can allow a survivor to heal. (I personally underwent years of therapy and counselling.)
Even most long-lasting effects are not so severe that they impede a person's ability to make an informed choice.

How do I know? In addition to doing the research, I'm a member of a survivors network founded by a very brave friend of mine in which this is a regular topic of conversation. I can't tell you how many people complain about being told that they're permanently mentally damaged by people who don't know what the hell they're talking about. (I can get you the info if you want it.)

Secondly, as we've also discussed, I've faced tremendous condescension and unfair treatment from people when I've discussed this. Despite the expert opinion of multiple credentialled psychologists, certain people CONTINUE to treat me as if I were mentally ill, directly telling me OFTEN that I HAVE to be mentally ill BECAUSE I was abused. I've also had relationships destroyed when I admitted to the abuse.

I discussed this with a friend who is a survivor of physical and psychological abuse. He mentioned that he used to wonder why I was wary when I first informed him UNTIL he had the courage to discuss his past with someone for the first time and was met with condescension. (The person he told also felt the need to advertise that he was "crazy" and probably a loose cannon or potential child-abuser because he'd been abused.)

As for porn, I find some forms disgusting and reprehensible. However, porn is not all condom-free gang-bangs. In fact, in soft porn, the actors don't actually have sex. Porn is too diverse a subject and too subjective to be painted with so broad a brush.

Also, even if you have a porn actress who was abused, we can't definitely state that she is a porn actress b/c she's abused. There's no one-to-one correlation. Any individual is the product of a whole host of experiences, psychological factors, values, etc. A woman can be a porn actress who was abused while not being a porn actress BECAUSE she was abused.

I have the utmost sympathy for those who continue to need therapy even decades after the fact, but I won't assume that every woman who is abused is mentally damaged b/c she was abused. She may make a decision that I wouldn't make but that DOES NOT mean that she's making it for reason of "mental illness" or that she's being exploited. (By the way, why is it no one wonders if the men in porn films may have been abused and/or if they are being exploited?)

1:16 PM  

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