I was 30 years old when memories of the sexual abuse I experienced as a child flooded my conscious thoughts. I was sitting in a session with a client – I am a mental health professional – when suddenly, a memory of playing hide-and-seek made its way out of my subconscious mind. An older cousin had organised the game. He said I should hide with him under a blanket. He said I should be very quiet so that we would not be found. He then removed my underwear and stuck his penis into my vagina. That day, he violated a very sacred boundary.
I did not know what was going on. I thought it was a game. It was actually the start of ten years of abuse. As we grew older, the kinds of things he would do to me became worse and worse. He groomed me: I was made to fear what was being done to me. I was made to feel that it was my fault. I now realise that he felt guilty for what he did. But, instead of taking responsibility for his actions he made it my fault. I began to feel bad about myself.
I began to hate the full body I developed at ten years of age. And, it didn’t stop growing for a long time. I hated my body.
As I reached puberty, my body started responding very differently to what was being done to me. I did not want to feel good, but I could not help it. I did not like what was happening to me, but my body was telling me otherwise. Confused, I was left feeling humiliated and ashamed of myself. It must be my fault, I thought.
“I am a bad girl.” These five words stayed with me for a long time. They shaped how I interacted with the world. The ironic thing was that I wasn’t a ‘bad girl’ – I was the complete opposite. So, whenever I was praised I was left feeling like an impostor. A fraud. A liar. Someone who did not belong, and definitely did not deserve the fruits of her labour. There must be a mistake. I must fail. That feeling has still stuck with me.
The abuse stopped when I was 15 years old. It was getting harder for my cousin to do things to me. I hit. I slapped. I fought back. He couldn’t comprehend the young woman I was turning into. I was reading about things he had never heard of. I could speak of things he did not understand. I was intelligent. I intimidated him. He had lost control over me.
Years later, as I wept and tried to understand why yet another relationship failed, it was this same pattern that was playing itself out. It wasn’t heartbreak I was weeping over. It was humiliation. It was that after all that I had done, I was the abused little girl again. And, again. And, yet again.
My therapist calls this repetition compulsion. I call it regaining control and agency over my body.
She said I was stuck in a cycle that kept repeating the sexual abuse. I stomped my foot and stormed out of her office. You don’t understand me, I said. I am a feminist. I decide what I want.
Of course, I went back to her a month later with my tail between my legs after yet another man treated me like a piece of rag that he was ready to throw out.
What was wrong with me, I wondered. All these men keep telling me I am “such a catch”. I sleep with them. They are thrilled that I will do things with them that other women won’t. I am adventurous, they say. I am “not like other women” – a compliment, I thought.
I never understood, though, why I did not feel empowered by these experiences. Despite the fact that I consented to certain acts, I did not understand why I felt bad every time. I was confused – I wanted it. Or, did I?
I am a strong and confident woman. Or, am I?
Truth is, I was a victim all those times. Repetition compulsion is repeating a behaviour – especially one related to past trauma – in order to gain mastery over it (Levy, 2000). However, mastery is rarely achieved. Judith Herman (1992) writes that even when the repetition is consciously chosen, it has a feeling of involuntariness.
The compulsion to repeat is not limited to behaviours. Thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations can also be repeated (Levy, 2000). As with anything, there are debates about repetition compulsion. One of it states that repetition compulsion – while not lending mastery over the abusive past – is important and necessary as a way of integrating the abuse as a part of the past. This process is crucial in recovering from the painful effects of past trauma.
The question then, is if there is anything such as human agency for survivors of abuse. If we are acting, or reacting, in ways to deal with past trauma are we making conscious decisions for ourselves? Or, are we ‘victims’ of a neurosis that many of us may not even understand?
Reflecting on my own experiences, I have to admit that engaging in sexual behaviour – consensual – did allow me the chance to develop ownership of my own body. I began to stop feeling ashamed of how my body looked. I could take pride in the curves that I had struggled to hide for a very long time. I began to stop feeling ashamed of the intense pleasure that arose from somewhere deep inside my body, and the shaking and shuddering that often accompanied my loud orgasms. This was mine now. My body is mine. My pleasure is mine.
I learnt to let go of control. I also learnt that I did not have to intimidate men to let them know they could not control me. I am learning to find my own power and wield it in a way that is mutually beneficial.
I also have to admit that my need to repeat past traumas also led to my making some very bad decisions. These bad decisions meant I made poor choices of partners. It made me compromise my safety – physical and sexual. It made me consent to things I was uncomfortable with. My boundaries became blurred and the consequences were dangerous. I have gotten infections that I took a long time to recover from. I have had pregnancy scares which I had to deal with alone. I became dangerously thin in the hope of making myself more attractive. I was almost raped – a game we were playing was quickly turning into a way in which the person I was with could do to me an act I had already discussed as a no-go.
The fact is none of these have been able to make me feel better about what happened to me in the past. I managed to do that through therapy, and by integrating what had happened to me into the story of myself. I had to be honest with my loved ones and hurt them with the truth of what had happened. I had to confront a family member and tell him that what he did to me was wrong and I would like to not see him again. I had to risk being called an attention-seeking hysteric who lies because she has psychological problems.
After all this, I now know that I can own my body and enjoy all the pleasures it can feel while still maintaining my boundaries. I know that others cannot help me address the sexual abuse I experienced in the past. Other men are not my abuser.
I am still learning my boundaries. But, I am doing it now within safe relationships where I am no longer re-enacting my abuse. I am not a victim anymore. I have my boundaries. And I own my pleasures.
Herman, J. L. (1992) Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.
Levy, M. S. (2000) A Conceptualisation of the Repetition Compulsion. Psychiatry, 63 (1). pp 45 – 53.
Cover image courtesy of Lauren Marx