Yesterday was a tough day. I felt irritable and edgy…a fogginess, which let me know something deeper than I wanted to feel had been triggered. I let it be and knew that it would reveal itself when the time was right. I woke this morning realizing that some of that deeper stuff was that I had again crossed paths with a previous trauma. I was in the “spin cycle.”
So, how did my trauma cross my path?
It happened when I saw a picture posted on social media, which I interpreted to be sexually objectifying women. Seeing that picture knocked me off center, I froze, and then my heart sank and my head started spinning. I scrolled through some of the comments looking for validation, but mostly noticed virtual high-fives, some sexual comments, and a few people (men and women) stating that it was inappropriate. But me? I’m angry…silent…in shame and pain…there’s no other way around it.
I know what you’re thinking: Nothing has personally happened to me in seeing that picture, right?
That’s true. What did happen was seeing that picture, even though it wasn’t intended, connected me to a trauma. Unfortunately, that’s what happens with sexual jokes about women (“boys will be boys”) and other things, where women are sexually objectified…I’m sensitive…it’s just my reality. It awakens the slumber of the sexual assault that I endured.
“Come on…lighten up. It’s no big deal…I was just kidding.”
Those types of responses only add to the shame and fear, as then I’m told that my reaction, which is subconscious, painful and confusing, is not okay. That picture and the comments delivered a message to me that women are sexual objects to many and that objectifying women is not only funny, it’s normal and acceptable in our society, to both men and women.
And because I’ve had my power stolen from me, I flash back to that powerless feeling and immediately feel threatened, unsafe, afraid, ashamed, and confused. I’m in my personal hell. It can happen as quickly as seeing a picture on my phone. It’s subtle and it’s scary.
Think of trauma this way:
You’re a veteran who has been to war and has experienced many times where you felt unsafe, hyper-vigilant, and fearing for your life. You were constantly looking over your shoulder and were very careful about every door you opened and who was behind you. You’re back from deployment and are in a crowded shopping center with your family. You’re already on edge being in a crowded place when someone accidentally drops a large bag behind you and it lands with a “BANG!”
Your fear, hyper-vigilance and lack of ease send you emotionally and physiologically right back to the warzone…right back into reactivity…it’s unconscious and, because it’s a trauma reaction, it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Other people in the shopping center don’t even hear the bag and keep moving on. Not you, you spin around ready for an attack…or you dive to the ground and cover your head…or you get your family out of that “zone” as quickly as possible. People think you’re crazy…it’s just a bag, after all. You aren’t.
You’ve experienced trauma.
You learn new ways to cope with the unpredictability of the world, which you do with some help, processing and learning new ways to cope. Then 20 years go by and something happens and you feel unsafe, confused, and spinning again…this is the world of trauma. It catches you off-guard…it’s tricky and unpredictable.
You see, words and images have power for those of us that have prior trauma.
This is like the time when I was riding in a car, listening to two male friends discuss the terms they use for various ways they sexually use women, while I shrunk in confusion, shame, and what I now know was trauma, in the backseat.
That one cracked open the dam that had been holding me together for 20 years and, even though not one finger was laid on me that day, the thick wall that kept my hidden (to me) trauma at bay started flooding out. This is also like the time when, a few years ago, my sexual assault became more of a reality, when one of my counseling peers made a statement about how “young naïve girls join the Navy and they shouldn’t let themselves be alone with men…they should know better.”
Again, not one finger was laid on me that day, but I was still sent spinning right back to my assault because I was a young naïve girl who got sexually assaulted by a senior Navy guy on my first ship. Again, many of us push trauma into a corner in our subconscious that, when triggered, opens the floodgates of unresolved pain.
Then there was the time when I was in a process group and one of the participating men said about a woman in his life, “She is a c**t. I was so angry I went out and would f*ck anything with a hole.”
I was frozen, propelled into trauma and confusion…and I shrunk. I didn’t know what to do with that at the time. The one thing I did do was speak to that man a week or so after that comment, with my heart about to explode out of my chest I was so nervous. It felt like I was confronting the guy who personally attacked me. It was not an attempt to shame him, but an attempt to honor and respect me and let him know that type of talk about women was not okay with me.
It was a huge step toward owning back my power.
So, this objectification of women…no big deal, right? Think of it this way… When young boys and men are taught that women exist purely to satisfy their sexual needs, it dehumanizes women and makes it easier for the men to disconnect from the shame and pain that dehumanization creates.
Heflick and Goldenberg state, “objectifying women led others to perceive them as less competent and less fully human” (p. 600). Certain religions and cultures perform female genital mutilation (more than 200 million have been subjected to this torture) and, although it is done in the name of religion, some of it is to increase male sexual pleasure, decrease female sexual pleasure, and ensure fidelity during marriage (keeping the women as possessions…i.e. objects), even though this horrific practice has been banned by many countries and the United Nations.
Imagine getting your penis cut off but retaining the ability to urinate, and all other functions you need to stay alive, so that you remain faithful to your wife or partner. Does this seem like something your God would want for you? In Sudan, thousands of women and children (as young as 6 years old) are being kidnapped and raped by government soldiers and allied militias (Dixon, 2016). And women who have joined our armed forces, get raped every day around the world (over 6,000 sexual assaults reported in fiscal year 2015 (DOD, 2016). I am just so sick of it.
I don’t know many women who haven’t endured some form of sexual trauma in their past.
Many of these women use some type of unconscious coping skills to keep their trauma shoved deep into their subconscious, to keep men from noticing them and wanting to use them as a piece of meat again, such as obesity, anorexia, and other food addictions, perfectionism, excessive masculinity and strength, and many others. “If I’m obese, he won’t want to sleep with me…if I become a physical badass and become less feminine (which I now see as weakness), he won’t control me.”
My experience of talking to other women who have had sexual trauma is that we mostly keep it silent, because we have shame and guilt and we don’t want to see the looks of pity or feel the judgment of men and even other women. Many of us feel that, “if I didn’t go out with him” or “if I wasn’t wearing that cute, short skirt” or “if I had said ‘no’ sooner/with more force” or “if I was stronger” it wouldn’t have happened…so we blame ourselves.
Turning the corner from believing we were responsible to truly knowing that it was not our fault is a process that is different for each of us.
I don’t know when or why men lose some or all respect for women, but my guess is that it happens early in their life, when some woman they loved, counted on, and were vulnerable with, betrayed and/or hurt them. Objectifying women gives them the illusion of having control and of getting their power back.
And I don’t know what it will take for these men to start respecting women again, especially with the promotion, normality and acceptance of female objectification that is pushed daily in our faces with skinny models, photo-shopping of ads, and our sexual portrayal of women in beer, sports, erectile dysfunction and food commercials.
Let me place something out there that’s reasonable, because I don’t believe this will entirely go away. I will make a pledge: I will not allow men in my life to speak about women in a way that objectifies me or you. Any man that believes a woman’s primary purpose is for their sexual gratification is not one that falls in line with what I want for a safe and meaningful relationship.
There are too many women (and men, just to keep it real here) walking around this world who have been sexually traumatized. If you don’t have enough sensitivity to that fact, please be aware that every time you sexually objectify another human being, you don’t know who might be watching or listening, you touch on a deep wound within many, and you sexually objectify all of us. Like I said, I really can’t imagine that it will ever totally go away.
What I do know is that I’m sick of it sneaking up on me and I’m tired of being silent about it.
When men start to respect women for our emotional, mental, spiritual, intuitive, physical and yes, sexual gifts that we possess, it will be a glorious day. Actually, when all humans start to respect every other human for their unique and common traits, the world will take a huge step toward the world that I envision. The common word I used in each of those sentences was “respect.”
Have I told you I’m just sick of it? I am.
Department of Defense. (2016). Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military. Retrieved from http://sapr.mil/public/docs/reports/FY15_Annual/FY15_Annual_Report_on_Sexual_Assault_in_the_Military_Full_Report.pdf
Dixon, R. (2016). LA Times. The terrifying land of gang rape and brutal killings that is South Sudan. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-south-sudan-atrocities-20160311-story.html
Heflick, N.A & Goldenberg, J.L. (2009). Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45 (2009). 598–601