Rape is exceedingly common in the BDSM scene. In fact, even the community’s own lobbying groups such as the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom—one of their board members doubled as FetLife’s community manager, by the way—admit to a 50% higher occurrence of consent violations among BDSM practitioners than the general populace. That’s nearly as bad as police officers, who statistically speaking are also twice as likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence. The BDSM scene has a self-delusional belief that they are “all about consent,” but in reality, they are at least as bad with sexual consent as everybody else, and likely a lot worse given their penchant for eroticizing abuse. Many women and Submissive-identified people within that community, including myself, had been saying this for a long time, but had been routinely ignored.
With Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, the problem of FetLife’s censorship all but vanished: FetLife users could now warn other FetLife users about predatory behavior, and FetLife’s site management was powerless to stop it. Just a few weeks ago, we met a woman right here in Albuquerque who had used the tool to alert others about a local “Master” violating her consent.
Users of the tool then began asking for a similar capability on other sites, like OkCupid and Facebook. There are now seven variations of the Predator Alert Tool browser add-on, each designed to work with a particular social network or dating site. Importantly, none of these tools has been developed in collaboration with the social network in question. Most sites have refused to acknowledge the tool, despite inquiries from journalists and community members. Some sites are actively hostile, sending DMCA takedown notices and even threatening to ban Predator Alert Tool users. Meanwhile, the already overwhelming positive response from the user community continues to grow.
Predator Alert Tool arose directly from the needs of the community that it serves. It enabled the user community to do exactly what the authorities at FetLife didn’t want done, or what OkCupid and Facebook don’t want users thinking too critically about. And it accomplished this by just implementing that capability rather than waiting for permission to do so. Its impact was immediate and disruptive—on purpose. These characteristics are indicative of all direct action software development projects.
Today in 2015 the petition proposed by the “Consent Culture” working groups has still not achieved its goal of stopping FetLife from silencing rape survivors. Predator Alert Tool was able to accomplish that goal in one night of coding, with these 260 lines of code, three years ago.
I feel like I have “Abuse Me” written across my forehead! Why does this keep happening to me?
Over the years I’ve lost track of how many people have asked me that question.
The first time an individual is victimized, they often take on the responsibility for the abuse. This can be a way for a victim to reclaim control. It is reassuring to believe that changing habits, behaviors, or interactions will ensure that the abuse will not reoccur.
When someone is victimized a second or third time (or more), research shows they are even more likely to feel guilt and shame and to judge themselves harshly. Unfortunately, they are not alone. Family, friends, professionals, and the media often respond to revictimized people with far more judgment than compassion.
Saints, sinners, heroes, villains, the beautiful, the scarred, disciplined, undisciplined, strong, weak, and people of every other type have been victimized. Abuse, whether it is a single or a repeated event, is not elicited by victims; it is perpetrated against them by an offender.
A traumatizing abuse experience will often leave a victim in severe emotional and psychological distress, and sometimes in physical pain. The resulting symptoms, including those of post-traumaticstress disorder (PTSD), are attempts by the body, mind, and emotions to regain stability and to reduce this extreme distress. Ironically, defensive responses can place the victim at greater “risk for later interpersonal trauma.” (Jaffe et al. 2019) These trauma symptoms include: dissociation, alcohol and substance abuse, distorted perceptions, low self-esteem, risky behaviors, cognitive accommodation to on-going violence, learned helplessness or passivity in the face of danger, willingness to tolerate maltreatment in order to avoid abandonment, adaptation to socioeconomic stressors and discrimination, (Briere, 2019) increased irritability and anger. (Jaffe, et al. 2019)
Facts, provided by research, can serve as instruments of kindness.
Jaffe, et al. (2019) stated it succinctly: “The most consistent predictor of future trauma exposure is a history of prior trauma exposure.” A child who is abused is at a significantly higher risk of being revictimized in adolescence and/or adulthood. (Aakvaag, et al., 2019; Zamir, et al., 2018)
These facts, established by scientific research and supported nearly unanimously by experts across the fields of mental health and the social sciences, provide a strong rebuttal to knee-jerk reactions that place blame for revictimization on the innate characteristics of individual victims.
The field of psychology has gone through its own evolution in understanding revictimization. In 1920 Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he identified repetition compulsion as a repeating and reliving of painful experiences in lieu of holding them in memory. (Zamir, et al. 2018) This theory, part of Freud’s developing understanding of human instinct, when applied more recently to revictimization, places the bulk of responsibility squarely on the psyche of the victim.
As the understanding of trauma and PTSD developed in the field, via both research and practice, new theories of revictimization developed based on the impact of an original trauma on a repeatedly abused person.
The facts establish that when a person is sexually assaulted multiple times or in several domestic violence relationships, the cause of that pattern is not some underlying masochism, a characterological failing, or any other personal flaw. All abuse, original and subsequent, is due to the actions of offenders. A victim’s vulnerability to revictimization is often directly related to the impact of inflicted trauma.
A central component to the theoretical models of revictimization, developed in the 1980s and 1990s, was the role of dissociation as a risk factor. (Zamir, et al., 2018)
Dissociation is a defense mechanism that protects the individual by breaking up consciousness to avoid being overwhelmed by an experience, memory, or sensation. This fragmenting can be as commonplace as distraction or daydreaming, or it can manifest more problematically as emotional detachment, numbing, or out-of-body experiences.
Disassociation may provide relief from distress, but when it develops into a behavioral pattern, outlasting the threat of the immediate abuse, it leaves the person increasingly vulnerable. They miss cues of danger and have a disrupted, discontinuous experience of themselves and their life.
Guilt and shame are two distinct, common remnants of having been victimized. While guilt involves the belief that one “should have thought, felt, or acted differently,” shame is a “painful emotion related to beliefs about threats to one’s social position, including devaluation and rejection.” (Aakvaag et al., 2018)
Guilt can increase the risk of revictimization by focusing our attention, in an exaggerated manner, on our own thoughts and feelings, leaving us vulnerable to missing external cues of danger.
Shame often leads to social withdrawal and isolation. (Aakvaag et al., 2018) Decreasing our connections to others increases our vulnerability because while we may be avoiding people likely to cause us harm, we are also losing access to those who would provide protection, support, an increased sense of personal worth, and the expectation of being well-treated.
Shame is strongly correlated with mental health problems in general and with many PTSD symptoms specifically. The Aakvaag et al. findings suggest that shame may be central to the causal link that earlier studies found between mental illness and revictimization.
Kindness and compassion demand that we consistently hold a conscious place for the role of the abuser in any dialogue with or about victims. Experience has taught me that when an abuser is forgotten, the victim is implicitly left to absorb responsibility for the abusive acts and the resulting conditions, thereby increasing the victim’s feelings of both guilt and shame. This pattern is all the more common when the offender is a loved one, providing further motivation for a victim (child or adult), to absorb responsibility for the actions and patterns of the other in an attempt to rescue a crucial, valued relationship.
Source: Dave Lowe/Unsplash
A person who has been victimized needs to heal from the injuries of abuse. Family, friends, support networks, medical, and mental health professionals should be united in promoting that healing for the purpose of restoring health and wellness. A secondary benefit of compassion is the reduction of trauma symptoms, hence a decrease in vulnerability to revictimization.
Jaffe, A. E., DiLillo, D., Gratz, K.L., Messman-Moore, T.L. (2019). Risk for revictimization following interpersonal and noninterpersonal trauma: Clarifying the role of posttraumatic stress symptoms and trauma-related cognitions. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 32, 42-55.
Briere, J. (2019). Treating Risky and Compulsive Behavior in Trauma Survivors. New York: The Guilford Press.
Aakvaag, H. F., Thoreson, S., Strom, I. F., Myhre, M., Hjemdal, O. K. (2019). Shame predicts revictimization in victims of childhood violence: A prospective study of a general Norwegian population sample. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, Vol 11, No. 1, 43-50.
Zamir, O., Szepsenwol, O., Englund, M. M., Simpson, J. A. (2018). The role of dissociation in revictimization across the lifespan: A 32-year prospective study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 144-153.
Gay, P. (1988). Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.Morereferences
This is an edited transcript of the second part of Suzzan Blac’s talk at the ‘An evening with Suzzan Blac’ webinar we held in July 2021 and the subsequent discussion with Ygerne Price-Davies. The transcript of the first part of the talk, which was about her extraordinary paintings, is in a separate article. You can watch the recording of the whole talk on YouTube.
Of all the harms done to girls and women, pornography is the most damaging and far-reaching, affecting not just the victims within the porn industry, but also women and girls outside of it.
I first saw pornography when I was six years old. It was shown to me by one of my mother’s boyfriends as he sexually abused me. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, every older boy and man who sexually abused and raped me had pornography. And that’s not forgetting the sex traffickers who forced me into pornography. [Editor: Suzzan talks about this in the first part of her talk.]
So, I knew that there was a connection between sex offending and pornography. Over the years, and in my obsession with perpetrators and why and how they could so easily abuse and hurt girls and women, I researched sex offending, rapes, kidnapping, torture and sexually motivated murders and noticed that high pornography use was a significant and prime factor in their offending. I began writing about this in my blog, The Violence of Pornography, in 2016, documenting such cases.
I also read about research on the aggression in pornography. Whenever I posted about this on social media, however, I would be attacked by men. Some would laugh and say ‘You’ve never seen any pornography’. Well, yes that was true, I hadn’t seen any pornography – at least not since I was trafficked into it in 1977. I knew I would be traumatised if I accidently came across any.
So, in 2017 I decided that I had to watch it. How could I speak out against porn if I had never seen any recently? I chose Pornhub, because it was the most popular mainstream porn-site, having 115 million hits a day. I watched and took screen-shots of hundreds of videos on it.
Like many women who don’t watch porn, I had no idea about it’s true content. You just assume that much of it is ‘adults having consensual sex’ with maybe a bit of hair pulling and slapping going on. How wrong I was!
Crime scene videos
I could not believe what I was seeing, I thought that these things could only be seen on the dark web. I watched women being sexually and violently abused, humiliated, degraded, raped and tortured.
These were not sex videos. They were crime-scene videos.
There were women being raped when they used their safe words in ‘kink’ videos and when they were sleeping or passed out from alcohol or high on drugs. There were drug addicted prostitutes unaware that they were being filmed. Women being suffocated with plastic bags, water-boarded, strangled manually or with ligatures. Women being really hanged with ropes.
Many are ‘professional videos’, but a significant amount of user-generated content is uploaded onto Pornhub, often with no consent from the women appearing in it.
I watched one man film a woman standing on a chair with her neck in a noose. He would kick the chair, let her hang for a few seconds, then pick her up, place her back on the chair and do it again. And again. And again.
I watched a tied-up naked female being shot continuously for fifteen minutes by a man with an automatic BB rifle. I watched women’s breasts being tortured with needles, cigarettes being stubbed out on their nipples, and breasts already heavily bruised being punched or stood on by men in heavy boots. I watched women having their genitalia whipped with nettles or being sharp whipped, causing deep lacerations, some were ‘live streamed’ with requests from paying males.
Many of these videos have millions of views and endless derogatory comments along the lines of, ‘Loving the torture and seeing women suffer’.
There were tons of ‘domestic violence’ videos, mostly home-made by men who abuse their wives and girlfriends, filmed on their mobiles.
I frequently came across child sexual abuse imagery, some of real children and also CGI child abuse. I only saw these as thumbnails. I never clicked on the videos. Obviously, I couldn’t research this. I reported it to the Internet Watch Foundation, but never heard back.
There is also a lot of extremely disturbing and realistic CGI bestiality videos.
There were a significant number of men sexually offending outside the home, filming their offences with mobile phones and uploading them onto Pornhub. Offences ranged from up-skirting, secret toilet filming, indecent exposure, to masturbating and ejaculating onto unsuspecting females.
There is an incredible amount of criminal activity on Pornhub and I have evidenced much of it in my blog in the form of screen-shots for all to see.
Pornhub is completely unregulated and violates its own uploading terms. I am happy to say at least they are now being held accountable and have many lawsuits against them.
And, there are so many views. You can’t actually ascertain how many views a video has, because one video might have two million views and is then uploaded with a different title that has 600,000 views, and then another, and so on.
Strangulation (aka ‘breath play’)
I’d also like to talk about how common strangulation is on Pornhub. The kink community have changed the language, so it’s no longer called strangulation. They now call it ‘breath play’, which can mean suffocation or strangulation or hanging or choking. Quite often they call it choking when it’s not actually choking.
Choking is the act of having something stuck in the oesophagus. Strangulation is completely different. It can be done manually or with ligatures or with their arms or legs. It’s extremely dangerous because even for a few seconds it can cause a lot of health issues including brain damage – and that is if it’s non-fatal. It really is extremely dangerous. There are thousands of videos of men strangling women until they lose consciousness, either suffocating them, putting things in their mouth, suffocating them with plastic bags and strangling them or hanging, and I mean really hanging, them.
Rape, donkey punch, incest…
There are other disturbing videos like of rape but they don’t call it rape anymore. You can’t type in the word rape. Pornhub removed that term, but other words that mean the same thing are there – for example, unwilling sex or surprise anal.
There’s hate fuck, and donkey punch where men kick and hurt women and then punch them in the back of the head as hard as they can. I’ve seen women’s vaginas being stapled shut. Electric torture, punch fisting. Women being pissed on, either in their mouths or in their vaginas or anuses and they have women licking toilet bowls. Or, their heads being flushed down the toilet while they’re being pummelled from behind.
The most humiliating and degrading stuff.
There are also tons of incest videos with titles such as ‘No Daddy Stop’ or ‘I’m Not Mommy’. They dress 18-year-old girls to make them look like little girls and put them in child-themed rooms with much older men or sometimes elderly men, like it’s a granddad abusing his granddaughter. There’s a lot of incest, an awful lot of incest, brothers and sisters and so forth.
There are also horrible channels called sexually broken where they destroy women in every way possible.
Normalising and eroticising sexual violence against women and girls
I have documented all these types of videos on my website, The Violence Pornography. I have blurred the genitalia and it is very distressing to see, but I put it out there because I think people, especially women, need to see what it’s like without having to watch it themselves.
My research makes it absolutely clear that pornography normalises and eroticises sexual violence against women and reinforces rape myths. It is common for the girls and women who are being abused in these ways to be portrayed as if they are loving it. As if they’re not really saying no. It is made to look as if they say yes because they’re worthless whores and they love it.
This is extremely dangerous – especially knowing that young boys are watching this kind of content.
I believe that pornography should be deemed hate speech and that it is a violation of Article 3 of the Human Rights Act: the right not to be tortured in an inhumane or degrading way.
I could talk a lot more about pornography but most of it, as I said, is on my website.
Gay men’s porn
Ygerne: I just wanted to say thank you so much, Suzzan, for such a powerful and moving talk. And now if it’s OK with you, I’d like to ask about gay men’s porn. Did you research that and what did you find?
Suzzan: Every time you speak out on social media there are people who love to derail you and that’s one of the many things that was said to me. Gay porn! And I realised that I hadn’t actually watched any gay porn. So it was clear I was going to have to. Believe me, I didn’t want to do it, I really didn’t want to, but it was the only way to get answers.
So, one night I sat down with a big glass of wine and I went to Pornhub’s gay porn channels and typed in the same search words that I had for the women – such as rough sex, unwilling sex, torture, strangulation, everything. And I prepared myself…
At first I was confused because when I started watching the videos, they were lovely, absolutely lovely. The men were kissing. I had never seen any kissing on the straight porn channels.
They were also hugging and caressing each other. They were talking to each other; they were wearing condoms; they were respectful.
I thought I’d probably get to the other stuff later. So, I kept watching. I kept typing in the same search terms. There was one that came up under “rough sex”, and it was this huge hairy guy in leather. He was with another guy, a young guy, who was strapped to a cross and I thought, here we go. So, he gets a whip – but it’s a cat-o’-nine tails that has thick, wide pieces of soft leather – and he flogs him very gently so he doesn’t hardly even turn pink. And then he kisses him.
And I’m like, what? So, I type in torture and most of what I see is being tortured with feathers and tickling. Tickling torture! And it was like that in so many videos.
And I realised that this is the polar opposite of how the women are treated in pornography. There was no hate. There was no degradation; no humiliation; no cruelty; no sadism; no pain; nothing.
So then I did the same thing with trans porn. And again, I watched hundreds of videos and took screenshots and it was like the gay porn: caressing, kissing, and respect.
I looked at casting couch porn. You’ve probably heard of that. In the straight porn, it’s nasty: right from the beginning they start calling her names, humiliating and degrading her, and then some guy comes in and literally throws her about the room and pummels her. In the gay men’s porn, he’s asked some questions and then they start kissing and have normal sex.
The difference was astounding, really astounding and I thought that just proves the misogyny on that platform. It is virulent, it is horrific, and I’m glad I’ve documented it because now a lot of it has been taken down, as you know.
Pornhub has a lot of lawsuits against it as we speak and it took down millions of videos. Eighty percent of its unverified videos were taken down. So, that is some good news. We’ll see what happens next.
Ygerne: I saw that the house of Pornhub’s owner was attacked by an arsonist and burned down.
Suzzan: Yes, I saw that too. In the research I did years ago, I found him. I found that MindGeek owns Pornhub and so many other sites. I found a photo of him and put it on Twitter. Of course, nobody took much notice at the time. It wasn’t until, and I’m glad to say this, a male reporter at The New York Times took this story up, that anything actually happened and then Visa and Mastercard and other companies stopped dealing with Pornhub. So, I’m glad of it.
Ygerne: That’s why the work you are doing documenting it is so important.
Suzzan: I think it is important. Without seeing the images, it’s hard to believe. Images are really important to me – as you can see in my paintings. It’s not that people don’t believe exactly, it’s just that if you’re reading text, you’re detached from the reality. But, when you see images… It’s like, no one believed that the holocaust could happen – no one – until they saw the images and videos of what was going on over there.
It’s the same with everything. That’s the reason I took screenshots because I didn’t believe it. I’d read about it, but I didn’t understand the extent of it and how it’s worse than awful. The misogyny is truly horrifying.
As I said, it’s not about adults having consensual sex – as many people claim. They say that it’s consensual and if a woman likes a bit of rough, it’s her choice. But that’s not what it’s actually like.
And of course, a lot of the videos out there are not professionally made. There are millions of mobile phone videos – taken by men – boyfriends, husbands. I documented that too. It is domestic abuse – but it’s not only that because you’ve got men who are abusers, who are not just filming their wives and girlfriends and putting it on Pornhub, they’re also doing live cams and making money from it.
They’re actually making money out of their wives and girlfriends who are not consenting. And that says a lot about consent in pornography. No one can really tell if the person in pornography is consenting or not. Because you can’t tell if they’re a trafficking victim; you can’t tell if they’re a domestic abuse victim; whether it’s secret filming; whether it’s a minor. Simply no one can tell.
Facebook and YouTube have something like 20,000 to 30,000 moderators working on their sites to get rid of illegal content. Do you know how many Pornhub have? And we’re talking millions and millions of videos, I can’t remember the exact number, but millions. They had 20 or 30 moderators!
That’s a joke, isn’t it? I think they said a moderator can look through about 150 videos an hour. They literally fast forward through them. But they aren’t all in English. There’re a lot of foreign videos there, from all over the world. So, often they wouldn’t even know what the title said or what anybody said.
But, 150 videos an hour, how can anyone moderate that? It’s impossible. But, you know, it’s coming to a head now and people are finally understanding what Pornhub’s about and it’s about time.
Ygerne: The comparison you made with YouTube… It’s like when it comes to porn, the attitude is it’s just a bit of fun, and any criticism of it is deemed to be prudish.
Suzzan: Well, it’s free speech, isn’t it? [Laughs.] It’s free speech, but not for the women who are performing in these videos, or not performing, or don’t even know they’re in the videos.
And as I said, there is so much violence on there. It’s not sex! I’ve been called all sorts of names as you can imagine.
You know, we all like sex. But most pornography is not about sex anymore. It’s now about the humiliation, degradation and suffering of women. They love to punish women and there are millions of these videos, with millions of views, and men who are enjoying them.
What is that doing? What is that doing to young boys? What is that doing to their minds when they see that and they’re looking at it everywhere, including in school?
It’s awful and I think they should ban mobile phones in schools because even my own daughter, years ago when she was a teenager, was traumatised. She didn’t tell me at the time, but she was traumatised by boys showing her violent pornography. And it’s still going on and they’re getting younger and younger; we’re talking 10, 11, 12.
We must put the onus on the perpetrators
Ygerne: I remember getting shown porn when I was in primary school.
So now a question from the audience. What would you advise us to use in terms of language in the sense of putting the onus on the perpetrators? Would you use the word prostitutor to define this person?
Suzzan: Yeah, the problem has always been seen in terms of the victim and the perpetrators are hardly mentioned and that needs to change. The onus really needs to be on the perpetrators. We need to ask why they are doing this and make them accountable. Definitely more needs to be done about that.
Even with victims of murder, women who were murdered, the emphasis is always on her: she was drunk, what she was doing? Why was she out on her own? Why was she wearing headphones, why this, why that? But, not the perpetrator. And why is that?
It has to do with misogyny and, and victim blaming. Because it is women too who are doing this. Women can also be misogynistic. I’ve known that first-hand. Yes, it needs to be changed and we all need to collectively keep fighting for these things.
Ygerne: Misogyny is so engrained in all of us, isn’t it.
Suzzan: Yes. And with domestic abusers, it’s always been why doesn’t she do this, why doesn’t she do that. I’ve experienced it. My sister and my mother have experienced it.
Even though you’re married to that person or live with them, they can still terrorise you and no one understands that, unless they’ve been in that situation. Just because you live with that man, it doesn’t mean it will calm down and be okay.
I have been in that situation and my sister has too. The worst time is when you leave them. That’s when he would threaten. He’s broken her bones. He’s kicked her when she was pregnant.
When I was young and this was going on, she was only 17, 18, I was so used to violence it didn’t affect me, it was normal. In the end, when she would threaten to leave, he would say he was going to kill her and the children. When finally she did leave, he followed her and beat her up in a spa shop, and kicked the hell out of her. Nobody, not one person, said anything. Nobody did anything. They just watched or walked out.
When she fled to a women’s refuge, he came and found her and was swearing and throwing stones at the windows. Then they put her in a caravan with her four children. The terror that she went through hasn’t left her. She’s still not right from it now.
This is what people don’t understand. This is why we must concentrate and focus on these perpetrators.
Impact of watching porn
Ygerne: Thank you so much. We’ve got loads of positive comments coming in from the audience. Gratitude to you for your honesty and resilience.
Suzzan: Thank you. You’re so kind. I appreciate that. It’s worth the hard work.
It has been traumatising work, especially the pornography. For a year I’ve had to take a break because just watching it traumatised me and I was having other effects. For example, I would go to the shops or the post office and I would see different women, I would look at different women, young women, elderly women, all kinds of women and think about what genre they would be in. Every time.
If it’s done that to me, and, believe me I’m not masturbating to this material, I’m analysing crime scenes, because that’s what they are, what is it doing to young men in particular, who are masturbating to this kind of material? And then they’re out in the real world looking at women in the real world, what is it doing to them?
Ygerne: It’s terrifying.
Suzzan: It is and there’s so much to talk about.
I’ve researched serial killers and sexually motivated murders because most serial killers kill women. You can see the rise in serial killers, especially in America, since the early 70s, 80s, and 90s which coincided with the increase in violent pornography. You can see, it’s almost like an exact match.
And their prime motivation is fantasy. Sex offenders say that it’s all about the fantasy. Whatever they do, whether they look through a woman’s bedroom window or expose themselves or want to kidnap and rape and murder a woman, it’s all about the fantasy and this escalation.
What happens is, they start watching what they like to call vanilla porn, although there’s not much of that around anymore, I can tell you, except in gay porn. If you don’t want to see violence then watch gay porn.
They start with the vanilla and go on to harder and harder stuff, and then bestiality. And once they’ve covered everything, they can no longer become aroused and that is when they cross the line into real offending. And might actually film it and import it onto Pornhub.
I can’t tell you how dangerous it is and how many rapes there are a year and sexual assaults – but I bet you money they are rising and have been rising since pornography became so available on the internet.
Ygerne: We’ve run out of time now – so I just want to say, if anyone wants to find out more about Suzzan’s research, you can find it on her website, The Violence Pornography. If there are any parents that have been affected by topics we’ve talked about, we provide some links to some good resources below. Thank you for participating and all your questions.
And thank you, Suzzan, for passing on your wisdom. Good night, everyone, and thank you.
This is an edited transcript of the first part of Suzzan Blac’s talk at the ‘An evening with Suzzan Blac’ webinar we held in July 2021 and the related discussion with Ygerne Price-Davies. The transcript of the second part of the talk, which was about her research into pornography, is in a separate article. You can watch the recording of the whole talk on YouTube.
I am a survivor of child sexual abuse, sexual assaults, numerous rapes and sex trafficking.
This had been my life. My normal. So normal, that I didn’t even realise that I had been abused and been a victim for the majority of my childhood. I only began to acknowledge and understand this in my mid-twenties. I finally sought counselling when I was thirty-three years old.
Recovery was extremely traumatic and it took me more than twenty years to overcome the worst of it. One of the reasons it took so long to recover, was the victim blaming that many people inflicted upon me. In my experience, victim blaming is as painful and distressing as the abuse itself.
Between 2000 and 2004, in order to try and help myself, I decided to paint my story of abuse to help me process my pain, anger and trauma. I began by drawing subconscious doodles whilst watching TV, as I knew that these drawings had to come from deep inside of me and not my thoughts. I then turned the drawings into realistic paintings that depicted ‘me the victim’ and ‘the perpetrators’.
I was sometimes shocked by what I had painted, but I knew that they were my true feelings. I painted forty images over four years and I hid them away for over a decade, because they were for me alone, and not meant for anyone to see, especially knowing that I would be condemned if I showed them.
In 2011, I decided to put them online. I had other works out there, but I knew that ‘silence impairs the victims and empowers the perpetrators’. So I had to speak out by using my art, and although I had many people make hurtful comments, I had hundreds of survivors thanking me for giving them a voice.
I have also been training police and social workers in child sexual abuse (CSA), child sexual exploitation (CSE) and victim blaming since 2014.
I also paint about sexual objectification, sexual conditioning, pornography, prostitution and misogyny.
I am motivated by my pain, anger, injustice and indignation surrounding violence against women and girls (VAWG) and victim blaming.
I’m now going to show you twenty-four of my works with a very brief description of each one.
1. The trusted uncle
This painting depicts my mother’s brother, who sexually abused me as a baby. I painted it like a ‘Happy family portrait’ to convey the lies and cover-ups of family members who knew that it was happening. It also conveys the horrific fact that babies are sexually abused and raped, especially since the invention of the internet and mobile phone cameras. I was actually told that ‘I was sick’ for painting this image.
2. One of mother’s boyfriends
This painting depicts one of my mother’s boyfriends who sexually abused me from when I six to when I was eight years old. He was also extremely violent, and in this image I watched in horror as he beat my mother to a pulp. No child should ever have to witness such violence.
3. You’re such a good girl
This was the first time that anyone had ever called me a ‘good girl’. He also told me that it was all my fault, because I was so ‘pretty’. Here, I am trying to express what sexual abuse was doing to me internally, whilst I remained frozen and detached throughout the abuse.
4. She likes it
This image depicts the first-time my mother’s boyfriend sexually abused me in front of my mother, whilst she was at her dressing table. She turned around and asked why he was doing that, to which he replied, ‘Because she likes it’.
He laughed and said, ‘What’s the matter love, you jealous? There’s plenty to go around’.
I searched her face for a reaction, but all she did was ‘tut’ and resumed putting on her make-up. I knew then that it was not going to stop, that it was okay and was to become my ‘normal’.
This image depicts my childhood – although at the time, I didn’t feel like a child. I felt like an ‘Entity’ that existed, merely to survive every day, every hour, every minute. He destroyed my childhood and he destroyed my innocence. Still to this day, I get very emotional when I watch small children innocently play, because he took that from me and put me in the darkest of places.
After many years of sexual abuse from others, including those I had trusted, even a teacher, I became a teenager on a path of self-destruction. These next paintings depict the devastating consequences of my years of abuse.
6. Embracing death
By the age of fourteen, I was regularly drinking, taking drugs, partying, being highly promiscuous and self-harming. I was called a slag, slut and a whore, and yes, I was.
One night, as I lay on the piss-flooded floor of a night club toilet, I felt like I was home. I was disgusting, vile and filthy and this is where I belonged. I was so intoxicated, that I thought I was going to die, and I embraced the thought, because I hated my life, I hated humans, and I hated myself.
7. Demonic whispers
This painting depicts the time that I was sex trafficked when I was sixteen years old. This is a portrait of the man who threatened, hurt and (alongside others) repeatedly raped me. I had been taken to London under the pretence of ‘modelling’.
Locked inside a once former Victorian hotel with many other girls and women, we were forced into pornography and prostitution. This was a whole new level of abuse, terror and trauma, one that will always stay with me.
8. Tell me you love it
On the first night that this man abducted me, he led me to a room, told me to take off my clothes and viciously raped me. Whilst raping me, he forced me to repeatedly tell him that ‘I loved it’.
9. I’ve killed bitches before
After raping me, he told me to get dressed, and as I did so – he grabbed me by my throat, shoved me against a wall and as he stuck a large knife underneath my rib-cage, he seethed into my ear, ‘I’ve killed bitches that misbehave before, so you need to think about that.’
My only thoughts were, ‘I’m only 16 and this is how I die’.
While I was still shaking in absolute terror, he withdrew the knife and laughed at me, saying, ‘You should see your face.’
This was pure sadism. I could never speak about how this affected me.
There are no words, and that’s why I had to express myself through my paintings.
10. Pornographic meat
On the second day, along with other girls, I was forced into making pornography in a large room full of men. I had to completely detach; I became a ‘dead actress’, a ‘fleshed robot’ that obeyed their every command in absolute fear.
The other girls and I did not speak or even make eye contact. We were first made to watch films of the worst kind of pornography, including bestiality, sadism and child abuse. One man joked that he was going to get the popcorn.
When they began filming me, one of the men asked for ‘Butcher shots’ and I immediately turned inside out. I cried for me and I cried for the other girls, because we were no longer human beings, we were pieces of meat inside an abattoir.
11. Shut up and take it
This image depicts one of the traffickers taking me back home. In a train toilet, he violently raped me – three times between London and Birmingham. As I whimpered, he shushed me, covered my mouth and told me, ‘This was part of the deal, so shut up and take it’.
He drove me back to my flat, asking many questions about my boyfriend and family. He then told me that I would be seeing him again soon.
12. The end of everything
After I got home, I never told a soul about what had happened to me. I was still traumatised and knew that it was all my fault. I also was being terrorised by one of the traffickers. So I had to internalise all of that pain and fear.
After a while I deteriorated both mentally and physically. I cut all of my hair off, because I didn’t want to be pretty anymore. My weight dropped to six stone, I developed intestinal worms, severe cystitis, boils, chancres and weeping eczema that turned septic.
One night, I sat naked in the shower tray, and poured a bottle of red food colouring all over me. Rocking and crying that ‘I needed to die’.
13. The epitome of sorrow is to die alone
This painting depicts one of my suicide attempts. I had taken all of my clothes off and laid down on my 9th floor balcony, one winters evening, after failing to jump off. I was hoping to die of hypothermia. As my face stuck to the icy concrete floor, hot tears ran down my freezing face as I thought how awfully sad it was to have to die alone.
I woke up at dawn. I slowly walked into my lounge which was like walking into a furnace and saw my reflection in a mirror. It was surreal, I looked like a wax model covered in blue and green veins. I just curled up into my bed, so sad that I wasn’t dead.
14. No one asked me why
This image depicts the time I had my stomach pumped in a hospital after taking an overdose. After hostile staff discharged me, and as I walked away from the hospital, I began to cry – because not one person in there had asked me why I had done this to myself.
It was then I knew that even doctors and nurses never gave a shit about me, they didn’t care if I died, they just did their job.
15. I am a piece of shit
This painting depicts how others made me feel, whenever I disclosed what had happened to me. I was condemned, isolated, abandoned and judged. Not believed, made to feel guilty, ashamed and that much of it was my own fault.
This is how many people make victims and survivors of sexual abuse feel. If someone says that they were robbed, mugged or beat-up, there is sympathy and empathy, but not if you are a victim of sexual abuse, you are literally treated like a piece of shit.
16. I’m fine thank you
I painted this self-portrait to show how it felt, to constantly hide myself by wearing a mask for self-protection and social acceptance. People made me feel like an ‘outcast’. If I spoke out about the crimes committed against me as a child, I would be met with a wall of silence, made to feel uncomfortable, defective and dysfunctional.
No survivor of sexual abuse should have to hide their pain, anxiety and distress, in the fear of being re-victimised. No human being should ever have to feel what I have painted here.
Now I want to show you some of my other works, ones that I painted years after my story of abuse.
17. Your suffering is real
I painted this image of myself to express and convey how severe, continuous sexual traumas impact your mental health, your body and your very soul.
Sexual violence is unlike any other kind of violence. It’s blackness creeps inside your every vein and permeates every organ until you emotionally shut down and are no longer the human being that you once were. Unable to speak of the horrors, you outwardly smile – whilst hiding the truth that you are internally destroyed.
18. The prostitutor
This image represents the men who prey on vulnerable girls and women. They are the pimps and pornographers who target ‘bent but not broken girls’ in order to profit from their bodies. They are men on the streets, men online, sex traffickers, husbands, boyfriends and fathers.
The majority of these girls and women are victims of previous sexual abuse, rape and domestic violence, who have mental health issues and are often alcohol and drug dependant.
19. Let me entertain you
This image depicts the sexual and physical violence now commonplace in mainstream pornography. Women are being humiliated, degraded, hog-tied, raped, punched, kicked, suffocated with plastic bags, strangled, tortured and even hanged.
This isn’t about sex; these are crimes committed against women. These videos are the stuff of serial killer fantasies. In fact, the only thing that they don’t do to women in mainstream pornography is kill them.
20. What women want
Which brings me to this painting, which depicts a young boy watching this kind of sexual violence on his mobile phone.
For the first time in history, boys are viewing this horrific and hateful misogyny and violence against women, which has become so normalised that boys are completely desensitised. Many use pornography on their phones to sexually harass, intimidate and exert power over girls. Pornography alters and influences sexual behaviours and reinforces misogyny in young, malleable minds. This is why the government needs to implement age-verification now.
21. Blue Hair
This painting is one of a set of six images, named Abasement of dolls that depict issues that affect women and girls, such as sexual conditioning, sexual objectification and sexual exploitation.
Right from birth, baby girls are objectified and conditioned with bows, ribbons, lace and frilly nappy pants. Toddlers wear sassy clothes, jewellery, heels and painted nails. Many little girls are only given ‘girly toys’: housework sets, make-up and hairstyle sets, etc. Girls are taught that only being attractive and pretty are valued, and this often stays with them.
Many teenage girls and women resort to extreme diets, Botox and cosmetic surgeries, because they don’t match up to the high standards of beauty.
22. Blonde girls
Again, this is about the sexual objectification of little girls, in the media, film, dance studios and even by their own parents – for example, entering them into horrific ‘beauty pageants’ such as ‘toddlers and tiaras’ or buying Playboy merchandise for them. Incidentally, Playboy merchandise was sold to girls as young as eight in the high street.
23. Black Hair
This painting depicts the young women who enter the porn industry, many because of mental health issues, oppressed religious backgrounds, suitcase pimps and coercive boyfriends. These are eighteen-year-olds – they are still kids! – who enter a world of grown adult men who love ‘fresh meat’.
Many pornographers make them appear even younger and then have them ‘punished’ and ‘destroyed’.
Many of these young women leave after a short period of time after being so traumatised, a trauma that continues, because their videos remain online indefinitely for all to see.
24. The life giver
This painting represents sexism and misogyny. I portray a history of derogatory and sexist terms used to silence, erase, hurt, subordinate, humiliate, degrade, hate and punish women.
My point is that no one is morally or legally allowed to make racist, homophobic or transphobic slurs as they are deemed ‘hate crimes’ but you can call women anything you want, because misogyny is not deemed a hate crime.
Ygerne: I just wanted to say thank you so much to Suzzan for such a powerful and moving talk. I personally find your work really significant. It’s very hard hitting and often can be quite disturbing, but I think that the depiction of such extreme experience and psychological trauma is pivotal because speaking with a lot of women who have experienced sexualized violence and sexism more widely that sharing stories especially in creative ways enables us to overcome misogyny together. So thank you for sharing your story with us.
Suzzan: You’re welcome.
Ygerne: In the past I’ve heard you say that understanding complex PTSD helped your recovery. Would you like to talk a bit more about that and how it’s helped you?
Suzzan: Absolutely. Recovery can take so long and it wasn’t until literally about five years ago that someone explained to me the concept of complex PTSD. I’m now 61 and I wish that someone had told me earlier in my life. That’s why it’s so important to talk about this.
Going through my teenage years and adult life, no matter how many times counsellors and therapists would say to me, it wasn’t your fault… I don’t mean just as a child, I mean as a teenager and a young woman because a couple of years after I was sex trafficked, I actually went back into pornography and prostitution. No matter how many times they said it wasn’t my fault, I still knew it was my fault. So I still had the shame, self-blame, the guilt, everything was still there, it remained.
And you can’t ever recover whilst you have those intense feelings inside of you. Then a few years ago I learned about complex PTSD which is different from ordinary PTSD. Ordinary PTSD occurs after a one-time event, say being held up at gunpoint. That actually happened to a friend of mine in Birmingham. Or like a serious car crash or something like that and afterwards you develop PTSD.
But, with complex PTSD you are traumatised over a long period of time, especially from childhood and the teenage years as in my case, as in many other women’s cases. You are constantly, repeatedly traumatised over years. For me it was every day or every other day for all those years.
Each time that you are traumatised you internalise that trauma and become detached – especially in sexual violence. Each time someone abuses you, you become detached and as in my case, completely detached, all through those years.
And so, you never really feel what’s happening to you, you never really feel that pain. All through my teenage and early adult years I was self-abusing because what you don’t ever want to do is feel that pain. So, you keep abusing yourself, in whatever way, drink, drugs, putting yourself in certain situations, like I did.
I would put myself into dangerous situations because I wanted to keep being abused or abusing myself so I would never have to feel it because it was too enormous. The enormity of it was too much – unlike someone who is suffering from PTSD from a one-time event – they can talk about it. If you were mugged or robbed or attacked physically, you can tell people. But, with sexual violence, you can’t. So that compounds it and you have all these extra symptoms because you cannot talk about it.
Once I understood that, I could understand that it was not my fault. In the end I understood completely why I carried on abusing myself. I wanted to relay that to other people because it took so long for me to understand it.
Ygerne: You mentioned victim blaming and how that made it so much harder for you.
Suzzan: Exactly! You don’t get victim blamed if you are mugged. They don’t say, you shouldn’t have worn that jewellery or you shouldn’t have carried money with you. Nobody says that.
But, if you are raped, especially young girls, around 14 and upwards, it’s what was she wearing? How much was she drinking? And they don’t ask such questions to elderly ladies who are raped.
There’s so much victim blaming of young women and it compounds the recovery. That’s another reason you don’t want to talk about it because people are really cruel. In my book I talk about the many times that I suffered victim blaming. This is something we need to address; we need to address this because it is only young girls and women who are targeted, nobody else.
Ygerne: It’s re-traumatising all over again and it comes from this hatred for women, doesn’t it?
Suzzan: Absolutely. Misogyny plays a large part in all of this.
Ygerne: OK, so we’ve had a question that came through from the audience. She says: are you married to a man and if so, how were you able to trust him or anyone? How were you able to move past the hatred of people?
Suzzan: I never wanted to have a relationship when I was a young woman. I never trusted anybody. How could I? So, I would just go out with someone and you know, whatever. I never wanted to get close to anybody or have anyone close to me.
And I never wanted children, either. I’ve been asked quite a few times by people whether it was because I was worried I would abuse them. And I would say no it wasn’t that. It was because I didn’t want to bring them into this evil world.
But I met my children’s father and I found myself getting close to him and I didn’t want to. I don’t think I’ve ever really trusted him and I had good reason not to. We ended up going through hell.
I even went to the women’s hospital because, like I said before, I thought I was mentally ill. At that time I didn’t know that I had been abused. People find that hard to believe, but I thought I was just a looney. That’s what I thought. That I was a looney who took drugs, drank, and had a good time and hated the world. I thought I was mental. We went through quite a difficult period.
I was on the pill from when I was 13 years old, and I went to the doctor because I had severe migraines. He told me to come off the pill and as soon as I did, I got pregnant, which was a big shock. And that’s a whole other story – of how an abused person feels when they have a child.
We did divorce years later. And I’ve only had one relationship since then. I haven’t had one now since 2017. I’d rather just not.
It not just relationships that I find hard, it’s friendships, it’s work colleagues. Because, being abused affects every aspect of your life. Say something comes up in a work situation – for example, Mother’s Day and you’re asked about your mother. I would often say that she’s dead. She’s not, but I would say she was. I couldn’t talk about her because I stopped seeing her when I was in my early 30’s and I’ve never seen her since and I don’t want to see her.
So, it’s things like that, things that come up all the time. It’s very difficult. So, I would rather be alone, I’d rather just write and go for walks and just be by myself these days, with my cat, I love my cat. And, of course, I’ve got my two beautiful grownup children and a granddaughter. And I’m happy with that, but it’s been very difficult to trust. It’s hard to trust people.
Ygerne: That’s understandable.
Suzzan: It is, because I’ve even been abused by doctors – when I was in my early 20s. I went to a place for help to get into work. One of the lecturers started abusing me there and I went to the on-site doctor and he closed the blinds and started abusing me too. So, all my life, up to a certain point – after having children and counselling, everything changed. But, before I had children, I was constantly, constantly abused.
And as I said, you just detach.
I didn’t know I had an inkling about being abused when I was in my mid to late 20s. Having my daughter was the catalyst to my recovery because I understood at that moment when she was born what it should be… How the protection and love that you have for a child, for a baby, for your baby, was so intense and everything kind of changed from that moment.
Ygerne: That’s a moment of hope.
Suzzan: Oh, absolutely. But it was so hard because even when I had children I had so many difficult times and even when I was in therapy. When I was 33, I’d had my second child, my son and suddenly social workers got involved because they knew I was in therapy for my own abuse and I had a lot of abuse from them. It just went on and on. It was absolutely awful, never ending.
Ygerne: It was the blaming again, wasn’t it?
Suzzan: Instant victim blaming, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know things have improved, but they’re not good enough, especially when it comes to young women.
Ygerne: There’s definitely a long way to go. We have to keep fighting.
Suzzan: We do, absolutely. And all of us can impart the knowledge and understanding to younger women that I didn’t get, and that’s why I do what I do.
Ygerne: Thank you Suzzan. Thank you so much, it’s been amazing to have you.
Suzzan: You’re welcome. And thank you to everybody who watched. I wouldn’t say it’s been fun, but this stuff needs to be out there and women, especially younger women, need to understand more from us older ones.
If you want to see more of Suzzan’s paintings, you can go onto her art website.
She has also written a book about her life called ‘The Rebirth of Suzzan Blac’ which is available on Amazon.
The second part of Suzzan’s talk, which is about her research into pornography, is available here.
In a ten-week long campaign RadicalGirlsss will go through the myths surrounding pornography, trying to uncover the reality behind the glamour. We’ll be hosting a series of webinars, post reality-checks and foster discussion to understand the operation of this multi-million dollar industry.
Have you ever wondered what really goes on in the world of extreme abuse porn?
Meet Theodosia, an ex-porn performer who spent years doing bondage, domination, submission and masochism (BDSM) porn. After surviving childhood abuse, the trauma she endured fed into violent and abusive romantic relationships, and eventually to a boyfriend introducing her to the world of violent pornography. She came to learn that the women who could endure a lot of pain on camera were valued in the BDSM porn world, and she was taught that her primary talent was suffering well.
One day, after years of being abused on camera, Theodosia realized she could no longer stomach the world she was thrown into. See how Theodosia got her start in BDSM porn, and why she eventually left the industry on her own terms.
Fight the New Drug is a non-religious and non-legislative organization that exists to provide individuals the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding pornography by raising awareness on its harmful effects using only science, facts, and personal accounts.
To learn more about how pornography impacts individuals, relationships, and society, visit http://ftnd.org/. This video was made possible by Fighter Club. To help us create more content like this, consider joining Fighter Club at http://ftnd.org/fc.
Three French feminist organisations – Osez le Féminisme!, Le Mouvement du Nid, and Les Effronté.es – are delighted that following their campaigning, the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office has decided to open a preliminary investigation against the company “Jacquie et Michel” for aggravated pimping and rape.
In the face of the flood of testimonies, this trial will be, thanks to the mobilisation of all of us and the courage of the women who are speaking out, a trial against the criminal system that is the “pornographic industry”, an opportunity to hear the survivors of this extreme male violence, and a chance to denounce and put an end to the impunity of pornocrats.
Alongside the victims, we want to support their heroic courage in speaking up and demanding justice. We want to offer them legal and psychological support, constant support at their side. Our associations are also considering becoming civil parties to weigh in on the trial alongside the victims.
To do this, we need resources: Based on 15 victims, we have evaluated a funding requirement of 81 KE (legal support phase 1 = 22%, legal support phase 2 = 55%, psychological support = 7%, transport and hotel costs = 3%, bailiff costs = 11%).
You can support this campaign by:
Financially support the victims by making a donation through the HelloAsso platform (link)
Supporting our desire to raise awareness and mobilise public opinion by relaying our visuals on social networks (to be found here and here).
Pornography: An Alibi for Hatred, Torture and Organised Crime
Pornography has no legally binding definition. However, this term hides a long list of violent and abusive acts which are severely punishable under criminal codes and by international conventions: torture, rape, abuse of vulnerability, pimping, human trafficking, incitement to sexist and racist hatred, sexist and racist insults… Words can be powerful, they can provide impunity for criminals.
All over the world, lawsuits and trials are multiplying and survivors are speaking out. In France, in September, a preliminary investigation against the pornography site “Jacquie and Michel” for rape and pimping was opened by the Paris Public Prosecutor’s Office. In October, four French pornographers were indicted for rape, pimping and human trafficking.
What is now referred to as the “porn industry”, with billions of dollars in profits worldwide (219,985 videos are viewed every minute on Pornhub), actually conceals large-scale criminal networks of pimping and human trafficking. The methods used by the porn video production industry are sophisticated and identical to those used by human trafficking networks: grooming, trust-building, submission through rape, exploitation, coercion, and reversal of guilt. It is based on the age-old and misogynistic myth of a woman as a sexual object who is eager for self-destruction.
The filming of sexual acts under economic and psychological coercion, sexual assault and rape, even acts of torture and barbarism are the daily reality of the pornocriminal system. It traps vulnerable women and forces them, in spite of their clearly expressed refusal or by surprise oftentimes, to participate in scenes of sodomy, double penetration, gang rapes, beatings, slapping, choking, suffocation, urination, facial ejaculation in packs… This abuse, rape and torture, leaves women with physical sequelae (anal or vaginal tearing, infection…) as well as serious psycho-traumatic scarring. A picture of a criminal system causing unparalleled violence emerges. This picture is so different from the one the people, who have an interest in making us believe that exploited women have “inordinate sexual appetites”, want us to have.
Only complacency can lead one to believe that a film shoot with extreme acts of violence, can provide something other than physical and psychological pain to the women subjected to it.
The impact of pornography is not limited to the women subjected to violence during the filming, but is imposed on society as a whole.
Pornography glorifies misogyny, racist and lesbophobic hatred and intolerance, resentment towards the poor, paedocriminality, humiliation and dehumanisation of women and girls. In two clicks you can find racist, paedocriminal and misogynistic titles such as “black teen gets fucked by white man” or “submissive slutty schoolgirl”.
Pornography conveys the idea that sexuality is inseparable from brutality. It legitimises violence against girls and women since it is based on sex essentialism: the notion that women are different by nature therefore they need to be degraded in order to experience pleasure. This is the same notion found in rape apology discourse. Thus, pornography caters to the patriarchal ideology that men should dominate women in society. Spanking, choking, corrective rapes… Pornography portrays women who “stay in their place”, subjected to the power of men. It glorifies male domination since it is inspired by, and perpetuate, violence against women.
The systematic imposition of these recurrent and ubiquitous images reduces the sexual imagination of individuals, as the studies cited by feminist sociologist Gail Dines in Pornland show. Thus, whereas sexuality should be a continuum of experience and learning, pornography leads to a dehumanisation of women that is found at all levels of society. Under the guise of freedom, “porn” is in fact the assertion of male sexual privilege, and the possibility for some to take advantage of women’s vulnerability in order to make a fortune.
Like racism, the glorification of hatred and humiliation of human beings -especially women- is illegal. Torture, barbaric acts, rape are criminal acts. The European Convention on Human Rights places the onus on member states to effectively combat all attacks on human dignity. The impunity enjoyed to date by the “porn” criminal networks is clearly a violation of international law!
Recovering from sexual assault takes time, and the healing process can be painful. But you can regain your sense of control, rebuild your self-worth, and learn to heal.
The aftermath of rape and sexual trauma
Sexual violence is shockingly common in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped or sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, often by someone they know and trust. In some Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries, that figure is even higher. And sexual assault isn’t limited to women; many men and boys suffer rape and sexual trauma each year.
Regardless of age or gender, the impact of sexual violence goes far beyond any physical injuries. The trauma of being raped or sexually assaulted can be shattering, leaving you feeling scared, ashamed, and alone or plagued by nightmares, flashbacks, and other unpleasant memories. The world doesn’t feel like a safe place anymore. You no longer trust others. You don’t even trust yourself. You may question your judgment, your self-worth, and even your sanity. You may blame yourself for what happened or believe that you’re “dirty” or “damaged goods.” Relationships feel dangerous, intimacy impossible. And on top of that, like many rape survivors, you may struggle with PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma. Your feelings of helplessness, shame, defectiveness, and self-blame are symptoms, not reality. No matter how difficult it may seem, with these tips and techniques, you can come to terms with what happened, regain your sense of safety and trust, and learn to heal and move on with your life.
Myths and facts about rape and sexual assault
Dispelling the toxic, victim-blaming myths about sexual violence can help you start the healing process.
Myths and facts about rape and sexual assault
Myth: You can spot a rapist by the way he looks or acts.
Fact: There’s no surefire way to identify a rapist. Many appear completely normal, friendly, charming, and non-threatening.
Myth: If you didn’t fight back, you must not have thought it was that bad.
Fact: During a sexual assault, it’s extremely common to freeze. Your brain and body shuts down in shock, making it difficult to move, speak, or think.
Myth: People who are raped “ask for it” by the way they dress or act.
Fact: Rape is a crime of opportunity. Studies show that rapists choose victims based on their vulnerability, not on how sexy they appear or how flirtatious they are.
Myth: Date rape is often a misunderstanding.
Fact: Date rapists often defend themselves by claiming the assault was a drunken mistake or miscommunication. But research shows that the vast majority of date rapists are repeat offenders. These men target vulnerable people and often ply them with alcohol in order to rape them.
Myth: It’s not rape if you’ve had sex with the person before.
Fact: Just because you’ve previously consented to sex with someone doesn’t give them perpetual rights to your body. If your spouse, boyfriend, or lover forces sex against your will, it’s rape.
Recovering from rape or sexual trauma step 1: Open up about what happened to you
It can be extraordinarily difficult to admit that you were raped or sexually assaulted. There’s a stigma attached. It can make you feel dirty and weak. You may also be afraid of how others will react. Will they judge you? Look at you differently? It seems easier to downplay what happened or keep it a secret. But when you stay silent, you deny yourself help and reinforce your victimhood.
Reach out to someone you trust. It’s common to think that if you don’t talk about your rape, it didn’t really happen. But you can’t heal when you’re avoiding the truth. And hiding only adds to feelings of shame. As scary as it is to open up, it will set you free. However, it’s important to be selective about who you tell, especially at first. Your best bet is someone who will be supportive, empathetic, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline.
Challenge your sense of helplessness and isolation. Trauma leaves you feeling powerless and vulnerable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have strengths and coping skills that can get you through tough times. One of the best ways to reclaim your sense of power is by helping others: volunteer your time, give blood, reach out to a friend in need, or donate to your favorite charity.
Consider joining a support group for other rape or sexual abuse survivors. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone. They also provide invaluable information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, look for an online group.
Step 2: Cope with feelings of guilt and shame
Even if you intellectually understand that you’re not to blame for the rape or sexual attack, you may still struggle with a sense of guilt or shame. These feelings can surface immediately following the assault or arise years after the attack. But as you acknowledge the truth of what happened, it will be easier to fully accept that you are not responsible. You did not bring the assault on yourself and you have nothing to be ashamed about.
Feelings of guilt and shame often stem from misconceptions such as:
You didn’t stop the assault from happening. After the fact, it’s easy to second guess what you did or didn’t do. But when you’re in the midst of an assault, your brain and body are in shock. You can’t think clearly. Many people say they feel “frozen.” Don’t judge yourself for this natural reaction to trauma. You did the best you could under extreme circumstances. If you could have stopped the assault, you would have.
You trusted someone you “shouldn’t” have. One of the most difficult things to deal with following an assault by someone you know is the violation of trust. It’s natural to start questioning yourself and wondering if you missed warning signs. Just remember that your attacker is the only one to blame. Don’t beat yourself up for assuming that your attacker was a decent human being. Your attacker is the one who should feel guilty and ashamed, not you.
You were drunk or not cautious enough. Regardless of the circumstances, the only one who is responsible for the assault is the perpetrator. You did not ask for it or deserve what happened to you. Assign responsibility where it belongs: on the rapist.
Step 3: Prepare for flashbacks and upsetting memories
When you go through something stressful, your body temporarily goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. When the threat has passed, your body calms down. But traumatic experiences such as rape can cause your nervous system to become stuck in a state of high alert. You’re hypersensitive to the smallest of stimuli. This is the case for many rape survivors.
Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive memories are extremely common, especially in the first few months following the assault. If your nervous system remains “stuck” in the long-term and you develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can last much longer.
To reduce the stress of flashbacks and upsetting memories:
Try to anticipate and prepare for triggers. Common triggers include anniversary dates; people or places associated with the rape; and certain sights, sounds, or smells. If you are aware of what triggers may cause an upsetting reaction, you’ll be in a better position to understand what’s happening and take steps to calm down.
Pay attention to your body’s danger signals. Your body and emotions give you clues when you’re starting to feel stressed and unsafe. These clues include feeling tense, holding your breath, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, hot flashes, dizziness, and nausea.
Take immediate steps to self-soothe. When you notice any of the above symptoms, it’s important to quickly act to calm yourself down before they spiral out of control. One of the quickest and most effective ways to calm anxiety and panic is to slow down your breathing.
Soothe panic with this simple breathing exercise
Sit or stand comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
Take a slow breath in through your nose, counting to four. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
Exhale through your mouth to a count of eight, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
Inhale again, repeating the cycle until you feel relaxed and centered.
Tips for dealing with flashbacks
It’s not always possible to prevent flashbacks. But if you find yourself losing touch with the present and feeling like the sexual assault is happening all over again, there are actions you can take.
Accept and reassure yourself that this is a flashback, not reality. The traumatic event is over and you survived. Here’s a simple script that can help: “I am feeling [panicked, frightened, overwhelmed, etc.] because I am remembering the rape/sexual assault, but as I look around I can see that the assault isn’t happening right now and I’m not actually in danger.”
Ground yourself in the present. Grounding techniques can help you direct your attention away from the flashback and back to your present environment. For example, try tapping or touching your arms or describing your actual environment and what you see when you look around—name the place where you are, the current date, and three things you see when you look around.
Step 4: Reconnect to your body and feelings
Since your nervous system is in a hypersensitive state following a rape or assault, you may start trying to numb yourself or avoid any associations with the trauma. But you can’t selectively numb your feelings. When you shut down the unpleasant sensations, you also shut down your self-awareness and capacity for joy. You end up disconnected both emotionally and physically—existing, but not fully living.
Signs that you’re avoiding and numbing in unhelpful ways:
Feeling physically shut down. You don’t feel bodily sensations like you used to (you might even have trouble differentiating between pleasure and pain).
Feeling separate from your body or surroundings (you may feel like you’re watching yourself or the situation you’re in, rather than participating in it).
Having trouble concentrating and remembering things.
Using stimulants, risky activities, or physical pain to feel alive and counteract the empty feeling inside of you.
Compulsively using drugs or alcohol.
Escaping through fantasies, daydreams, or excessive TV, video games, etc.
Feeling detached from the world, the people in your life, and the activities you used to enjoy.
To recover after rape, you need to reconnect to your body and feelings
It’s frightening to get back in touch with your body and feelings following a sexual trauma. In many ways, rape makes your body the enemy, something that’s been violated and contaminated—something you may hate or want to ignore. It’s also scary to face the intense feelings associated with the assault. But while the process of reconnecting may feel threatening, it’s not actually dangerous. Feelings, while powerful, are not reality. They won’t hurt you or drive you insane. The true danger to your physical and mental health comes from avoiding them.
Once you’re back in touch with your body and feelings, you will feel more safe, confident, and powerful. You can achieve this through the following techniques:
Rhythmic movement. Rhythm can be very healing. It helps us relax and regain a sense of control over our bodies. Anything that combines rhythm and movement will work: dancing, drumming, marching. You can even incorporate it into your walking or running routine by concentrating on the back and forth movements of your arms and legs.
Mindfulness meditation. You can practice mindfulness meditation anywhere, even while you are walking or eating. Simply focus on what you’re feeling in the present movement—including any bodily sensations and emotions. The goal is to observe without judgement.
Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong.These activities combine body awareness with relaxing, focused movement and can help relieve symptoms of PTSD and trauma.
Massage. After rape, you may feel uncomfortable with human touch. But touching and being touched is an important way we give and receive affection and comfort. You can begin to reopen yourself to human contact through massage therapy.
A powerful program for reconnecting to your feelings and physical sensations
HelpGuide’s free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can help you recover after rape by reconnecting you to uncomfortable or frightening emotions without becoming overwhelmed. You can use the toolkit in conjunction with therapy, or on its own. Over time, it can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress, balance your moods and emotions, and take back control of your life.
Step 5: Stay connected
It’s common to feel isolated and disconnected from others following a sexual assault. You may feel tempted to withdraw from social activities and your loved ones. But it’s important to stay connected to life and the people who care about you. Support from other people is vital to your recovery. But remember that support doesn’t mean that you always have to talk about or dwell on what happened. Having fun and laughing with people who care about you can be equally healing.
Participate in social activities, even if you don’t feel like it. Do “normal” things with other people, things that have nothing to do with the sexual trauma.
Reconnect with old friends. If you’ve retreated from relationships that were once important to you, make the effort to reconnect.
Make new friends. If you live alone or far from family and friends, try to reach out and make new friends. Take a class or join a club to meet people with similar interests, connect to an alumni association, or reach out to neighbors or work colleagues.
Step 6: Nurture yourself
Healing from sexual trauma is a gradual, ongoing process. It doesn’t happen overnight, nor do the memories of the trauma ever disappear completely. This can make life seem difficult at times. But there are many steps you can take to cope with the residual symptoms and reduce your anxiety and fear.
Take time to rest and restore your body’s balance. That means taking a break when you’re tired and avoiding the temptation to lose yourself by throwing yourself into activities. Avoid doing anything compulsively, including working. If you’re having trouble relaxing and letting down your guard, you may benefit from relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.
Be smart about media consumption. Avoid watching any program that could trigger bad memories or flashbacks. This includes obvious things such as news reports about sexual violence and sexually explicit TV shows and movies. But you may also want to temporarily avoid anything that’s over-stimulating, including social media.
Take care of yourself physically. It’s always important to eat right, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep—but even more so when you’re healing from trauma. Exercise in particular can soothe your traumatized nervous system, relieve stress, and help you feel more powerful and in control of your body.
Avoid alcohol and drugs. Avoid the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Substance use worsens many symptoms of trauma, including emotional numbing, social isolation, anger, and depression. It also interferes with treatment and can contribute to problems at home and in your relationships.
How to help someone recover from rape or sexual trauma
When a spouse, partner, sibling, or other loved one has been raped or sexually assaulted, it can generate painful emotions and take a heavy toll on your relationship. You may feel angry and frustrated, be desperate for your relationship to return to how it was before the assault, or even want to retaliate against your loved one’s attacker. But it’s your patience, understanding, and support that your loved one needs now, not more displays of aggression or violence.
Let your loved one know that you still love them and reassure them that the assault was not their fault. Nothing they did or didn’t do could make them culpable in any way.
Allow your loved one to open up at their own pace. Some victims of sexual assault find it very difficult to talk about what happened, others may need to talk about the assault over and over again. This can make you feel alternately frustrated or uncomfortable. But don’t try to force your loved one to open up or urge them to stop rehashing the past. Instead, let them know that you’re there to listen whenever they want to talk. If hearing about your loved one’s assault brings you discomfort, talking to another person can help put things in perspective.
Encourage your loved one to seek help, but don’t pressurize. Following the trauma of a rape or sexual assault, many people feel totally disempowered. You can help your loved one to regain a sense of control by not pushing or cajoling. Encourage them to reach out for help, but let them make the final decision. Take cues from your loved one as to how you can best provide support.
Show empathy and caution about physical intimacy. It’s common for someone who’s been sexually assaulted to shy away from physical touch, but at the same time it’s important they don’t feel those closest to them are emotionally withdrawing or that they’ve somehow been “tarnished” by the attack. As well as expressing affection verbally, seek permission to hold or touch your loved one. In the case of a spouse or sexual partner, understand that your loved one will likely need time to regain a sense of control over their life and body before desiring sexual intimacy.
Take care of yourself. The more calm, relaxed, and focused you are, the better you’ll be able to help your loved one. Manage your own stress and reach out to others for support.
Be patient. Healing from the trauma of rape or sexual assault takes time. Flashbacks, nightmares, debilitating fear, and other symptom of PTSD can persist long after any physical injuries have healed. To learn more, read Helping Someone with PTSD.
Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A. and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.