Trigger Warnings: CSA, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, body shaming
When Sexual Abuse Comes in the Form of Words
One aspect of CSA that I don’t see discussed very often is sexually charged verbal abuse. My experience with this is as a CSA survivor specifically, but I could also see where it could potentially be an issue for adult survivors of sexual violence well.
In my own experience, the sexualized verbal abuse I was subjected to has actually been one of the hardest aspects to recover from long term. Along with having been molested physically, I was also forcibly exposed to pornography (which was then discussed in the crudest way possible), faced with having my developing body critiqued, shamed, and discussed sexually, was called many sexually charged slurs as well as having actual “dirty talk” directed at me.
I think the reason this was so difficult to cope with is that memories of physical acts are much hazier for me, as I was often able to disconnect mentally when that happened, and also because its much rarer for me to re-experience anything too similar in my current day to day life. Sexual talk, however, is everywhere. Slurs, sex based advertising, catcalling, online harassment, well meant “pet names” or endearments, even the dialog of movies and TV can all be reminders or triggers for verbal sexual abuse.
Some of this type of abuse can even take the form of “romantic” talk, or verbal “seduction”. This can be especially tough to deal with, as other people who have never experienced anything like that, or who don’t know your history, can have a very hard time understanding why it’s so upsetting to hear or have directed at you, plus, guilt over having perhaps having “fallen for it” at the time can be horrific.
Hurtful words also sometimes have a way of “replaying” in one’s head, sometimes very aggressively and uncontrollably. Learning to shut off these old “tapes” was a very important goal for me from the time I first sought out therapy. Although it’s gotten easier, I do still work on this every day.
Some techniques for shutting the old “voices” up are:
- Replacing the abusive words with your own chosen terms: “No… it’s not (slur for body part) its my vagina… these are my breasts” etc.
- Practicing positive self talk “I’m smart and capable, my current life choices prove this” etc.
- Talking to supportive and loving people in your life about things that were put down and mocked by your abuser
- Practicing saying a firm “NO” and redirecting your thoughts when intrusive thoughts attempt to creep in… this can become habit, given time.
- Being clear with partners and other people close to you that certain words or phrases are painful for you. My husband actually had a pretty good time dreaming up non-triggering pet names to call me: “Little Cabbage” is a personal favorite.
It was suggested by my therapist and various other well meaning people, that I seek out and read about “sex positivity” to help replace those ugly sexual terms etc. with more positive healthy ones… but to be honest I found much of the sex positivity movement to be extremely invalidating and uncomfortable as an asexual person, and also as a sexual abuse survivor. I did find some aspects helpful, but the bad outweighed to good for me personally.
Compared to violence and unwanted sexual contact, words can seem like a much lesser violation, but in many ways it can be a difficult hurdle for survivors. Some of us will never be able to watch movies with certain kinds of “sexy” or even “romantic” dialog without cringing, but it is possible to diffuse some of the power those words hold over you in your present day life.