We know that the subjective experiences of PTSD can include a feeling of being overwhelmed, loss of a sense of security, fears of injury and death, and emotional numbness. A characteristic and one that is certainly true of women is they cannot assist in their own defense. Women have suffered what might be called “cultural trauma” (Aaron Toronto, personal communication.) They are thus impaired by the symptoms that we all recognize in a person who has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Individual women may be extremely well-balanced, enhanced and empowered but as a group one can readily identify symptoms associated with ongoing trauma.
Marilyn Charles calls this phenomenon “structural trauma” and describes it as follows: “Prejudice, intolerance and stigma are endemic in human interactions, and yet they can be relatively invisible. These “structural traumas” are often obscured by social convention such that environmental difficulties are experienced as internal deficits. When basic human functions become gendered, disrespect for the more primary ways of knowing associated with feminine sensibilities become internalized. The internalized disrespect threatens to leave us disconnected from sensory aspects of awareness, including the affective signals that are crucial to social development. P. 337”
(p. 101) Recurring traumatic experiences may disrupt mental capacities and disturb the capacity for symbolization. Judgment and reality testing may be impaired. Sufferers may experience grief, guilt about anger and destructive impulses and shame about feeling helpless. They may feel, like my patient Michelle, “defensive detachment” and dissociation of affect with an inability to connect negative feelings with the events that gave rise to the trauma. All of these factors in an individual would make it difficult for her to assist in her own defense. An abused woman may identify with the power of her abuser and vociferously defend him. There are, in fact, large cohorts of women who argue for the status quo and the continuance of women’s suppression.
We cannot approach this problem with images of women eating delicious chocolates or refreshing baths or even having “me time.” Those activities may be important for individual women but it is the entire group, the half of humanity, that must come together to fight for freedom in all aspects of life—beginning with sexual and reproductive autonomy. When women anywhere are subjected to sexual slavery, genital mutilation, sex trafficking, domestic violence or the like, we cannot be silent. When reproductive rights are not in the decision-making hands of women, we cannot hold back. The battle for self-determination is one in which all of us must participate.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.