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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17 thoughts on “Speaking of Sexual Trauma

  1. I don’t know how it is possible to separate the church’s treatment of persons who do not conform to the catholic church’s sexual and gender ethic from other forms of sexual violence. I won’t do it.

    • Interesting. I hadn’t really thought much about that connection. I’d be interested to hear more. -Sarah

  2. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into your story and for beginning this dialogue. I found this post to be very insightful and bring up some thought provoking cultural perspectives. I consider myself to be an activist for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention through comprehensive sexual education and full details of what is consent, how to obtain consent, and respecting those who do not give consent. I had not recently thought about how LGBT individuals’ stories may be discredited, but as soon as you said it- I understood. Your points resonated with me, and I can definitely see where some people do not view the separation of one’s sexual orientation and sexual violence.

    • Hi Tori. Glad something in this resonated with your experience as an activist. It always surprises me how many people–including people with a liberal perspective on sexual ethics–assume that sexual violence must have some impact on sexual orientation. -Sarah

      • Sometimes also with “faith orientation,” although this may serve to distract from your main point, so do with it what you will (including nothing, if necessary). I remember speaking with a coworker at Starbucks years ago who was talking about an uncle who had become a “born again Christian” and the only sense she could make of that decision was that someone must have raped him.

        Which makes me wonder if she assumed the same about me, since I had always been quite open about my faith when I worked there . . .

  3. One of the people who I loved most in this world (now deceased – AIDS victim) was gay and he told me that he, and every other gay person he was ever close to, were victims of child abuse. He told me that same-sex promiscuity was a way of coping with that trauma. I never did see this was a weapon to be used against gays. I saw this as a way of understanding that population with compassion. For him and his friends, homosexuality (turning away from the feminine or embracing the horror) was a coping mechanism. I get that. At the same time, I get that a coping mechanism isn’t the greatest argument for gay marriage. I truly believe that we will never be in the position to love and accept homosexuals until we (and they) are in a position to accept that we’re dealing with a pathology. As long as gays insist on pushing the message that ‘gay is normal’ we’re going to have a rift and people who really need and want help (to work though trauma and pain) won’t find the loving acceptance that they desperately need.

    • Hello, thanks for sharing your perspective.

      As we read your comment, we see you saying that everyone should view homosexuality as a pathology. The evidence you make for this claim is that a friend of yours who died from AIDS shared that every gay person he knew was a victim of child abuse. However, it seems that you have labeled “homosexuality” as a pathology rather than labeling “child abuse” as a pathology. Moreover, it seems that you’re advocating that all gay people should work through trauma and pain in order to find “the loving acceptance they so desperately need” without providing any indication as to what you mean by “loving acceptance.”

      We can acknowledge the authenticity of your friend’s story that he sought out gay sex in an effort to deal with unresolved pain from being abused as a child. However, in suggesting that “homosexuality” is the pathology that results from “trauma and pain,” you seem to be giving all LGBT people stories that center upon one common narrative. Neither Sarah’s nor Lindsey’s stories map to your suggested narrative. Forcing us to fit our lives into your friend’s story prevents us from sharing our stories. Additionally, this approach weaponizes your friend’s story.

  4. It strikes me that positing a superficial link between homosexuality and childhood sexual abuse is a convenient way of dismissing both. Why is it so hard to believe that different people will respond to traumas of that sort in different fashions? Maybe my being gay does have something to do with the sexual abuse I endured as a child. Or, maybe I was gay anyway and it merely effected the way in which I choose to express it. Either way, I’d much rather be treated as an individual rather than a datapoint for an ideological flow chart.

    • I agree. Stating that there must necessarily be some link is demeaning, and it’s an easy way to dismiss both LGBT people and survivors of sexual violence. It would be nice if everyone involved in conversations about both these issues could treat us all as individuals and not just evidence of their own opinions being true facts. -Sarah

  5. I appreciate your reflection Sarah. There was a time when I was really wrestling with the aftermath of my own experience of sexual abuse, but that was quite a while ago. It pains me to see that the conversations seem to be even more freighted today regarding this topic. When I read your post, I’m reminded that I’m such a digital immigrant. So I confess my doubts as to whether or how anywhere on the internet can be a positive space for sexual trauma survivors who are in that initial process of building their own framework of understanding for that part of their history. When I first read your words, “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,” I winced. How can the words “blasted”, “argued”, “trauma” and “friends” be in the same sentence? It took a moment to recalibrate and recognize that you had been speaking from a position of confidence in your self understanding and debate might be expected if not welcomed. I had been recalling my own initial shaky stabs at trying to figure out what this trust-thing was, cautiously sharing my story with people that I might hope to regard as trusted friends, anxiously awaiting to see how it would be taken in, spring loaded to bolt at any flicker of doubt, disapproval, disgust. Of course that was face to face with real people, one at a time, with instantaneous feedback. On line it’s such a mix of unknown virtual players. You and Lindsey have put a lot of effort into maintaining this site as a safe place to explore sensitive topics, so I am hopeful as to how this unfolds.

    • Hi Kacy. We hope you will always feel comfortable to share your experiences here. It’s very important to us that our blog is a safe places for all kinds of perspectives to be discussed in a respectful manner. I’m hoping for the best as I continue to write on topics related to sexual trauma in the future. To be totally honest, it’s a bit uneasy for me too, but as I see it that’s all the more reason the topic needs to be discussed. Blessings to you this day. -Sarah

  6. Every gay person there is got some kind of s@xual thing done to them when they was kids, either or bad parents. It’s a fact and the sooner people admit that’s what caused them to be gay the better. How do you know that didn’t mess you up and cause you to like girls?

    • It’s not true that every gay person, or every LGBT person, has had some sort of negative sexual experience, has been a victim of sexual violence, or was raised by “bad” parents. Your statement makes a broad and incorrect assumption. There are many people in the LGBT community who would not identify at all with any of the things you’ve mentioned. For example, Lindsey has never experienced sexual trauma and has good parents. As for me, I do not claim to know what “caused” my lesbian sexual orientation, and frankly I don’t care. But I’m confident that it has nothing to do with my sexual trauma as 1) I knew I was attracted to other girls long before I was ever abused, and 2) when I think about my sexuality, I never associate (and have never associated) it with fear, violence, the notion that all men are perpetrators, and so on. Based on your question, I doubt my answer will be satisfactory, but this is the best I can offer. You can’t empirically prove that something *didn’t* cause something else. It’s not possible to prove that something *isn’t* true. But there are all kinds of things that we know intuitively, without being able to prove them to others. Count this among them. -Sarah

      • Amen! I grew up with my mom, but had positive men (her boyfriends, teachers, etc.) in my life. I had boyfriends that I broke up with because I felt I was being unfair because I didn’t have the same interest in them. I haven’t a sex assault or traumatic experience, yet I love women. Who knows why? Maybe God will explain when I see Him, but I don’t care at this point – More interest in His Love and letting everyone know they are loved by Him. /rant over

        • Sorry I missed this comment earlier! Yes, I feel the same about letting others know they are loved by God and focusing more on that than on the fool’s errand of figuring out how I ended up a lesbian. -Sarah

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