Being Toward Trauma: Theorizing Post-Violence Sexuality
Mahaliah A. Little
Rape is a part of my sexuality because it has made up what’s happened to me. Rape is an act of violence that can or cannot shape the way you see your own sexuality for the rest of your life. And for me it has. What happened to me, happened before I was a sexual being. I had no frame of reference except rape.
—“Matilda,” Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (Pierce-Baker 2000, 114)
The prefix “post” has a contested intellectual life. Insidious declarations that we live in a post-racial or post-feminist society have inspired significant rebuke in Black studies, gender studies, and other fields in the past two decades. Nearly consistent among its myriad uses is the notion that "post” names an “after,” somehow distinct from the “before” on which it intervenes. In the U.S., assertions that something terrible has ended and something better has emerged are inextricably bound to notions of progress. Skepticism toward discretely defined beginnings and endings raises more profound questions about how we talk and think about traumatic, defining, and pivotal events. Is this thing over? Or do we wish it was? “Post” becomes a conceptual shield, obscuring the reality of continued suffering, discrimination, pain, and abuse by denying that it is, in fact, still happening. Widespread deployments of “post” represent our nation’s obsessive turn away from trauma. Staking temporal claims is risky business.
By mid-2021, the phrase “post-COVID” began gaining popularity among national news outlets, inviting public criticism and satire from those of us wary of “post” and its common deflections. While the pandemic rages on, how exactly are we “post-COVID?” In the context of the U.S., specifically, how is our national obsession with moving past hardship toward progress—nebulously defined and vague as that progress may be—manifesting in our government’s response to the pandemic? In person and online, I have seen people ask variations of the same question: “Is the “post” in “post-COVID” like the “post” in “post-colonial?” This question is shorthand for more complex ones: Are we choosing, again, to mislabel circuits of power and structures of inequality that have shifted in name only? Are we agreeing to create ideological distance from this pandemic as we have other world-shaping phenomena, even as it remains a very present threat? Pandemic fallout has exacerbated poor health outcomes experienced by marginalized people in vulnerable demographics, highlighted our nation’s open contempt for the poor, and steepened widespread socioeconomic and labor disparities that existed long before epidemiologists first identified and labeled COVID-19. Mocking the “post” in those phrases is easy because their social ramifications are non-linear, reverberating across eras and through time. They do not fit neatly into a before/after trajectory.
This tension around “post” and its uses, between the “before times,” the “new normal,” and the ongoing trauma of the pandemic, is a lens through which we can interrogate other temporal investments around trauma—discourse about sexual violence and rape, for example.
Black Women’s Post-Violence Sexuality
The “post” in post-violence sexuality represents a chronological marker of difference, but not a conceptual one of distance. It is a capacious analytic, a means to account for the disruptive, distorting, and reconfiguring effects of sexual violence on future expressions of sexuality. If the way we popularly discuss trauma relies on the belief that one can and should transform from a dejected victim into a triumphant survivor, making post-violence sexuality legible requires exploring alternatives to the imagined linear trajectory between ‘pre’ and ‘post,’ victim and survivor (Koyama 2011). Grappling with post-violence sexuality and its infinite manifestations necessitates breaking with conventional mandates to distance oneself from trauma as evidence of recovery or healing. Post-violence sexuality is sticky with what Ariane Cruz might label “slime”: “a staining sludge of pain and violence” that could become “a type of lubricant to stimulate sexual fantasies...and access sexual pleasure” (Cruz 2015, 410). Literary representations of post-violence sexuality like the epigraph that opens this essay describe fluctuating proximity to sexual trauma, rather than a journey away from it. Matilda’s reflections create space for the complex and sometimes contradictory dynamism of sexuality shaped by trauma rather than pathologizing it.
When theorizing representations of Black women’s post-violence sexuality, and accounting for racialized and gendered specificity, the boundary between “before” and “after” becomes even more porous. Sexual violence is as much “an interiorized violation of body and mind” (Spillers 1987, 68) as it is a social issue, when as many as six out of every ten Black women report having experienced some form of coercive sexual contact by age 18 (Black Women’s Blueprint 2016). The confluence of historical stigma, stereotype, and sexual and reproductive expropriation that contribute to Black women’s continued vulnerability to sexual violence requires a thematic approach to assessing trauma. Black women know “...that the fabric of our lives is stitched with violence and with hatred, that there is no rest...violence weaves through the daily tissue of our living” (Lorde 1984, 119). Characterizing antiblackness as adaptive and ubiquitous, Christina Sharpe analyzes it through the metaphor of the weather, concluding that “the weather is the totality of our environments; the weather is the total climate and that climate is anti-Black” (Sharpe 2016, 103). She captures the sheer scope of anti-Black ideologies and their global proliferation with a metaphor that collapses temporalities, abandoning periodization for an analysis of cycles, proximity to harm, and patterns: “It is not the specifics of any one event or set of events that are endlessly repeatable and repeated, but the totality of the environments in which we struggle; the machines in which we live” (Sharpe 2016, 103). Lorde and Sharpe’s weather address the everydayness of anti-Black, gendered, and sexual trauma. They remind us that living with trauma, negotiating with its place in our sexual lives, is the unremarkable stuff of day-to-day living.
Matilda, a Black woman who was raped by a home intruder when she was only ten years old, explains that “what happened to her happened before she was a sexual being” and “she had no frame of reference except rape” (Pierce-Baker 2000, 114). She “claims the monstrosity”—not of a “female with the power to name,” as Spillers once wrote, but of another source of misplaced shame (Spillers 1987, 68). Describing rape as an experience that may very well be intractable in its staying power, Matilda implicitly reflects on the fears associated with being permanently affected by sexual trauma or being labeled as “damaged goods.” She embodies sexual trauma, naming it as integral to her sexual subjectivity. By acknowledging an ongoing reconfiguration of her sexual self, Matilda claims the monstrosity from which linear notions of recovery would demand she distance herself. She embraces the decisive impact of this act of sexual violence, “letting” it define her, relating to it, and negotiating with it. She describes the traumatic event she experienced as remaining with her, complicating its temporal reach. Matilda does not approach her sexuality shaped by this foundational experience of trauma as a weakness, an obstacle yet to be overcome, or something to be forgotten and fixed. Her reflections pose questions of possibility: What if the ultimate ideological struggle in the aftermath of sexual trauma was not choosing to identify as a “victim” or a “survivor,” or choosing to “let” a traumatic event define you? What if, instead, the focus shifted to reckoning explicitly this uninvited shift in self-conceptualization? To confronting the infinite ways in which sexual violence “can or cannot shape the way you see your own sexuality for the rest of your life?” (Pierce-Baker 2000, 114).
These questions gesture toward a more capacious theorization of Black women’s identity and sexual subjectivity in the aftermath of sexual violence—their post-violence sexuality. Imagining Black women’s sexual subjectivity after rape is more than a theoretical exercise when the threat of sexual violence is omnipresent and timeless. When Black women are included in popular discussions of life after sexual violence, what generative tensions escape us when reproductions of familiar “redemption after rape” tropes prevail? Even culturally competent self-help resources about sexual violence often rely on heteronormative scripts for social legitimacy by promoting monogamous relationships, marriage, or disparaging experimental eroticism or promiscuity. Grappling with the aftereffects of sexual violence as a spectrum of possibility is the work of imagining and theorizing comprehensive post-violence sexuality.
Black women’s inability to rely on social institutions for support or redress for sexual violence has increased the importance of individual paths to emotional recovery and healing. This trend toward self-empowerment, self-care, and self-help is not a uniquely Black or American phenomenon, as popular conceptualizations of both victimhood and survivorship have become increasingly polarized. However, Black women’s relationships with these post-violence identities are especially fraught. Black women have advocated for their innate right to bodily autonomy, offering evidence of their vulnerability to sexual violence despite being met with inaction, disinterest, or punishment by social and governmental institutions. Surviving and survival maintain a comparable cultural significance to Black people and Black women, often symbolizing the mental, physical, and emotional toll of weathering anti-Black, gendered discrimination. Flattened views of racialized victimhood can rob Black women of their sexual autonomy, just as expectations of Black women’s resilience can rob them of a full range of human frailty. Black women’s negotiations of their post-violence sexuality lie somewhere between one-dimensional caricatures of passive victims and triumphant survivors. Black women’s sexual pleasure after sexual trauma demands that we recognize its multitudes and reject it as permissible or attainable only under specific circumstances.
Emi Koyama, a trans feminist activist and harm reduction advocate, theorizes the victim-to-survivor trajectory and related transformational trauma discourse as heteronormative, neoliberal, and capitalistic. Koyama asserts that victimhood is stigmatized because “society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our previous positions in heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements” (Koyama 2001). The “compulsory hopefulness and optimism of the “trauma recovery industry” frames traumatic events as interruptions to ‘normal life’ and is successful in marketing guidebooks and step-by-step guides for returning to romanticized normalcy (Koyama 2001). However, given the pervasiveness of sexual violence in the United States, Black women’s continued disproportionate vulnerability, and the fundamental role that Black women’s sexual and reproductive expropriation played in our nation’s ideological and economic establishment, what is normalcy? Refusing the neat periodization that the victim-to-survivor-trajectory evokes, Koyama explains that:
Our common understanding of trauma...is that it is exceptional and disruptive rather than the norm. But when life is a constant stream of difficulties, as it often is for children and adults in abusive long-term relationships, and for people who face multiple layers of oppression such as racism, poverty, homophobia/transphobia, and ableism, trauma becomes the norm. Society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term, as exemplified by the for-profit health insurance system that limits counseling to a certain number of sessions, if any. Even within survivor advocacy, we often hear about the linear progression from being a dreadful “victim” to empowered “survivor” as the idealized path toward healing (Koyama 2013).
Koyama’s analysis of ongoing exposure to potentially traumatic factors and life events calls attention to how many self-help resources, among other resources written for and about people who have experienced sexual violence, embrace opposing constructions of victimhood and survivorship at the peril of readers for whom categories like “before” and “after,” “pre” and “post,” hold little material significance. Persistent victimization resulting from systemic oppression is often rendered illegible within popular trauma recovery discourse. Embracing negativity and refusing to disavow weakness, complacency, or passivity as coping strategies after the experience of sexual trauma, as Koyama explains, transgresses neoliberal and capitalistic logic of efficiency and personal responsibility that compulsory survivorship mandates. When popular rhetoric recasts external victimization as an individual’s refusal to be productive and choose happiness, the State and other social institutions absolve themselves of the expectation to mitigate ongoing harm done to individuals or communities. Koyama reminds us that “the world cannot be made just by simply changing” our minds, and that feminist activists and advocates can amplify that truth by “resisting the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse of the trauma recovery industry that imposes compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the service of neoliberal capitalist production” (Koyama 2011).
To sit with trauma and claim the monstrosity is to reckon with the waves of impact that sexual violence can exert across superficial temporal boundaries like “before” and “after.” This reckoning disrupts the linear narrative of progress and healing after trauma. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay reflects on the tension between polarized options for post-violence identity, explaining: “It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred” (Gay 2017, 20-1). Gay’s reflections, like Matilda’s quote, refuse to conflate moving on with forgetting. These Black women’s claims are poignant in their respective refusal to perform triumph, to provide socially acceptable evidence of their healing through declarations that they ‘choose’ to be victorious over their trauma and deny it any power. After all, they did not choose any part of this: the violence, the trauma, its aftermath, or how it has irreversibly altered their lives.
Sexual trauma is unwieldy and infinite in its manifestations, and the Black women in this essay claim something monstrous by testifying to its reconfiguring effects. They turn towards this great shame, toward stagnation, and away from linear trajectories of trauma recovery. Varied expressions of post-violence sexuality problematize Black women’s relationship to victimhood and survivorship as polarized identities, blurring temporalities and refusing easy resolution.
 For example, in her 2005 memoir Confessions of a Video Vixen, Karrine Steffans groups her experiences with sexual and intimate partner violence with a tumultuous life of dating celebrity actors and musicians. Confessions repackaged Steffans’s life story into a cautionary tale and celebrated her transformation from a wayward youth and victim of abuse to a wife and mother, even though her marriage described in Confessions was also abusive. Motherhood ultimately emerges as the redemptive path through which Steffans could transform from a victim into a self-actualized survivor. Black women that contributed to Charlotte Pierce Baker’s and Tricia Rose’s respective anthologies Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape (2001) and Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy (2004) under pseudonyms frequently described a new or renewed commitment to religion or entering into heterosexual monogamous relationships or marriages as modes through which they felt redeemed after experiencing sexual violence. In contrast, when several respondents described behaviors that made them feel caught in cycles of “victim behavior,” they often cited having casual sex with multiple partners or being detached from the Black Christian church or religion more generally. Similarly, mainstream literature written for people who have experienced sexual violence can inadvertently reinforce redemption narratives after rape by denouncing sexual kinks, enjoying pornography, or sexual promiscuity as evidence that healing after rape has not been fully realized. For relevant examples, see Atkinson, Matt. Resurrection After Rape: A Guide to Transforming from Victim to Survivor. Oklahoma City, OK: RAR Publishing, 2008; Maltz, Wendy. The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. New York, NY: William Morrow, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, 2001, 2012.
 For relevant examples, see Williams, Terrie. Black Pain: Real Talk for When There’s Nowhere to Go but Up. New York, NY: Scribner, A Division of Simon & Schuster, 2008. Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth. Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1997.
 See Atkinson, Matt. Resurrection After Rape: A Guide to Transforming from Victim to Survivor. Oklahoma City, OK: RAR Publishing, 2016; Factora-Borchers, Lisa, ed. Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2014; Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000; Koyama, Emi. “Reclaiming “Victim”: Exploring Alternatives to the Heteronormative Victim to Survivor Discourse.” Online Blog Post. Eminism: Putting the Emi Back in Feminism Since 1975. Los Angeles, CA: Emi Koyama. 22 November 2011; McKinnon, Marjorie. Repair Your Life: A Program for Recovery from Incest Childhood Sexual Abuse, 2nd Edition. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press, 2008, 2016; Robinson, Lori S. I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2002; Rose, Tricia. Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy. New York, NY: Picador, An Imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003; Sehgal, P. “The Forced Heroism of the 'Survivor'.” The New York Times, 3 May 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-forced-heroism-of-the-survivor.html; and Stone, Robin D. No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse. New York, NY: Broadway Books, An Imprint of Random House, 2004.
Atkinson, Matt. 2016. Resurrection After Rape: A Guide to Transforming from Victim to Survivor. Oklahoma City: RAR Publishing.
Black Women’s Blueprint. 2016. “First Findings,” The Black Women’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. New York: Black Women’s Blueprint Press.
Cruz, Ariane. 2015. “Beyond Black and Blue: BDSM, Internet Pornography, and Black Female Sexuality.” Feminist Studies vol. 41, no. 2: 409-436.
Factora-Borchers, Lisa, ed. 2014. Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence. Oakland: AK Press.
Gay, Roxanne. 2017. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. New York: Harper.
Koyama, Emi. “Reclaiming ‘Victim’: Exploring Alternatives to the Heteronormative ‘Victim to Survivor’ Discourse”. Eminism.org. November 22, 2001. https://eminism.org/blog/entry/291.
------“The Uses of Negativity: Survival and Coping Strategies for Those of Us Who Are Exasperated by the Empty Promise of ‘It’ Getting ‘Better.’ Eminism.org. October 26, 2013. https://eminism.org/blog/entry/404.
Lorde, Audre. 1984. “Age, Race, Class, & Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 114-123. Berkeley: Crossing Press.
McKinnon, Marjorie. 2016. Repair Your Life: A Program for Recovery from Incest Childhood Sexual Abuse, 2nd Edition. Ann Arbor: Loving Healing Press.
Pierce-Baker, Charlotte. 2000. Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. New York: W.W. Norton.
Robinson, Lori S. 2002. I Will Survive: The African American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse. Emeryville: Seal Press.
Rose, Tricia. 2003. Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk About Sexuality and Intimacy. New York: Picador.
Sehgal, Parul. 2016. “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor.’” The New York Times, 3 May 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-forced-heroism-of-the-survivor.html.
Sharpe, Christina. 2016. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.
Spillers, Hortense J. 1987. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics: Culture and Countermemory: The “American” Connection 17, no. 2: 64-85.
Steffans, Karrine, and Karen Hunter. 2005. Confessions of a Video Vixen. New York: Amistad.
Stone, Robin D. 2004. No Secrets, No Lies: How Black Families Can Heal from Sexual Abuse. New York: Broadway Books.
Williams, Terrie. 2008. Black Pain: Real Talk for When There’s Nowhere to Go but Up. New York: Scribner.
Wyatt, Gail Elizabeth. 1997. Stolen Women: Reclaiming Our Sexuality, Taking Back Our Lives. New York: John Wiley & Sons.