This is the first of three posts on sexual abuse and embodiment.
Sexual abuse is fundamentally an act of oppression. The dynamics of sexual abuse are complex, but two concepts I will explore here include dehumanization and perversion. The interplay of these two constructs is significant in understanding the purpose of embodiment, its importance in making meaning, and its implications in the struggle for systemic justice. In the midst of this conversation, I will include a reflection on the concept of choice.
Friere (1968) says, “Dehumanization...is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human” (p. 44). The perpetrator of sexual abuse uses the victim as an object to be manipulated, as a way to maintain the illusion of his own power. The perpetrator robs the victim of their ability to make a choice that meaningfully reveals their humanity. This act of dehumanization plays into the drama of perversion. Kaplan (1991) says, “The perverse strategy is to divert attention away from underlying or latent motives, fantasies, wishes, and desires” (p. 10). Perversion is a drama that perpetuates distraction by acting out a distorted version of a previous trauma narrative in a compulsive and repetitive way. By doing this, the perpetrator can retain enough consciousness of the trauma to maintain stability, while changing the narrative enough to keep the unbearable truth hidden from himself and others.
In the act of abuse, the perpetrator casts his victim in this drama and requires the victim to act out this distorted narrative with him.
The significance of dehumanization is revealed as we see that the victim is used as a nameless performer in the drama of the abuser’s perverse strategy. The sexuality of the victim is removed from the context of their body and story, and used to represent an aspect of the perpetrator’s trauma narrative. This drama is encapsulated by the perpetrator and abandoned to the victim as a representation of the perpetrator’s own perversion of truth and beauty. The survivor of abuse then carries around this representation as in a glass container, with all of its terror and fragility.
After the abuse, the drama continues to play out for the survivor. Their attention is shifted toward the stage, where they continue to step on and off in an attempt to understand the significance of such an intimate betrayal. Survivors of sexual abuse will often grapple the meaning of abuse, which can provoke the underlying question: “Why was I chosen?” A question like this can become central to the self-blame response that often appears with survivors of sexual abuse. They might reason that there was a particular attribute or defect that caused the perpetrator to act out on them, and so they continue the inexhaustible search for this fatal flaw.
This lays the basic groundwork on dehumanization and perversion, which will help us to grasp the complexity of living into the ‘choice’ of an embodied life. We will see the impact of embodiment on the survivor’s belief in her ability to create meaning, which comes not only through the disentangling of truth from perversion, but through its innate reflective quality regarding issues of systemic injustice.
*The second post in this series will be posted in two weeks.
Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Kaplan, L. (1991). Female perversions. New York: Doubleday.