The Search for Autonomous Intimacy: Sexual Abuse and Young Women's Identity Development

By M. Sue Crowley | Go to book overview

intimacy. They might also act out in rebellion against the very social/sexual norms that were so easily and safely ignored by their abuser(s). For them, social mores served only to hide the truth rather than expose or make sense of it. Many other factors, including different cognitive abilities, social class positions, even temperaments, no doubt influenced the particular coping strategies they employed. Whatever the pattern of response, however, their identities appeared to be fragmented into many different reflections of the age-old feminine paradox: untouchable Madonna or sullied Whore.


Conclusion

Given that one of the tasks of adolescence is to develop a coherent identity that blends inner self-concepts with external expectations in life, work, and love, such fragmentation leaves sex abuse survivors in a precarious position. Sexual abuse does not fit into the gendered norms used to define what it means to be a woman of any color. The young women described in these studies tended to create images of themselves that reflected extremes in various social constructions of gender. In the process they had to simply "disappear" whole parts of that fragmented self, the aspects of self that they dare not expose to others. When acting the Madonna, like Katherine Brady, they hid their anger and shame in quiet conformity. When acting the Whore, the young woman in Russell's case study hid her vulnerability in brazen sexual manipulation. Experts in not- being, they adapted by learning to hide behind many masks: masks of feminine perfectionism, of sexual precocity, of calm maturity, of shy docility, of rebellious anger. Behind these facades are young women who have been shut off from opportunities to explore their world through the kinds of emotional intimacies and other social relationships that help to create connections across many levels of experience. These are young women who have difficulty trusting that there is a safe place for them in the world, who would have difficulty recognizing such a place even if they found one, and ultimately who do not have a coherent sense of identity.

In the three chapters that follow, three young women tell the stories of their lives. None of them felt a sense of achievement in identity. None of them found it easy to relate intimately to others. Yet, each in her own way sought some safe place in which to experience a sense of belonging. Framed within varying contexts of racial, social class, and regional differences, they

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