Sexual Oppression and Assault Survivors: you're not broken, the system is

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

It was the summer of 2005 and I found myself in a closet, masturbating to literotica from Barnes & Noble, tears streaming down the pages onto my genitals. At that time I was surviving an abusive marriage, a member of a christian cult, told on a daily basis that my sexual self was bad or broken. I dreamed to know pleasure free from harm.

15 years later, I'm a multiple sexual assault survivor, and a complex trauma survivor now working as a certified sex therapist. Every day I sit in spaces with survivors, sex workers, and others who exist on the fringe of sexual expression - who are paralyzed, terrified and ostracized. They see the leaders of their country, who assaulted multiple people, evade prosecution or any accountability. They see rollbacks in legislative progress, making it even more unsafe to exist in the world as a survivor and/or a marginalized person. They see an unwavering persistence in preserving a cultural framework where sex exists in a tiny box, one which they will never fit in. They are fed daily doses of SHAME instead of healing; SEXUAL OPPRESSION instead of belonging.

So what is shame? Many of us are familiar with this definition from Brene Brown. Shame is an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” But this definition can actually perpetuate the shame because it doesn't include the SOURCE or CONTEXT in which the shame arises, thus furthering the self blame survivors already struggle with. We want to offer a new definition:

Shame is the experience of an external threat to identity becoming an internal belief (the presence of judgement, stigma or ostracization resulting in trauma/attachment injury). When we see shame through a trauma lens we can more easily identify the sources of the trauma: the cultural framework and the individuals who perpetuate it.

Our culture is consumed by SEXUAL SHAME, which operates as the primary tool for perpetuating systemic sexual oppression and disconnecting you from your sexual power. Oppression is an act of dehumanization, a strategy for othering in order to cause harm. These forces are particularly more harmful for folks with other intersecting marginalized identities, such as: Black, Indigenous, Asian, People of Color, transgender and gender expansive folks, sex workers, people with disabilities and poor folks. And yet no one is talking about it. Even after many years of feminism and sexual assault activism, the common narratives for survivors continue to persist:

Something is wrong with me because I don't climax since my assault.

My rape was my fault and I don't deserve pleasure. I shouldn't have been there, been wearing that, been exploring casual sex, been trying to be a sexual being at all.

I can't go to the police, the hospital or a therapist because no one believes me.

My perpetrator took my power and there's nothing I can do to get it back.

I can't find a partner because my body is bad and broken and it's my fault.

I don't belong because I was born in a body and gender that doesn't fit who I am, and others just continue to take advantage of me and harm me because of that.

I don't have the space to be creative in sex, be kinky, non-monogamous or even just have hobbies because I'm just working on surviving and being in my body every day.

Why are we still in this place? Didn't #metoo help?

These narratives don't emerge organically within survivors, they are examples of internalized OPPRESSION, from a system that is incredibly broken.

Sexual assault survivors are one of the primary groups affected by sexual oppression, and the least empowered to change the systems. Empowering survivors would mean dismantling systems which seek to control and manage sexual identity and behavior; primarily that of marginalized populations (ie: women, LGBTQIAP+ folks, sex workers, sluts, Black folks, Indigenous folks, Asian folks and other People of Color who are also disproportionately more often assaulted). Every single one of us can play a role in tackling the shame- to allow folks to navigate sexual expression and healing trauma in effective ways. Here's a breakdown of the interplay between shame and oppression:

Shifting our cultural framework for survivors of sexual assault requires we shift our framework around SEX and SHAME. It means naming the powers which benefit from the oppression, and challenging the systems and lies which keep us compliant. Oppression and Problematic Frameworks show up in a million ways in our cultural relationship with sex. Here are a few examples:

  • Lack of comprehensive sex education at every life stage makes it hard for folks to get accurate information about their bodies and well-being.

  • Legislative involvement and control of reproductive health, access to all forms of birth control, STI testing, and pregnancy alternatives.

  • Large scale discomfort in discussing sexuality; specifically sexual trauma, boundaries, needs, pleasure and arousal patterns, impacting every relationship and family.

  • Mainstream media's sexualized content: idealized bodies and expressions perpetuate shame for those outside the norms and those who engage in sex work.

  • Political/ societal pathology of sex as the problem deflects from the real mental health/ family/ cultural concerns (including an emphasis on sex trafficking, sex addiction and porn addiction). Herein we see the religious views of sexual "sins" as worse than other offenses play out on a larger scale.

  • Reactivity to underreported or ignored child sexual abuse from the pre-1980’s era fuels more panic and paranoia around childhood sexual abuse now, including escalating the fear of sex trafficking and inflation of numbers related to severity.

  • There's a substantial lack of quality sexual abuse treatment and interventions that include families in the change process, including reintegrating healthy sexuality in the family

  • Economic pressures drive sex related industries underground, with less oversight and motivation to improve practices. Sex work continues to be prohibited and criminalized, resulting in more harm to those in the industry who struggle to create support networks, get access to mental health and medical care, and safe working conditions.

  • Religious view of sex are integrated into public policy, favoring heterosexual, monogamous, married white families for access to tax breaks, health care, and social support. In this context sex is something sacred to be protected, or in contrast something scary, taking place in dark corners, to be hidden, avoided or fought against. This impacts dating, partnering, and our response to diverse sexual expression and identities.

  • At every level of systems/ structures there is a privileging of monogamy, fidelity, finding your one true love; herein limiting expression and access to diverse ways of being in relationship and the value of non-romantic, non-sexual networks.

  • Political/ societal pathology of sex as the problem deflects from the real mental health/ family/ cultural concerns (including an emphasis on sex trafficking, sex addiction and porn addiction). Herein we see the religious views of sexual "sins" as worse than other offenses play out on a larger scale.

  • Poor treatment of sex offenders and those with sexual concerns; ineffective treatment which prevents re-integration, and lacks support for the underlying factors impacting the out of control behavior. Treatment includes conversion therapy, anti- LGBT, anti- BDSM/ fetish, or abstinence- only approaches to change. This leaves no space for sexual diversity.

  • FOSTA/SESTA and the new earn it bill seek to sensor and control online platforms under the guise of preventing sex trafficking, while causing harm to sex workers and threatening free speech as a result of sex shame.

These patterns of sexual shame play out in every layer of the sexual violence continuum, further exacerbating the reach of these layers of harm.

Our social structures have PATHOLOGIZED and SHAMED sex, deflecting from the trauma, disguising the oppressive systems, and the forces which seek to control and manage your sex. When we don't acknowledge the systems that impact the problematic behavior (ie: the systems in which rapists, pedophiles, and sexually stigmatizing families and communities emerge), we perpetuate the harm. The cultural obsession with sex trafficking is a great example of how this plays out as of late. Organizations like Save our Children and Operation Underground Railroad currently gross millions annually, as they profit from the fear mongering and shame. Meanwhile, sexual assault organizations struggle to stay afloat.

When you look at the actual numbers, the number of sexual assault survivors are consistently way more than those of trafficking survivors (and that's just those who reported their assaults, we know many never report it). So why is the funding and attention to sexual assault so much more limited in comparison?

When you look at the global numbers, the US is in the top 15, in terms of rates of assault (again it's likely higher due to problems with reporting). We are culturally obsessed with the sex trafficking "problem" but talk very little about assault. This is yet another tool of sexual oppression. Here's how it works:

  • Organizations doing this work, usually christian in origin, often focus efforts outside of America where there is less legal jurisdiction or oversight, they don't include local translators, organizations or cultural ambassadors to ensure they aren't causing harm. It's then also a missionary tool for many of the organizations, which means more donations and funding from their followers.

  • A focus on trafficking allows for distancing from sexual violence in America (CSA, familial/ partner assault, rape culture, often happening in families and churches) and from the obligation to change behaviors and sexual relationships at home.

  • Blaming the internet (in the form of censorship, attacking porn and sex work, focusing on trafficking) allows the perpetuation of shame and moralism; and again avoids the need to make changes within their families and communities.

As a result of the focus on trafficking, further oppression is occurring:

  • The digital oversight efforts harm other folks while limiting free expression, and policing sexuality on the whole.

  • Trafficking is also conflated with adult, voluntary sex work so much so that it's harder and more dangerous for sex work to happen- shutting down safer networks for building community, finding clients and seeking support. 

  • The technological and legal forces seeking to regulate trafficking also impact sex therapists, educators and coaches who are seeking to reduce sexual violence and harm through education- ads are rejected and content is taken down out of fear of repercussions.

  • Anti-trafficking organizations and legislation often forget to center the survivor, or provide long term trauma informed care.

  • Additionally, the trafficking propaganda is often a distraction from BLM, or other social justice movements which challenge the systems.

To be clear, we are not disagreeing that trafficking is a problem. But it's current use as a political pawn in a game of oppression is the bigger problem. We can all contribute to shifting our current cultural climate around sex and shame, in order for us to make this a safer country and world for every human; especially those who've survived sexual assault and seek to find access to their sexual power again.

While I am no longer hiding in closets to masturbate, I still regularly experience trauma activation around sex and pleasure. Healing the impact of sexual trauma is a life's work, and so is fighting the shame and stigma which perpetuates sexual oppression. Let's tackle it together. Here's a few action items, based on who you are:


  • Know your power- No matter what has happened to you, you are still whole and capable of healing and reigniting your light.

  • Find community- We have some great support group options, trainings and offerings, and there are amazing resources online for survivors seeking community. You're not alone, your experience is valid and seen.

  • Heal your trauma- Get professional support from someone who can hold space for your complex identities, and do the work. We recommend a combination of mindfulness, somatic work, and re-narration.

  • Spend some time in sexual exploration with yourself, be your first and best lover so that you can learn your wants and needs, boundaries and activation patterns.

  • Practice being big, being all of you, as much as possible- and seeking folks who celebrate that.

  • Get help to leave abusive partnerships, communities and families- you are worthy of safety, love and belonging just as you are.


  • Read the earn it bill details and call your local officials. Ask that it be voted no. Pay attention to the ways in which legal and policing systems handle sexuality related issues, and notice where the shame and oppression patterns emerge.

  • Seek to make spaces for sexual equity in your communities, in the same way that you have done so for racial equity.

  • Consider your political values around sexual topics (ie: sex work, abortion, marriage restrictions). Do these align with your views on oppression of humans in general?

  • Explore and familiarize yourself with local resources for sex and gender diverse folks. Have these ready to share when you meet folks who are struggling.

  • Stand against oppression in small ways and big. Questions to ask yourself:

Do I expect others to be like me and have the same values around sex and gender?

Do I treat them differently if they don't? Do I create space for those of differing

beliefs and identities to thrive in my life/ community/ work etc? What identities do I

struggle to engage with and support? (ie: sex workers, trans folks, gender non

conforming folks, queer folks, non-monogamous or kinky folks)

  • Read books that expand the ideas you have about sex and gender, normative beliefs, and what is "best" for us culturally. A few I recommend include:

Sex Outside the Lines (Chris Donahue), What Love Is And What It Could Be (Carrier

Jenkins), Pleasure Activism (Adrienne Maree Brown), The Body Is Not An Apology

(Sonya Renee Taylor).


Statistics References:

NOTE: " Previously, offense data for forcible rape were collected under the legacy UCR definition: the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Beginning with the 2013 data year, the term “forcible” was removed from the offense title, and the definition was changed. The revised UCR definition of rape is: penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. Attempts or assaults to commit rape are also included in the statistics presented here; however, statutory rape and incest are excluded."

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