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Lena, one of my dear clients, who is quite heavy, was riding the subway on the Red Line near Harvard Square. Lena (not her real name) is a very bright woman, funny as all heck, with sardonic humor. She has huge brown eyes, long brown hair, a tattoo or two, and a Seattle grunge kind of look. Out of nowhere, a young man, a total stranger, approached her and said, “I just have to come up to tell you how absolutely disgusting looking you are.”
Lena wept as she told me this story, a few days afterwards. Trust me, Lena will remember this verbal assault as long as she lives. And to make things worse, unless I can help her thoroughly process and heal what happened to her that day, there is a danger that the shame and the fear that she felt in that moment might be stored in her body, affecting her ability to enjoy herself when she is being sexual with someone she loves and who actually loves her.
For millions of women with Lena's experience or worse — sexual molestation or rape — Donald Trump’s election stirs up painful feelings or actual traumatic memories. What does it mean for them when a man on record describing women using words like "bimbo" or "dog" or "slob" and boasting about grabbing women's genitals is rewarded with the highest office in the land? What does it mean that tens of millions of American voters backed such a man? If you've experienced sexual aggression, what does that mean about how people see your experience?
It is almost impossible to be a young woman in American society and not be the target of hostility and objectification. When I was in my early 20s, walking on the street in the early morning (fully dressed, mind you), a man working on trucks in a garage put down his wrench, ran up to me, and said, “I’m going to f--- you 'til your eyes pop out of your head.”
From my many years of clinical experience, I can assure you that women never forget the horrible things that are said to them about their looks, whether said by strangers on the street or by acquaintances.
Research on adolescent women shows that those whose breasts develop early are likelier to become depressed, most likely because of the unwanted, sexualized attention they draw from teenage boys and grown men. Sadly, these comments are internalized, and healthy breasts are sometimes experienced as a source of shame, not pleasure.
Trump's verbal record and electoral success seem to give new permission to men to verbally accost women. It doesn’t much matter whether what is said is harshly critical, like that man’s comments to Lena, or "appreciative," like Trump’s comment that his daughter "has the best body." The damage is done.
At worst, Trump's comments about women can re-surface rape trauma. I have friends and patients who have PTSD from rapes that happened 40 years ago; his language and the attitude it expresses are terrifying to them. I expect that as president, Trump may tone down the disrespectful way he talks about women. But unfortunately, for some of us, it’s not possible to un-hear something we have already heard.
So what is to be done now?
First, on treatment: Thank goodness that, in the last several decades, psychologists have developed new techniques that can help people process old trauma that interferes with their current lives. Feelings of danger and fear, or self-objectification or self-loathing that occurred long ago, can be reprocessed using new techniques like EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Trauma therapists like to say, “the issues are in the tissues.”
In my work, I have patients draw BodyMaps to show how they feel about being touched all over their body by someone they love. I do this with men and women. You would be surprised to know how often women indicate body shame and discomfort caused not by overt incest, molestation or rape, but instead by things that have been said to them by strangers on the street. (Psychologists call incidents like this “microaggressions,” but to my mind, there is nothing “micro” about them.)
More broadly, those of us who have had damaging experiences of objectification, molestation or rape should not be silenced by this election. We need to use the Trump presidency as a motivator.
Women have the power to heal each other in some astounding, creative ways. My cousin Zoe wrote a brilliant memoir that has touched many lives, revealing her childhood molestation at the hands of our cousin.
Just this last Saturday, I was privileged to be in the audience at MIT for a magical event, presented by Cambridge-based Incest Resources. It sponsored Donna Jenson acting in her one-woman play about incest, "What She Knows." Jenson is 70 years old, and as a child, she was repeatedly molested by her alcoholic father. (This is the most difficult of all kinds of sexual trauma to triumph over: ongoing betrayal by the very person who is supposed to love and protect you, with no support from the non-offending parent.)
It was clear to everyone in the audience — full of survivors, young and old, a very diverse crowd — that Jenson had taken back her health, her sexuality and her ability to be in a relationship. Jenson talked about the different things she had done to heal herself, including multiple trauma psychotherapies, numerous ongoing deep female friendships, therapy groups and belonging to a writers' group.
There was a "talk back" part of the event, where the audience shared how moved and inspired they were by Jenson's life story and her triumph. Most of the audience was in tears.
So one way to triumph over sexual trauma exacerbated by this election is to speak our truth, and do the internal work to take back our sense of agency over our bodies, no matter how "imperfect and not-a-10" our shape, color or size, no matter what demeaning words were said about us, and no matter what was done to us.
Another, critically important piece of our fight is to educate boys and men. Objectifying words are not the same as rape or incest, but they contribute to what many of us call rape culture. At the very least, we need to explain that these words, these actions, can leave far deeper and more lasting damage than many men would ever imagine.
I think we all should unearth and discuss our recent and past memories of hostile catcalls and verbal sexual violence. It is not fun to recall these memories, I know. It hurts terribly. But unless we speak up and unearth these ugly memories, and talk about the damage they have wrought, we could be incubating a whole new generation of boys and men who think it is fine or funny to talk about women and women's bodies as Donald Trump has.
Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D., is a psychologist and certified sex therapist in Lexington. Her website is www.SexSmart.com.
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