Break the taboo: on sexual abuse, hypersexuality, and cultural stigma

Sexual assault, despite now being spoken about more, is still seen as a taboo topic, particularly within the South Asian community. To talk about assault is to first realise the behaviours encouraging and condoning this act of violation, but the conversation often ends before it can even begin…

Content warning: (child) sexual abuse, victim blaming

Silencing the crimes and the victims, not allowing trauma to be properly dealt with, usually leads to hypersexual behaviour, a side effect caused by abuse (whether it be in early childhood or later on) and often negated as being ‘promiscuous’ by the wider community. Integrative psychotherapist Antonella Zottola writes, “Survivors can become very conflicted after the event and can turn two ways; becoming hyper-sexual or suffering from sexual anorexia (avoidance)” (emphasis mine). ‘Promiscuity’ has long been synonymous with derogatory terms like ‘slut’ or ‘hoe’. In a culture that vilifies the victim and protects the perpetrator, it is easy to seek out the love or care not received elsewhere, to seek comfort in sex and drown grief through sex. 

Growing up in a Bangladeshi household, which was strict not only in its cultural traditions but also in adherence to religious commandments, sex was always seen as something to be ashamed of – a milestone to only be broached through marriage. I’d always been told that sex only came after marriage, otherwise, well, I’d be condemned to hellfire. It was ingrained in me. What I’d come to learn, though, was the ways in which sex could be used as a coping mechanism, an escape from my thoughts or a comfort when I wanted validation. 

From the time I was nine years old, I was sexually assaulted for two years by my cousin. 

It was a horrific thing. And it definitely affected me more than I ever realised. 

There were a few guys in and out of my life some years later. I used sex as a distraction, as validation, as a way to find some worth in myself, because I didn’t think I was ever enough as a person, or anything more than damaged goods. 

What did I have to offer, besides my body?  

Of course, society has now progressed a lot more and is all ‘sex-positive’, but there is a limit to that. Once you start seeing yourself as nothing more than just body parts to be touched, then you have to question whether being sex-positive has a positive impact, as it can be (depending on how you utilise it), or just as detrimental to your mental health and emotional wellbeing as the negative sex messages we’ve been hearing for years.  

The South Asian community is one that negatively portrays women who have been abused, its very foundation rooted in a patriarchal society making their women feel guilty for things that were not at all their fault. Many survivors are forced to remain quiet and lock away their trauma, as a way to protect the family name and izzat (honour/respect) from sharam (shame). This ideology is brought over with parents and grandparents in migrating from their home countries, and despite relocation being responsible for cultural change and difference in behaviour, “there is substantial evidence stating that the British Asian communities are still imitating and maintaining the religious and cultural values of the previous generations” (Gilligan & Akhtar 2005).

When I wanted to take my trauma to the next step of reporting, I was told to retract it as a way to protect the family reputation, and myself from being deemed as ‘touched’ or ‘impure’. This act tends to re-victimise survivors through victim blaming and shaming, whether intentionally or not, questioning whether it was their fault. Having been forced to keep this quiet, I felt for a while as if I’d done something wrong myself, even though I was a child and he was twice my age and a lot stronger. I thought maybe if I’d screamed or done something, I could’ve stopped it earlier. But the truth remains as this: it was never my fault, it was his. He knew what he was doing, and I was a child – even if I wasn’t, it still wouldn’t have been my fault. Perhaps this silenced trauma found a way to root itself inside me as I grew older, seeking out care from men. They ultimately became a source of comfort, a way to feel like I was wanted or desired, that I had control in who I chose and when I wanted this desire to unfold. 

Zottola writes that “[w]hen a survivor becomes hyper-sexual, many chose to further discredit and victim blame victims by suggesting they couldn’t have been abused or raped, and say hurtful comments like “they would be having trouble if it was really bad and they had been raped”, or they can be negatively labelled as promiscuous with derogatory terms aimed towards them.” One thing I want to point out is that engaging in sex following trauma is often a way of seeking comfort. 

Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of Psychreg, says, “Adult trauma survivors seek relief through validation; trauma can make one feel inadequate.” He goes on to explain that the root cause of hypersexuality can be linked to depression or anxiety. People battling an excessive preoccupation with sexual urges and behaviours seek comfort (or distraction) through sexual activities, which can be either through consensual sex or pornography. These forms of sexual activities are devoid of emotional aspects and function to relieve depression, anxiety, or tension. He told me that while there isn’t enough of a consensus on the exact causes of hypersexuality, a number of studies suggest a link to onset of sexual abuse. This is supported by a study called Age of Onset of Sexual Abuse: Relationship to Sexually Inappropriate Behaviours (Jon McClellan et al. 1996), where the results showed people first abused during early childhood had significantly higher rates of hypersexual and victimising sexual behaviours.

To gain further insight into the impact of trauma and the effects of hypersexuality, I spoke to Antonella personally. When asking how she would describe hypersexuality, Antonella said: “I would describe hypersexuality as a compulsion towards sex and sexual behaviours, and it can cause distress and negatively affect self-esteem, relationships, job, health or other parts of life. Hypersexuality is a way to grieve or make sense of the trauma in terms of sexual abuse and rape.”

SA: Is seeking male validation also a result of abuse? Why so?

AZ: It is not uncommon for survivors to come to believe that sex may be a way to meet other unmet needs we may have. Example, if a survivor was abused as a child, they may have learned that sex is a condition to receive love, attention or affection as their abuser(s) may have shown this only after or before abusing them.

SA: How does hypersexual behaviour affect future relationships, and what other way does sexual abuse manifest in behaviours and/or personality?

AZ: Trust issues, not being able to trust a partner, having difficulty with intimacy, it can cause infidelity but not because one wishes to hurt or harm their partner. It can manifest in being seen as a sexual object so survivors may sexually objectify themselves or others, and viewing pornography can cause issues with relationships. Sexual avoidance and aversion to sex. Being drawn to sex that may be degrading, violent or dehumanising. Affected ability to make good choices in terms of relationships and to establish and maintain them. Sexual dysfunctions can result, which can make having sex and sexual relationships challenging. An increased sense of isolation may occur, self-destructive behaviours, low self-esteem or self-worth, depression, anxiety, addictions, eating disorders, PTSD, CPTSD.

SA: What are the differences in men and women’s behaviour from sexual assault?

AZ: Many similarities are to be found, but some differences are to be had. Males have shame and find it hard to disclose because of toxic gender stereotypes that men cannot be victims and have to be strong and can never be vulnerable or can be hurt. Women are seen as liars and crying out rape, so this is challenging for them. Men have concerns and questions about sexual orientation as commonly men are the perpetrators on other men too, but the shame and stigma could mean men are less likely to report female perpetrators out of greater embarrassment and shame and fear of judgement. Women have shame if their bodies orgasmed and men if they experienced an erection or ejaculation.

Survivors fear disclosing because of judgement, victim blaming and fearing nobody will believe them. Children may be threatened into silence or fear they are breaking up their family. The justice system needs to stop failing victims of sexual abuse and rape and stop buying into the myths. Physiological responses are involuntary, meaning survivors have no control over them: it does not mean they enjoyed it, invited it, wanted it or deserved it. Rapists create opportunities to rape, not victims and rape isn’t sex but about power and control using sex as a weapon.

SA: What would you suggest to work through sexual abuse and hypersexuality, in order to heal?

AZ: For the survivor: self-love and self-compassion, work on challenging any shame and blame, realising it is not their fault, nothing they did caused the abuse, nobody asks to be abused. Self-care: knowing that it’s okay to feel the way they feel and that anger is a normal response and part of the healing process, to take their own time and go at their own pace with healing and not feel pressured or forced by others or themselves. Not to compare their healing or behaviours and reactions with other survivors as we all respond differently to trauma. Being able to have words and understanding sexual abuse to validate and be able to name their experience for healing. Sexual abuse comes in many forms and can be direct, indirect, physical, and nonphysical contact. Learning what is healthy sexuality as many unhealthy representations and messages in society and media. Identifying the impact and affects this has had on sexual self, self-concept, sexual behaviour and attitudes or beliefs. Always making sure to create new meaning for sex and moving forward toward healthy sexual behaviour. Exploring the issues behind behaviours, treating the trauma not the symptoms and exploring beliefs that sexual abuse might have left them with or given them about self, and sexual self and others. Giving the shame back to the perpetrator. For the therapist to aid healing: empathy, an understanding that hypersexuality and avoidance to sex are normal reactions to sexual trauma and not a defect or character flaw in a survivor. That this is a symptom brought on by the injury caused to one’s sexuality and a way for the victim to regain a sense of control and many other underlying issues depending on the individual and their personal experience. The therapist must not engage in myths around sexual violence and abuse and to be aware of these and be willing to challenge their own beliefs, become trauma informed.

The problems surrounding sexual abuse goes far deeper than the act itself, particularly within the Asian community. Us women are made to feel as if we are at fault for being assaulted because we weren’t wearing a dupatta, or were out after Maghrib prayer and the sun had long sunk into the horizon. This belief upheld by our elders continues to fuel the mindset passed down to many males in our generation, glorifying rape culture and further strengthening it. We’re blamed for being abused and then we’re shamed for how we cope with it. 

If the proper care, support, and prevention had been provided, nobody would need to seek out this attention elsewhere. I definitely wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t have needed to find validation in the bed of some man whose number I would delete a few days later, completely forgetting his existence, until every memory, every face would come rushing to the surface when I tried to navigate a new relationship and keep it from burning in a pyre of orange flames and volcanic eruptions. The South Asian community is so deeply involved and set in the ways of traditions and reputation, putting their men first, that they forget to support and protect their daughters. They raise their boys to believe that they can do anything and be forgiven: their actions are excused and brushed under the carpet, subject to Brown Boy Privilege. It is so damaging and toxic, stifling the rights and the voices of Brown women, trying to survive when the cultural stigma surrounding sexual abuse and sex is choking them. Us. 

It’s time to break the taboo, one that has been silently killing women for decades. Speaking up is now more important than ever, especially in the era of #MeToo. Hypersexuality does not, in any way, make anyone any less of a survivor. The shame and blame belong to the perpetrator: they’re the one to point the finger at and hate.

Sumaiya Ahmed

Sumaiya Ahmed is a freelance features journalist, published poet (Lost and Found and Reality), book reviewer and blogger, aiming to break down the boundaries of cultural stigma and shame attached to mental health and sexuality within the South Asian culture, and bringing marginalised topics to light. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Poised.

Cover art by Hanifa Abdul Hameed (@colorsofhoney)