An Option for the Sexual Assault Survivor: What Does Liberation Look Like in the Face of Sexual Violence?

“And then I remembered.”[1] Many survivors, especially depending on the age of the person assaulted, go through periods of their lives not understanding, knowing, or even remembering what happened to them. For many years within the academic world, the language for sexual assault was very limited leaving little room for women to be able to express their experiences and begin to understand them. Though recently the academic world has opened up, culturally, socially, and politically the language available to sexual assault survivors is still rather limited. Liberation theology makes an effort to bring theology into the discourse of cultural, social, and political life. No longer is the lived experience of people to be ignored, but the lived experience is where theology should start. An important element of this ability to engage reality is through the conscientization of people. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed offers a framework for how people conscientize themselves. As sexual assault survivors begin their journeys of understanding, knowing, and remembering their experiences as elaborated by Flora Keshgegian, there seems to be a mirroring of the ideas that Paulo Freire presents. This begs the question; how can Liberation theology offer liberation to the sexual assault survivor? Through entering into the lived experience of sexual assault survivors, while the language of Liberation theology and that of trauma theology are different, both have similar aims. Thus, through a more trauma-focused lens Liberation theology can speak to the experience of sexual assault survivors in a way that begins to support their liberation. 

“It happened.”[2] Susan Brison describes her experience of a brutal rape and attempted murder:

 I was no longer the same person I had been before the assault, and one of the ways in which I seemed changed was that I had a different relationship with my body. My body was now perceived as the enemy… My mental state (typically depression) felt physiological, like lead in my veins, while my physical state (frequently, incapacitated by fear and anxiety) was the incarnation of a cognitive and emotional paralysis resulting from shattered assumptions about my safety in the world.[3]

Susan Brison is not alone in the reality of her sexual assault as about 1 in 5 women in the US have been raped at some time in their life.[4]  Based on a 2018 study it found that around 734,630 people were raped in the US in 2018.[5]  Though sexual assault can happen to anyone, this paper focuses on women survivors and usually on children to young adult survivors. This group was chosen because most female victims had their first experiences of sexual assault early in life with 81.3% reporting the first occurrence was before the age of 25.[6] However, statistics will never fully capture the picture as sexual assaults go underreported. Fortunately, there has been an increase in self-reports of sexual assault over the past few years, however, there has been a decrease in reports to the police. In 2017, 40% of sexual assaults were reported to the police while only 25% were reported to the police in 2018.[7] 

The event of being sexually assaulted is traumatic. Trauma is an extraordinary event or repetitive experiences that overwhelm the person. Trauma is not extraordinary because it rarely happens, it is extraordinary because it “overwhelms the ordinary human adaptation to life.”[8] These traumatic events call into question basic human relationships.[9] They break “attachments of family, friendship, love and community, they shatter the construction of the self that is formed and sustained relation to others.”[10] The attachments to the world are broken because the survivors’ understanding of safety has been deeply challenged and shattered. Alice Sebold, who is a rape survivor said, “When I was raped, I lost my virginity and almost lost my life. I also discarded certain assumptions I had held about how the world worked and about how safe I was.”[11] Traumatic events also “undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human experience.”[12] In the situation of sexual abuse happening to a child, “the abused child will feel hopeless in relation to self, world, and God” and because of this the child might conclude that she is “bad”.[13] This is done in order to explain why bad things are happening to her. This distorted sense of self allows for the child to regain a feeling of control over herself. The narrative becomes that “if she is bad, then she can try to be good. If somehow, she has brought his fate upon herself, then somehow she has the power to change it.”[14] These realities of broken attachments and shattered sense of self and undermined belief systems put the victim into a state of existential crisis.[15]

Another compounding factor in the reality of sexual assault is the silence that surrounds it. Not only is there silence from those around the survivor but even within the survivor there can be a silence. This is because the survivor did not have “access to the knowledge or memory of the abuse.”[16] They hide away the traumatic reality of the situation even from themselves. This can be in forms of repression, dissociation, or blocking.[17] These strategies allow for the sexual assault survivors to keep living past the traumatic event in order to try to preserve oneself. Such practices of repression or dissociation can be symptoms of psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, multiple personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder. 

Society has had a long history of silence when it comes to sexual assault. While detailing that history and all the reasons for it is outside of the scope of this paper, one reason in which there is a silence around sexual assault is our understanding of the nature of knowledge, including the traditional notion of empirical scientific knowledge.[18] Sexual assault and other traumatic events put our understanding of knowledge to test. One influential example is that of the work of Sigmund Freud. Sigmund Freud did not start the issue of not believing survivors, but his work is credited with societal ideas that make it difficult to believe survivors. He developed the idea that women who had been sexually assaulted as children were not actually sexually assaulted but that they had just fantasized about that sexual interaction with the adult.[19] There are many reasons that are theorized on why he developed this idea such as he could not comprehend adults like himself being perpetrators of such dehumanizing traumatic events on children to the idea that he was not able to challenge patriarchal ideals.[20] Sigmund Freud’s work did help lay the framework for not believing sexual assault survivors’ memories especially when they are memories from a long time ago. Another influential example is the idea of false memory syndrome. This idea was started by parents of children who had been accused of sexual abuse or other abuses. The parents stated that the memories had been planted by their child’s therapists. The Myth of Repressed Memory co-authored by Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham showcases the ideals of the false memory syndrome. Each chapter in this book started off with a quote from the play The Crucible. The choice shows “the clear implication that those claiming to remember abuse by family members are like the young girls pointing the finger at witches in Salem.”[21] Books that support false memory syndrome often are sympathetic to those that have been abused but the authors obviously “identify with those accused of abuse” and “their allegiance is toward those whose authority is being challenged.”[22] Just like Sigmund Freud, the reasons for identifying with the perpetrators of the abuse vary. These examples of ignoring the memories of sexual abuse survivors are testaments to the struggle that sexual assault survivors go through in just having their stories heard.

“Never forget.”[23] Liberation theology offers a way in order for those who are the victims of sexual abuse to begin the process of pushing back against the cultural, societal, and political barriers that are set up when it comes to speaking about sexual assault. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed focuses on the idea of conscientization which refers to learning to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality. This is the see, judge, act model that Liberation theology uses in order to help people work to liberate themselves. This is the job not only of those being oppressed to be conscientized but also those who are oppressors and those trying to be in solidarity with the oppressed. There are two stages to the pedagogy of the oppressed. The first is that the “the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation.”[24] The second stage is that the “reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy cease to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation.”[25]

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed offers a great deal to the conversation of liberation in the context of sexual assault however it misses the complexities of those who have suffered traumatic events. Flora Keshgegian’s Redeeming Memories, while using a different vocabulary, one that is adapted from trauma work, does attend to much of what Freire has set up. Keshgegian sees the process of remembering and witnessing that remembering as a way of conscientization and solidarity. Remembering memories is important in the process of healing from sexual assault and has to be included in Liberation theology in order for it to offer liberation for the sexual assault survivor.

The first step in Liberation theology is to be able to see the situation accurately or for Keshgegian is to remember. In order for “the oppressed to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform.”[26] For the oppressor, seeing can be difficult because “discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed.”[27] Learning about the ways in which we participate and uphold structures that lead to rape culture or perpetuate it, is not an easy task and will be hard for the sexual assault victim, those who wish to be witnesses to the victims, and to those who have victimized people. Remembering offers a similar challenge because of socially conditioned realities. The sexual assault survivor asks us to do more than the perpetrators. The sexual assault survivor “challenge us to reconnect fragments, to reconstruct history, to make meaning of their present symptoms in the light of past events.”[28] It is tempting to side with the transgressor because they ask nothing of us.[29] It makes it easier for the perpetrator to appeal to the desire of people to “see, hear, and speak no evil.”[30] The sexual assault survivor demands “action, engagement, and remembering.”[31] In order to escape remembering, the transgressor does everything possible to “promote forgetting.”[32] Secrecy and silence become the best way to maintain social order.[33] Remembering can be difficult because we can become resentful for having our illusion of peace and right order put into question.[34] Because the sexual assault survivor has been dehumanized by her perturbator, “she may find that the most traumatic events of her life take place outside” the social understanding.[35] Part of conscientization then, in the context of sexual assault, must focus on the sexual assault survivor remembering and being able to share that memory to those who will witness it accurately.

The second step in Liberation theology is to be able to judge, and for Keshgegian, being able to remember is what allows one to make judgments. To judge is being able to see the situation and then coming to a conclusion about how that situation violates or upholds human dignity. This is making judgments on a culture of silence and how it affects those who have been sexually assaulted. This is making judgments about whether or not one is or has been in solidarity with those who have been oppressed. Solidarity is a “radical posture” because it “requires that one enter into the situation of those whom one is” in solidarity with.[36] Being able to see and then judge helps us accurately assess claims that come from the perpetrators of violence. Freire explains that the oppressed never initiate violence, it is always initiated “by those who oppress, who exploit, who fail to recognize others as persons.”[37] The oppressors, however, broadcast messages that it is “always the oppressed who are disaffected, who are ‘violent.’”[38] In the context of sexual assault, perpetrators of rape culture constantly point to stories of women making up rape accusations. Though there may be those who do fabricate or exaggerate, those instances are rare.[39] It then becomes “important to ask why these incidents receive so much attention.”[40] But even beyond that, we must look at what those stories do for sexual assault survivors who have never spoken about their assaults and for those who are just remembering for the first time. It makes them doubt their own experiences and pushes them to remain silent. Remembering is important because it is through remembering we learn who we are, but it also “allows us to say ‘no’ to all that negates us.”[41] Remembering allows us to “negate and resist” all that has stood that goes against us.[42]

The third step in Liberation theology is to act, and for Keshgegian the action is that of being a community of remembrance. This action is the creation and re-creation done by the oppressed and those in solidarity with the oppressed. This action is one of love. This is because it is the response of the oppressed to the violence of that of their oppressors “a gesture of love may be found.”[43] The violence that the oppressors have done to the oppressed has kept the oppressed from being fully human, but the oppressed actions are grounded in “the desire to pursue the right to be human.”[44] Through the dehumanization of the oppressed, the oppressors have also been dehumanized. Through the humanizing actions of the oppressed, so do the oppressors get to regain their humanity. As the oppressed are able to see and judge their reality, “they discover themselves as its permanent re-creators.”[45] For Liberation theology this process of action is that of dialogue. This is a dialogue that exists in the “profound love for the world and for people.”[46] This ability to re-create the world is only possible through love. Love then is “the foundation of dialogue and dialogue itself.”[47] Dialogue also requires “an intense faith in humankind.”[48] From dialogue then trust can be established.[49] This is where Liberation theology will need a little more help from trauma work. For the sexual assault survivor, a deep faith in humankind might be hard to ever fully rebuild and trust will be something that also may never fully be rebuilt. Trauma, as discussed earlier, breaks the bounds of human connection. This is also why the practice of remembering can be so helpful to all three steps. It is through “remembering and telling the truth about terrible events” that we can restore social order and bring healing to victims of trauma.[50] For those who witness the remembering and telling of truth, they “have to create a space of safety where trust can be relearned, and a damaged autonomy can be examined and gradually rebuilt.”[51] Through the process of listening and remembering, “trust is built as victims begin to recover what had been taken away from them.”[52] Remembering trauma can lead to re-traumatization, which is why this process must be done carefully. There are a lot of factors that can derail remembering. By allowing victims to be in charge of the process, remembering can lead to healing and not re-traumatization. Liberation and healing are possible “through a long arduous, and painful process of revisiting, feeling, and reinterpreting the past.”[53]

“Do this in remembrance of me.”[54] Liberation theology requires a lot of heavy lifting on the part of those who have been oppressed. This is because the oppressed can never be truly liberated if it does not come from their own desires and their own experiences. However, Keshgegian and others within trauma theology would argue that the heavy lifting really does have to also be put on those who have not been traumatized. Liberation theology uses the idea of being in solidarity with the oppressed while trauma theology uses the language of witness. Trauma theology does appeal more to those who are not traumatized to work to witness those who have been traumatized. Liberation theology appeals to the oppressed and then asks those who are not oppressed to be in solidarity with them. It is hard to envision a world in which the traumatized person is the one carving out their own space to tell their story by remembering when that experience itself would be so traumatic. So instead, trauma theology witnesses those remembering and also tries to help others realize their call to be witnesses.  To be able “to hold traumatic reality in consciousness requires a social context that affirms and protects the victim and that joins victim and witness in a common alliance.”[55]

A misunderstanding of the differences might see that trauma theology is asking for a less active role for both the sexual assault survivor and that of the witness. Both the sexual assault survivor and the witness through remembering are taking an active stance, just active in a way that we might not be used to. Remembering is partisan.[56] We are remembering from a particular point of view. Remembering is wrongly thought of as only personal or interpersonal, but it is a social and political process of retrieval and transformation.[57] In remembering and witnessing to remembering we are clear in our intention “to attend to those who have suffered and who struggle for life, who are reminding us of the importance of remembering, and whose experiences point to the unfulfilled promise of redemption.”[58] This is the command that Jesus gave to us as he said, “do this in memory of me.”[59] We are commanded to “participate in Jesus’s praxis, in God’s transform and liberating activity.”[60] This means “to remember Jesus is to become partners in making right relations and realizing redemption.”[61] The Church is a community of remembrance.[62] The Church exists as a way to “witness to the memory of Jesus Christ.”[63] Then “community of remembrance not only describes what the church is, but what it ought to be.”[64]  The goals of such remembering are “forming a new sense of self and relationships, claiming a sustaining faith, and reclaiming the world.”[65] Remembering is active because in remembering the abuse suffered by sexual assault survivors will lead us to “remembering ourselves differently as a society and a culture” and “it will require redefinition of relationships, family, and social and religious self-understandings.”[66]

Liberation theology’s outline of see, judge, act has the possibility of offering liberation to the sexual assault survivor, but it must be integrated with trauma theology and the understanding of the importance of remembering at every stage of seeing, judging, and acting. For the sexual assault survivor, it is in the ability to remember and have others witness to the remembering that she will be liberated. It is through remembering that her and the witness will be able to see, judge, and act.  The process of remembering the violence of sexual assault and being a witness to it is a harrowing feat. But it is through remembering that hope is possible. When one is able to break through the silence that has been placed on their experience, hope emerges. Diana Der-Hovanessian’s poem illustrates the hope that is possible by being able to see, judge, and act through remembering: 

Close your eyes in peace

if you have borne witness aloud

in peace

if you have sworn truth

in peace

if you have shared the horror and the vision

if you have defied those who deny

if you have added your testimony

to the roll call of truth

in peace

if you have raised your voice

against all who would silence you

if you have written the story

if you have named the names

if you have listed the places

if you have called down from heaven

the witnesses who have gone

Close your eyes in peace

if you have taken one step

on the path that heals.[67]

Bibliography

Beste, Jennifer Erin. God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom. AAR Academy Series. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief — Updated Release,” 2015, 32.

Der-Hovanessian, Diana. Any Day Now. Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 1999.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th anniversary ed. New York: Continuum, 2000.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence- From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. 2015 edition. New York: BasicBooks, 2015.

“Joint-Letter-Senate-Enda-2013-10-31.Pdf.” Accessed May 3, 2021. https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/labor-employment/upload/joint-letter-senate-enda-2013-10-31.pdf.

Keshgegian, Flora A. Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Loftus, Elizabeth. Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories & Allegations of Aexual Abuse. Place of publication not identified: Diane Pub Co, 1998.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in 4 Acts. Penguin Modern Classics, Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1987.

Morgan, Rachel E. “Criminal Victimization, 2018,” 2018, 37.

Panchuk, Michelle. “The Shattered Spiritual Self: A Philosophical Exploration of Religious Trauma.” Res Philosophica 95, no. 3 (September 28, 2018): 505–30. https://doi.org/10.11612/resphil.1684.

Schreiter, Robert J. The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality & Strategies. New York: Orbis Books, 1998.


[1] Flora A. Keshgegian, Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000)., 35.

[2] Keshgegian., 89.

[3] Michelle Panchuck, “The Shattered Spiritual Self: A Philosophical Exploration of Religious Trauma,” Res Philosophica 95, no. 3 (2018)., 510.

[4] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief — Updated Release,” 2015, 32.

[5] Rachel E Morgan, “Criminal Victimization, 2018,” 2018, 37.

[6] Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 32,

[7] Morgan., 37.

[8] Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence- From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, 2015 edition (New York: BasicBooks, 2015)., 33.

[9] Herman, 51.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Keshgegian, 39.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Herman, 51.

[16] Keshgegian, 37.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 51.

[19] Ibid., 46.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Keshgegian, 47.

[22] Ibid., 51.

[23] Ibid.,57.

[24] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed (New York: Continuum, 2000)., 54.

[25]  Freire, 54.

[26] Ibid., 49.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Herman, 2.

[29] Ibid., 7.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., 8.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Jennifer Erin Beste, God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom, AAR Academy Series (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)., 6.

[35] Herman, 8.

[36] Freire, 49.

[37] Ibid., 55.

[38] Ibid., 56.

[39] Keshgegian, 53.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 136.

[42] Ibid. 137.

[43] Freire, 56.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 89.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid., 90.

[49] Ibid., 91.

[50] Herman, 1.

[51] Robert J. Schreiter, The Ministry of Reconciliation: Spirituality & Strategies (New York: Orbis Books, 1998)., 75.

[52] Schreiter, 75.

[53] Keshgegian, 53.

[54] Ibid., 26.

[55] Herman, 9.

[56] Keshgegian, 25

[57] Ibid., 45.

[58] Ibid., 25.

[59] Ibid., 27.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., 200.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid., 43.

[66] Ibid., 45.

[67] Diana Der-Hovanessian, Any Day Now (Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 1999).

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