Speaking of Sexual Trauma

A reflection by Sarah

It’s never easy to talk about sexual trauma. No matter how often a related story appears within national, international, and local media, no matter what we’ve learned from child protection trainings, no matter how regularly we’re exposed to it in a culture saturated with sexually-charged messages, this is a topic that makes almost everyone uncomfortable. And that’s because most people haven’t the foggiest clue how to talk about it. I’ve been broaching the subject for years within my own circle of friends, slowly challenging my comfort zone, including more people in the discussion, and I still don’t know the best way to talk about it…especially within the context of LGBT issues.

Where I grew up in Eastern Kentucky, people didn’t talk about sex. It wasn’t considered appropriate for polite conversation. I came into puberty knowing virtually nothing about sexuality, and most of my peers weren’t much better off. And I’d venture a guess that almost no one–not even our parents–had any idea how to recognize the signs of sexual abuse. I was taught that sex offenders are suspicious, shadowy figures who lie in wait for children who wander away from their parents, that “good” people–especially those who are active in the local community and church–can never be predators, and that old men can’t be held accountable for sexual touching because they might be senile so their actions don’t count as abuse. My parents brought me up to believe that once I entered puberty, it was my responsibility to watch out for men who weren’t able to keep their hands to themselves. I simply had to understand that most of these men weren’t raised properly and might not be able to handle seeing a pretty girl who was beginning to develop at a younger age than average. If a man was a close friend of my parents, he certainly didn’t fall into this group. Any suggestion that such a person might be unsafe was categorically unbelievable. And most of all, if anything ever happened to me, I was never to tell a soul other than my parents–who would be the sole determiners of whether I was telling the truth–for fear of making waves in the community and gaining a reputation as a loose young woman. I was 23 years old and nearly overcome by PTSD before learning that everything I thought I knew about sexual abuse was a falsehood.

Central Appalachia is not the only area where such things happen, and I am not the only woman who has had such an experience. More to the point of today’s post, I’m not the only lesbian or the only member of the LGBT community who has survived sexual trauma. Yet we can’t seem to talk about it. It’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t sound nice. It could be used to discredit LGBT people. The discussion could be used to discredit liberals, or conservatives, or feminists, or anti-feminists, or affirmers, or non-affirmers. So on rare occasions when we do discuss LGBT survivors of sexual trauma, we’re good at building agenda-driven walls around the ways people are permitted to share their stories.

Yesterday morning, I was rereading our review of The Third Way. Specifically, I was reflecting on the story of sexual abuse shared by Julie, one of the documentary’s interviewees. Julie claims that her lesbian sexual orientation is linked to the fact that she endured sexual trauma as a young girl. She makes clear that after being abused, she began to view men as perpetrators and wanted nothing more to do with them. In our review, Lindsey and I discussed Julie’s story as one example of the film’s ex-gay undertones, and we stand by our criticism that overall, The Third Way privileges an ex-gay narrative while ignoring the diversity of celibate LGBT experiences. But regardless of the documentary’s shortcomings in piecing together a more comprehensive metanarrative, as an individual, Julie has a right tell to her own story as she understands it. She has lived it, and it would be absolutely unjust for me to say that I know it better than she does. It would also be unjust for another person to force me, or any other survivor, into Julie’s framework for understanding possible intersections of sexual orientation and trauma.

Speaking of sexual trauma as an LGBT person requires walking on eggshells. Our stories have political capital, whether we want them to or not. In my experience, the broader LGBT community expects survivors to defend the idea that sexual abuse rarely, if ever, is a determining factor in one’s sexual orientation. On the other extreme, most of the conservative Christian community is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that if an LGBT person was sexually abused at some point in life, surely that must be the cause of his or her sexual orientation.

A survivor with a story like Julie’s will inevitably face the criticism, “Your story is harmful to all other survivors in the LGBT community! Studies show that there are just as many straight women as lesbians who have histories of sexual trauma.” A survivor who is confident that his/her sexual trauma was not a causal factor for sexual orientation will face the opposite criticism: “You’re in denial. Prove that the abuse is unrelated to your orientation. Until there’s proof that sexual trauma never impacts sexual orientation, your story isn’t worth discussing.” Those of us who have chosen celibacy are accustomed to getting blasted equally from both sides, with conservative friends arguing that the trauma caused our gayness and liberal friends assuming that the trauma is our reason for being celibate. Not to mention that on top of these stigmas, we face all the same stereotypes and judgments (i.e. attention-seeking, it didn’t really happen if the perpetrator didn’t go to jail, we’re at fault) as do straight survivors.

Speaking of sexual trauma should not have to be re-traumatizing. Nor should it have to be like a multiple choice exam where you get 100% for bubbling in all the correct answers. I have no interest in being someone’s political pawn, whether inside or outside the Church. But I’m very interested in beginning a conversation about sexual trauma that invites all LGBT survivors to full participation. If you believe your sexual trauma is totally unrelated to your sexual orientation, if you see those two life experiences as completely intertwined, if you think the two might be related but you aren’t sure how and would like to explore further, or if you’ve never even considered the question before, we’d be honored if you felt safe to share more of your story with us.

It’s time for others to stop using narratives of sexual trauma in an effort to discredit LGBT survivors; it’s time for others to start listening to survivors telling their own stories. The last thing an LGBT survivor needs is to walk on more eggshells. The constant politicization of narratives regarding sexual abuse means that any LGBT survivor who opens up at all about his or her own story faces a loaded cannon of criticism. This post is our initial attempt at saying we’d like to change the tenor of the conversation. We’d like to foster a hospitable place here at A Queer Calling where survivors can know that all stories will be heard.

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