When I was sexually assaulted by some of the older men in our neighbourhood, the earliest recollection I had of my emotional state was numbness and, soon after, I felt fear. The fear that most women feel when their sexuality is placed under scrutiny; the fear of being blamed and shamed. Would anyone believe me? Would they think it was my fault? Was it my fault? What would the repercussions be for me if anyone found out?
As a consequence of these fears, the very first hurdle that I never managed to overcome was how to disclose these events to other people. I spent a decade, the span of my whole adolescent life, living with this secret on my own. I understood none of what had happened to me when I was younger, but I lived it. I kept people at arm’s length because I was numb and emotionally stunted. I lived it as a young girl, becoming a young woman under the scrutiny of societal discourses that claim that women must protect their virginity, dress appropriately, and always be polite (although never taught how to set boundaries). I lived the trauma of being sexually assaulted in a world that constantly reminded me that it was my fault and that I had to suffer the consequences.
Living with that fear and shame for more than a decade took its toll on me in my mid- to late-20’s. Going through another traumatic event in my mid 20’s triggered my trauma, anxiety, and depression. It was an extremely difficult time for me, but it gave me the idea that I might actually need help. It took less than an hour into our session for the therapist to identify that I had PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It’s taken me almost half a decade, but the experience helped me to start the process of healing and resistance. I struggled against isolation, I reached out to people, spoke about my experiences, and slowly learned the value of true and meaningful connections. The knowledge that I did not have to go through it all on my own and that I was supported helped make the panic attacks and other symptoms of trauma more bearable. Additionally, being able to write this piece, alive, well, and supported by my family and friends is another step towards the healing process.
I share my own experiences to emphasise what I believe are important aspects of trauma; gender, institutions, and feminist-centred interventions.
A Feminist Analysis of Trauma
The deep-seated emotional and psychological distress that one experiences after a traumatic event shatters a person’s sense of safety, security, and ability to construct meaning in their lives. These situations may result in a severe lack of trust, not just in one person but in people in general. The experience of trauma often affects a person’s ability to connect with others and to create healthy relationships. Trauma, if not immediately addressed, can manifest in several different ways and can impede a person’s ability to live a healthy and joyful life.
The formulation of PTSD in medical literature exposes its own patriarchal and imperialist past. PTSD originated from the need to diagnose the physical and emotional manifestations of trauma experienced by soldiers from the American Civil War and the First World War in order to cure these symptoms so that they may be sent back to the trenches. Similar symptoms displayed by women prior to the formulation of the term PTSD were often branded as “hysteria” or “female maladies”. Hence, for a long time within mainstream discourse, PTSD was often associated with war veterans experiencing shell shock.
However, the fact that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD as men underscores both the gendered aspect of trauma and the need for gender-informed interventions for trauma-survivors. Women were found to be more likely to develop PTSD because of the kind of traumatic events that they are more likely to experience, such as sexual assault and abuse. These are events that cause extreme psychological distress because of the tendency of society to blame and shame women for our sexuality. The ability to construct meaning behind these events is compromised because of two very opposing realities; the knowledge that we were wronged versus the shame that we are subjected to.
Our collective consciousness is constantly conditioned by the illusion of gender normative standards which institutionalise gender-based violence (GBV). This reality highlights the rigidity of heteronormative standards. Anyone who does not succumb to such standards, whatever their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression are subject to violence, oppression, and ridicule. In a phallogocentric society, more value is ascribed to that which is perceived as masculine and male: aggression, individualism, strength, assertiveness, and even violence itself. Hence, GBV tends to be more severe for women and LGBTQIA+ folks.
Institutional Trauma and Continuous Traumatic Stress
Trauma in a patriarchal world of systemic oppression can be viewed as a continuous experience that people face within and through institutions. A capitalist world which prioritises profit over people further institutionalises violence and oppression because it treats people and labour as mere cogs in the global production line. The view of trauma as being consistently produced and reproduced within capitalist and patriarchal institutions is a valuable insight from Lucy Thompson’s work which uses institutional trauma as a way to advance a feminist insight into trauma. Thompson emphasises the value in understanding and addressing trauma in the context of psychosocial realities rather than the often stressed pathological view of trauma as a disorder.
At the root of GBV and institutional trauma are structural gender inequalities that are embedded in existing institutions from the household, workplace, schools, and all existing public and private institutions where people meet and interact with each other. In the Philippines, the culture of victim-blaming and controlling women’s appearance, actions, and interactions, is engrained in our collective consciousness and appears in the formal and informal practices of institutions. In many instances, girls who are found pregnant are often expelled from schools while the fathers are permitted to study. Girls who are sexually abused by their fathers or uncles either do not disclose their experience or are restricted from exposing the male relative to protect the family, especially in contexts where the household economy is at stake. Reproductive services are still inaccessible to millions of Filipino women because of strong religious beliefs and gender stereotypes which seek to suppress women’s sexuality. It is in this context where women carry the psychosocial, cultural, and economic burden of our sexuality and it is because of this reality where sexual abuse and assault carry greater mental health consequences for us.
Adding to the sexual vulnerability of women are the social, cultural, economic, and political barriers which influence our opportunities to seek justice and safe spaces. Compounding these barriers with the stress of being sexually assaulted and having to live within patriarchal and sexist institutions that blame and shame us for it produce and reproduce the trauma and violence that we face every day.
Insofar as traumatic stress is concerned, experts say that the symptoms don’t really go away. They may remain dormant for years at a time, but are part of our natural reactions to triggers that we may encounter at any time. Refocusing trauma as a natural reaction to overwhelmingly stressful experiences is among the basic tenets of reconceptualising trauma in the context of Continuous Traumatic Stress (CTS). The shift from post in PTSD to continuous in CTS posits that, in a world riddled with war and institutional violence, traumatic stress is not just triggered by an event in the past, but by patriarchal and capitalist systems and institutions that produce and reproduce trauma. Those who do not fit into the masculine structures of present institutions present in society whether at home, in school, in the workplace, and in religious institutions, are subject to even greater forms of violence.
Advancing Feminist Interventions and Care for Trauma Survivors
The need for more feminist, care-centred interventions becomes more apparent under the reality of CTS. Interrogating the (gendered) power structures that exist within institutions can be a stepping stone in mitigating (or perhaps eliminating) the violence and trauma that women and people of diverse SOGIEs face daily. Viewing trauma in the context of gendered institutions can better inform research and policies to address several forms of trauma, especially in the context of GBV.
Finally, in the same way that trauma isolates and disconnects an individual from their surroundings, reconnecting with the self and with others can be a more intentional path towards the healing of trauma. The path towards healing is not an isolated event, but a concerted effort of the individual, the institutions they interact with, and society at large. Feminists can resist trauma by doing what we do best; uniting in solidarity to confront and abolish the patriarchal powers that violently oppress and divide us.