Keeping Yourself Safe While in an Abusive Relationship

Link to Everyday Feminism: 3 Ways to Keep Yourself Safe When You're Not Ready to Leave Your Abusive Partner"

Link to Everyday Feminism: “3 Ways to Keep Yourself Safe When You’re Not Ready to Leave Your Abusive Partner”

You already have too many false messages saying you can’t make your own choices – from your partner’s force, coercion, or manipulation to resources that tell you that your only option is to leave your relationship now. So here’s a reminder that you have you have the wisdom to make your own choices.

This is about keeping yourself safe, not taking on being responsible for stopping the abuse or getting your abuser to change – that’s not your obligation.

As Carmen Rios wrote in her article on why survivors stay, “Leaving and staying aren’t the factors that cause abusive behavior; abusive behavior causes abusive behavior.” Give yourself credit for everything you’ve done to survive so far, and use that incredibly adaptive power of yours to build yourself more options for much-deserved self-care (Maisha Z. Johnson, linked above).

Related posts:

Why People Stay In – and Return to – Abusive Relationships

9 Domestic Violence Safety Tips

A Letter to Women in Abusive Relationships

Leaving an Abuser: “The Most Dangerous Week”

Can An Abuser Change for Good?

Domestic Violence: an Exit Plan

Popping the Virginity Myth

I was sitting with a group of teenage girls. We had been discussing the dynamics of sexual violence with a Myths vs Facts activity.

Myth or Fact: men rape out of biological need. [MYTH]

Myth or Fact: most women can get out of being raped if they fight back hard enough. [MYTH]

Myth or Fact: Not all victims of rape are female and not all perpetrators are male. [FACT]

You get the idea.

During a session the week prior, we had talked about consent, abstinence, safe sex and contraception, STDs, and boundaries so the girls did a great job discerning between what was a myth and what was a fact.

So I asked them one more question.

Myth or Fact: if a man rapes a girl who has never had sex before, she is still a virgin.

The room erupted. Everyone had a very animated answer and explanation for why they thought the statement was true or false. A couple of girls rightly argued that, because rape is a forced sexual encounter and entirely unwanted, it cannot take a girl’s virginity.

Then there was the more popular answer:

“Her cherry popped; she’s not a virgin!”

The statement I gave them is a fact, by the way. Virginity is something you give, not something that can be taken. Rape does not change a victim’s worth or sexuality in any way. But first, the anatomy lesson.

My mother told me that, before marrying my dad, her gynecologist had said something along the lines of, “I can tell by looking at your hymen that you’re a virgin”. And she was. So I grew up believing that there was this mysterious thing inside of me, stretched across my vagina like a silicone lid, that one day would break and bleed and then be gone forever, along with my virginity. Virginity and hymen were equivalent. A girl had to bleed on her wedding night to prove her virginity. She had to be in pain. Her hymen had to be intact when she walked down the aisle and a bloody mess later that night.

My purity depended on keeping that mystical hymen 100% intact. And, as I’ve written about before, I genuinely believed that my worth as a woman relied on maintaining my virginity until my wedding night.  To lose my hymen, my virginity, too soon was to lose my value as a human being.

I was almost 25 before I learned that everything I knew about the hymen was wrong. Or, to quote my forensic nurse friend, “absolute BS”.

Once I found out that my understanding of the hymen was wrong (although extremely common…so much so that health care professionals misunderstand it), I actually started reading about how my body works. I looked at those scary diagrams that were forbidden in my conservative Christian high school. I talked to my friends, nurses I work closely with, and asked questions. And I learned so much.

For instance, did you know there’s something called the os in a woman’s body? It sounds like Oz, the Wizard of. But it’s actually just the external opening of a woman’s cervix and is visible during a vaginal exam (usually, when a speculum is inserted). I had one for 25 years before I even knew it existed.

The hymen, according to legend, covers the opening of the vagina and breaks after the first time a girl’s vagina is penetrated. There are a lot of problems with this understanding of the vagina. For starters, not all females are born with a hymen.

But how does all that menstrual blood escape if my vagina is closed off by a membrane? And how are virgins able to get a tampon up there?

The word “hymen” in its original Greek form meant simply “membrane”. Bodily membranes come in different shapes and sizes and have different functions but generally speaking, a membrane is simply a pliable lining of some kind. And that’s all the hymen is: it is a very elastic lining that forms part of the vulva (external) and acts as the entrance to the vagina (internal). It’s a tissue that encircles the opening but does not completely cover or block the vagina [technically that is possible but it is extremely rare and not at all the norm]. It doesn’t really serve much of a purpose except as a floppy little rim cover, like those furry things people put on their steering wheels (bad example but hopefully you get the idea). In other words, it has nothing to do with virginity.

The hymen does change as a girl matures. It’s appearance is altered slightly as a woman ages; specifically, it gets sort of thin and saggy with old age, just like most other body parts. Some women have a larger hymen than others. Much like the labia or clitoris, the hymen comes in different shapes, sizes and shades. But it is not the sentinel guarding a girl’s virginity. It never goes away completely (although it might thin out at different stages of life). It remains intact, even after having sex, although it can be injured during sex or during a rape. But those injuries typically heal extremely fast because the vagina is so vascular. Let me say it again, it has absolutely nothing to do with virginity.

“So why do girls bleed during sex?” those teenagers asked me.

Any part of the vulva and/or vagina can be injured during sex or an assault. Something might be nicked by a finger nail or torn by too much friction. Blood is an indicator that something – often the hymen but not always – has been injured. A little bit of blood and maybe some mild discomfort the first few times you have sex is okay. But as a general rule, if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong. Especially if it’s your first time or you’re having sex again after a long time of abstinence, it’s best to take things slow and easy. Your partner ought to respect that (if they don’t, that’s not okay). It’s very possible for a virgin to experience sex for the first time and neither bleed nor experience pain. Just learn how your body works! Understand what it’s doing before, during, and after sex! It’s a lot easier to figure out what’s going on with a guy because you can pretty much see it all happening but for women, it’s primarily internal. That doesn’t mean the vagina isn’t doing some pretty incredible things, though. Things start to lubricate, expand, change color, swell. It’s natural and normal and, for the sake of your sexual health, it’s important to know what’s normal and what’s not.

Learning more about my anatomy gave me a greater confidence in my body. I was once thoroughly disgusted and ashamed of my body, specifically my private area, because 1) I grew up as a teenager in conservative Christianity’s purity culture and 2) I didn’t really know how it all worked. Now I think, frankly, it’s pretty freakin’ amazing! There’s no reason to be ashamed of any part of me.

In summary, there is no “cherry” to pop. Nothing pops. In fact, if something does pop inside you during sex, get on the phone to your GYNO post haste. That’s not supposed to happen.

There are several reasons that the “pop the cherry” myth is dangerous but I’ll highlight just three.

  1. It’s anatomically inaccurate information.
  2. It perpetuates a shame-based sex education for teenage girls and bolsters the “conquest” mentality for boys (i.e. “I’m going to pop your cherry!”)
  3. It reinforces the shame of a rape victim who has never had sex before. If you were raped before you had sex – before you chose to have sex with someone of your own free will – you are not damaged goods. You are not broken. Your worth and value as a human being is no different than before. Your hymen, unless it is healing, is just like it was before the assault. It’s still intact, even after sex. And you are still a virgin until you make the choice to have sex [with another consenting person of a legal age].

Trauma and the Brain: Understanding Why a Victim’s Story Might Change

Link to the Huffington Post:

Link to the Huffington Post: “How Brain Science Can Help Explain Discrepancies in a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story”

At a recent conference about trauma and the brain’s response to it, Bonnie Martin – a licensed professional counselor who specializes in brain-based therapy, based in the Washington, D.C. area – made this statement regarding survivors of trauma, specifically survivors of abuse who suffer from mental illnesses:

There is nothing wrong with this person. There is something wrong with what happened to this person.

A large percentage of children and adults who have been victims of abuse and/or assault develop a mental illness [or more than one, e.g. depression, anxiety, personality disorders, paranoia, eating disorders, PTSD, etc.] Everyone copes with trauma differently and no one should be shamed for how they have chosen to cope and survive. However, one common theme in victims’ behavior is confusion or an inability to properly remember the events surrounding their assault(s). During the trauma, a victim will enter either “fight, flight, or freeze”. The brain’s activity changes as a way to protect itself. Later, remembering specific details or following a linear chronology as they tell their story can be very hard for many victims.

Because complex trauma and the brain is a fairly new study, the majority of people a victim will come into contact with do not have a proper education on how the brain is affected – in the moment and in the aftermath – by trauma.

A relatively new area of the literature on human response to trauma, particularly the trauma experienced during sexual violence, is that of “tonic immobility.” Defined as self-paralysis, or as the inability to move even when not forcibly restrained, tonic immobility has long been studied in non-human animals as the “freeze” response to extreme stress. Recently, it has been observed in the laboratory as a stress response in humans, as well. This finding explains the reaction of many victims of sexual violence, who report that they felt like they could not escape, even when no weapon was present.

Additionally, due to an entire cascade of hormonal changes, which includes oxytocin and opiates, associated with pain management, adrenaline, commonly associated with “fight or flight,” and cortisol, functional connectivity between different areas of the brain is affected. In particular, this situation affects pathways important for memory formation, which means that an individual can fail to correctly encode and store memories experienced during trauma. While an individual generally will remember the traumatic event itself (unless alcohol or drugs are present in the system), these memories will feel fragmented, and may take time to piece together in a way that makes narrative sense (Kathryn Gigler, source linked above).

It is not uncommon for family, friends, law enforcement, etc. to disbelieve a victim because their story has discrepancies or changes over time. It may appear to them that the victim is lying or merely seeking attention and cannot keep their story straight. In reality, to be simplistic, the brain is working to retrieve data that was potentially temporarily “lost” or suppressed during the trauma and, in the process of remembering and healing, that information will not be clear or linear. Inconsistencies are not lies but evidence that a traumatic experience has occurred.

Behavioral patterns in individuals who have experienced sexual violence mirror those seen in other traumatized populations, like combat veterans. This pattern of symptoms, known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can include emotional numbness, intrusive memories of the traumatic event, and hyperarousal (increased awareness of one’s surroundings, or constantly being “on guard”).

Research shows that the majority of individuals who experience sexual assault demonstrate at least some of these symptoms of PTSD immediately after the assault and through the two weeks following the assault. Nine months after the assault, 30 percent of individuals still reported this pattern of symptoms. Overall, it is estimated show that nearly one-third of all victims of sexual assault will develop PTSD at some point in their lives (Kathryn Gigler, source linked above).

There is nothing wrong with a victim of sexual or domestic abuse, of rape or sexual exploitation. What was done to them is what is truly wrong. Their reactions and behaviors – however confused or disjointed they may seem – are the body’s natural response to trauma.

For information related to trauma and children’s brain development, read The Amazing Brain.

For more information on PTSD and victimized behaviors:

Why Victims Don’t Report and Why Shaming Them is Detrimental 

The Role of Environment and Response in PTSD Recovery

Understanding the Behavior Common to Survivors of Sexual Abuse 

Understanding and Identifying Dissociation in Children and Adults

Understanding Post-Trauma Guilty and Shame

Effects of Abuse, various 

Stop Telling Young Girls “He’s Mean Because He Likes You”

Link to Babble:

Link to Babble: “We Should Never Tell Our Daughters ‘He’s Only Mean Because He Likes You'”

“Love equals kindness and respect, and it never, ever means touching someone in a way that will hurt them. When you tell your child that they were harmed because another person likes them, you’re connecting pain with love. That not only normalizes being abused, but also abusing others” (Joanna Schroeder, linked above).

Girls and boys need to understand that real love is never violent and that bullying is never excusable.

Consent-Ed as Sex-Ed: Actively Teaching Consent Before Adulthood

Link to Washington Post: "Why Are We Waiting Until College To Learn About Consent?"

Link to Washington Post: “Why Are We Waiting Until College To Learn About Consent?”

For resources related to teaching children about consent:

Teaching Kids About Consent, Ages 1-21

7 Reasons Why You Should Allow Young Children to Decide Who and When They Hug

Talking to Your Kids about Sexual Abuse

Leaving an Abuser: “The Most Dangerous Week”, by Safe Horizon

Also read: How to Stay Safe After Leaving an Abusive Relationship

For more information on Safe Horizon, click here.

If you are in the United States and need assistance, call their hotline at 1 800 621 4673.

7 Reasons Why You Should Allow Young Kids to Decide Who and When They Hug

Link to "Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug Anyone - Here Are 7 Reasons Why"

Link to “Your Child Should Never Be Forced to Hug Anyone – Here Are 7 Reasons Why”

There are lots of simple, practical ways you can teach your kids about consent – both giving and getting it. One example of this is allowing them the power to say “no” to adults if and when the child does not want to show affection in a physical way. It teaches the child that their words matter and that their body is theirs to control.