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.
I’m so glad you wrote this post. I’ve never experienced CSA, but there was a verbal/emotional abuse component of the abuse I experienced, which has been especially damaging long term. Especially since one of the words that tends to set off the strongest panic reaction in me is a pretty common gendered slur that certain feminists are trying to reclaim, so I’ll have feminist friends refer to me that way and when I’ve been like, “Please don’t use that word to refer to me,” they often go, “Oh, but I’m RECLAIMING it.” (People are much more likely to listen if I say “please don’t use that word to refer to me because it’s been used against me in really violent and traumatic ways,” but I don’t really want to disclose trauma to everyone all the time.)
Also, yes, yes, on finding substitutions. There are some terms of endearment and expressions of affection I’m now super uncomfortable with, but my partner has been super cool about finding substitutions and being okay with me not expressing myself in the standard romcom way.
Thanks Queenie, I’m glad this applies somewhat universaly to the experiences of survivers as well as to specificly CSA survivers, and my own personal narrative.
The reclamation of slurs, and the effect this can have on people who have been *badly* hurt by them in the past, is a topic I keep seeing again and again lately.
Substitutions are great. ..between that and our personal system of warnings for impending panic attacks etc, people must sometimes think my husband and I are speaking in code, haha!
Mmmm I think the “NO!”/redirect intrusive thought method, has directly fed into my OCD being more unmanageable — the more I try not to think about something, the stronger it becomes and the more work/compulsions I have to do to banish it again.
Other than that, 100% with everything you said. And, to add, for me a lot of this is tied to bullying in school with a sexual theme, and overhearing roommates sexually mocking me after I was raped (and all implying I was not ace, and that it was funny). It’s definitely been hard to acknowledge as a (huge, compounding) factor.
Thanks for writing this.
Thank you very much for pointing that out, as that’s something I didn’t realize might happen for folks with OCD. Intrusive thoughts are really tough to banish, or even mute, and I wish I knew more and better ways to cope with them.
Yes, bullying is definitely area where all of this applies. It’s especially disturbing that our culture often insists that sexual bullying is actually immature “flirting”.
Mockery is so powerful as a silencer isn’t it? As a kid, my father (who was my abuser) told me that if I spoke about the abuse that “people would laugh” at me for it. That was more effective than any other possible threat he could have, or did, come up with. Bracing myself for laughter and mockery is something I still do to this day when I talk about my history. I’m so horrified and sorry to hear that happened to you.