My Body Keeps Your Secrets: Survivors Of Sexual Assault Carry Shame Alone

Photo by Anna Jay.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events, including sexual assault, which some readers might find upsetting.
My Body Keeps Your Secrets: Dispatches on Shame and Reclamation by Lucia Osborne-Crowley is published on September 2nd 2021
When I was a child, I was sexually abused by a mentor. When I was a teenager, I was raped at knife-point. But I did not whisper a word of either crime until I was twenty-six. I kept them secret not because I wanted to but because I did not know how to express them – I simply did not know how to make myself understood to those around me. I didn’t have the words, or even the concepts, to understand my own life.
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I kept these secrets because I knew that these were things society didn’t want me to talk about. I thought that keeping this secret would make me safer, but I was wrong. I now know that secrets are deadly.
Years and years of keeping secrets made me unable to determine, even for myself, which parts of the world were real and which were not. Which were to be trusted and which to be regarded with suspicion. 
I spoke up about my abuse in 2018, soon after the current iteration of the #MeToo movement took hold. After I disclosed what had happened to me, everything changed. I got therapy. I started seeing doctors who could help my body recover from the wounds it had been nursing in secret for ten years.
Detractors often say that speaking up can’t change anything, but it can.
Ever since I disclosed my abuse, I have been searching for a way to understand how much this disclosure helped me. In the age of #MeToo, it is easy to be skeptical about the power of disclosure alone to change the world -- especially as these disclosures come at a personal cost and open us up to yet more shame

We are creating a new set of shared concepts, a new shared consciousness, every time we speak up about trauma and every time we fight back against shame. 

This got me thinking about why speaking up can be so healing, and why the #MeToo movement based on individual testimonies has so profoundly changed the world. The answer, I discovered, lies in the concept of shame, and particularly in what I call “structural shame.”
Here’s what I’ve learned about shame. Most importantly, shame is not the same as guilt. In the words of social scientist Brene Brown: guilt says, I made a mistake. Shame says, I am a mistake.
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Guilt is an inward-looking emotion that tells us we have transgressed our own boundaries about what is right and wrong. But shame is the opposite – it’s the feeling that we have transgressed society’s standards about what is right and wrong, and more often than not these standards are built on structural prejudice.
For women and people of all marginalised genders, society’s standards dictate that we do not make ourselves visible to the world in a way that could invite violence or abuse. That we do not speak about our pain and that we do not draw attention to ourselves.
All those years that I kept my secrets, I did it because I had learned from the structures that hold up our society that what happened to me was my fault, and that I should be ashamed.
Structural shame is dangerous because too often, when our sense of shame is informed by systemic prejudice. Survivors of assault and abuse are actually asked to keep other peoples’ secrets. My attacker was the one who should be ashamed of what he did – but because of the way our society views gender-based violence, I had to keep that secret on his behalf.
But when the #MeToo movement exploded, the structural shame that had kept me quiet started to crack. Speaking up about the things we are supposed to be ashamed of is inherently healing because shame can only survive in silence.
What I’ve learned from years of reporting on shame is that for so many of us, it is a concept around which so much of our lives revolves but about which we have very little understanding. I’m on a mission to change that.
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I decided to test my theory by interviewing women and people of marginalised genders from around the world about their experiences of their bodies, and the same message kept being beamed back to me: the body is where we store our shame. The body metabolises the things we are taught not to talk about.
John Bradshaw, a psychiatrist and the author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, says that those of us who are cloaked in shame learn how to project a “false self” to the world – one that either perfectly complies with society’s expectations of us, or one that retreats from society altogether. The false self can take the form of our faces filtered through Instagram, our lives projected as being busy and important, our relationships being perfect. 
The false self, Bradshaw writes, can be as divergent as the "super-achieving perfectionist or the addict in the alley."
I’ve recently come across emerging philosophical literature that supports my theory about shame, too. 
Philosopher Miranda Fricker, who specialises in the field of epistemology – that is, how we know what we know, and how knowledge is shared in society – describes in her new book Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing two new and exciting concepts in the study of knowledge. 
The first is the idea of testimonial injustice. This refers to the way in which our society collectively attributes a lower level of credibility to some peoples’ knowledge compared to others, and as a result attributes lower levels of meaning to their experiences. 
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Testimonial injustice is something women and people of marginalised genders grow up with – it’s the knowledge that if we speak about certain things, we will not be believed.
#MeToo fundamentally shifted the way testimonial injustice is meted out in our society. The sheer volume of stories of abuse and harassment posed an existential threat to one of our most fundamental ideas about testimonial injustice: that women are not particularly credible witnesses to their own lives.
But Fricker’s second concept is even more important. She writes about what she terms hermeneutical injustice: structural prejudices that arise as a result of marginalised communities’ lived experiences being excluded from our society’s shared concepts and shared understanding of the world.
Shared concepts are how we interpret the world and understand each other. We have shared concepts about capitalism, hierarchy, work, parenting, and all facets of life.

Guilt is an inward-looking emotion that tells us we have transgressed our own boundaries about what is right and wrong. But shame is the opposite – it’s the feeling that we have transgressed society’s standards.

But until recently, the trauma and shame that results from sexual abuse or harassment was not included in our dictionary of shared concepts. We did not have a working, collective understanding of the ubiquity and danger of sexual violation, and so those who were subject to it were forced to keep quiet because they knew they would not be understood if they spoke. 
Hermeneutical injustice fuels shame by convincing us that our lived experiences are less valid than others’. Feelings of shame that attach to these experiences then makes us even more likely to keep our traumas hidden, which leads to more hermeneutical injustice.
The combined concepts of structural shame and hermeneutical injustice can, to my mind, help explain why the #MeToo movement changed the world. It explains why all the people I interviewed for my book had stories to tell about secrets they felt condemned to keep. It explains why all of those people also said afterwards that speaking them aloud in our interviews helped to create new fissures in the wall of shame. 
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We are creating a new set of shared concepts, a new shared consciousness, every time we speak up about trauma and every time we fight back against shame. 
In my new book, My Body Keeps Your Secrets, I interviewed 100 women, trans and non-binary people about shame and language to see if I could replicate this theory, and it worked. Lacking access to shared concepts leads to needless suffering, and creating and reinforcing those concepts is the antidote.
When I started this book, I thought I was writing about personal stories. And I was, but I was also writing about something much bigger. What came out of my reporting is the story of countless systems of structural oppression, each of which enact their worst consequences on the body we are forced to keep, the body we have to continue living in through every nightmare.
What came out was a story of structural shame, a scourge for which the blame is conveniently spread among the amorphous group, dispelled as responsibility spreads but for which the costs are felt in one body, felt sharply by each individual heart. The perpetrators are numbered in the billions—every person who upholds prejudiced structures of shame—but the most severe effects of experiencing a sexual assault are carried alone.
When we see this clearly, we can ask ourselves: what does that do to a person? To a life? To each pound of flesh?
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.

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