- Natasha J. Thomas, MD
Our Hiding Words: Euphemisms in Sexual Trauma Recovery
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
Words are packed with potential power. They have the ability to build or break – a spirit, a relationship, an opportunity, a healing. In my mind, and in my world, they definitely matter. And in recovery from sexual violence, I see them as the final frontier.
When we can speak the truth with the truth, only then can we be free. But when we can’t, we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve made more progress in recovery than we actually have. Being unable to name the violence that was enacted upon us is avoidance. Avoidance is a key psychological manifestation of trauma and PTSD. Unfortunately, in therapy, I see it done well.
So, what are the reasons for this phenomenon? What can counselors do to help? And what can survivors do to push through avoidance?
In general, people struggle to speak the truth. We are socialized that way. It is “not nice” to be blunt, upfront, or even honest in certain circles. People speak in euphemisms all the time. Some think it is just part of the social game. Unfortunately, though, our social game makes us hypocrites in our own eyes and handicaps our ability to speak and live our truths or advocate for ourselves.
Secrecy in sexual language contributes to the rampant incidents of sexual abuse of children, dysfunctional sexual behaviors and poor reproductive health. When we teach our children to call their genitals anything other than what they are, we are sending the message that one shouldn’t honestly speak about that part of the body, and that there is something inherently wrong with them. This is a perfect set up for abuse by sexual predators whose goal is to use secrecy and shame as a means of control and continued access to the child. A child instinctively knows their vagina is not a cookie or any other “cute” food name. So, when we use these terms and other anatomically incorrect words, we unwittingly insult their intelligence and integrity. We also hurt their chances of having healthy sexual relationships in adulthood. In my work as a sex therapist, I see women struggling with low sexual desire. Many times, they have in common one thing: their parents were never good at talking to them honestly about sexuality and their bodies. For survivors of sexual abuse, I see this phenomenon consistently.
Advice for Therapists
As a counselor, there are 2 steps you can take to promote authentic use of language in your therapy sessions. First, manage your own limitations. Let’s not kid ourselves. Counselors, therapists, psychiatrists – we’re just people. We all have our tender points and weaker areas. If you struggle either with your own history of trauma, sexual issue, or cringe inside when you hear physiological terms used to describe genitals – you need that to be resolved before you work with clients. Seek counseling if you need it. Make sure your countertransference is held squarely in check, always.
Once that’s covered, the second step is to give your client words. If a patient is in the mental space to talk about their trauma, give them the vocabulary to do so. If a client struggles to call their rape a rape, gently but consistently call it what it is. Let’s not allow our clients’ avoidance to lure us into the habit of minimizing their experience. Hiding behind euphemisms can reinforce feelings of insignificance in a survivor or make them think “it wasn’t that bad, I shouldn’t be upset about this, what’s wrong with me?”
Survivors who feel worthless are more likely to blame themselves for the molestation or rape and are at higher risk for repeat victimization. Their children are also at higher risk of sexual trauma because these people will struggle to know how to create appropriate boundaries for themselves and around their kids.
When you avoid thinking about the truth, are shrouded in shame, and can’t speak honestly to yourself, there is no way you can protect your children from the same exact kind of violence. You will think you were assaulted because of your own weaknesses, not because the person who offended against you is a predator. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard survivors admit they leave their children around the person who molested or raped them.
Honesty as Self-Respect
I once heard a scholar say, “Self-respect is the refusal to lie to oneself.” Survivors, to push through the scariness of speaking your truth, you will need support, practice and a growing sense of self-respect. Though this may sound odd, you should spend some time practicing saying the words, “I was raped” or “I was molested.” This is not to be dramatic or retraumatize yourself. This is about reclaiming your voice and your right to declare the depth of your experiences. It’s ok to say it to yourself in a mirror, write it down on a piece of paper that you either keep or discard, record and delete it on your phone, etc. The more comfortable you can be with just saying those words, the more likely you’ll be to speak openly in counseling. Try to avoid words that are ambiguous like, “attacked," “assaulted” or “violated.” If you feel you just can’t use these words yet, tell your therapist. Say, “I am struggling with using accurate language to describe my sexual trauma. Can you please help me?” Hopefully, in this case, they will gradually walk you toward using the right words. A therapist who is fearless in their ability to speak the truth with the truth is invaluable – they will help you to truly get free.
*Photos courtesy of Pexels contributors Its Me Neosiam, Derwin Edwards, and Bruce Mars.