Online proceedings for the IRCT General Assembly and 10th International Scientific Symposium - Delivering on the Promise of the Right to Rehabilitation

Time: 16:30 to 16:50

Gender-based violence and the power of shame: Historical reflections on the development of therapeutic strategies for survivors of sexual torture

Presenter(s) and co-author(s): Dr. Inger Agger ( Nunca Más - International Network for Human Rights and Psychosocial Response - Denmark )


Over the last thirty to forty years we have acquired an extensive knowledge about the worldwide use of gender-based violence (GBV) as a weapon of terror against men and women in almost all cultures and contexts. With the expansion of torture rehabilitation in the nineteen seventies and eighties it became possible to speak about previously ``unspeakable'' taboo subjects, such as sexual torture of political prisoners. This happened in connection with a number of social and political developments, which took place during those decades with new areas of knowledge and discourses unfolding within the fields of sexology, feminism and human rights.


It is important not to forget our early insights into the subject of GBV. Therefore, I will focus in this literature review on how the historical developments within the fields of Sexology, Feminism and Human Rights contributed to our understanding of 1) methods of sexual torture, 2) the trauma of sexual torture, and 3) intervention strategies for survivors of sexual torture. With the development of sexology in the nineteen sixties, seventies and eighties, along with the sexual revolution inspired by the New Left and the women's movement, a language and a method for speaking about the unspeakable was developed. Gradually, in the feminist movement we also learned about the trauma of GBV and the ``power of shame'', which is central to understanding the suffering of the survivor and for providing a therapy that can lead to recovery. With the emergence of the Human Rights Movement in Latin America and elsewhere, torture rehabilitation centers around the world were established. The activists and mental health professionals working there started addressing the subject of GBV and sexual torture. This raised a number of questions, especially among ”western”' mental health professionals, about how to open the subject of sexuality with people from other cultures.


Sexology -- fighting for sexual rights: In the early seventies, along with the “sexual revolution'', sex therapy started developing within sexology in the United States and became important for ``speaking about the unspeakable'' and opening the subject of sexual abuse and shame with survivors of GBV. Feminism -- fighting for women's rights: Within the feminist movement there was a growing awareness of how those in power use sexual torture and the power of shame as a form of social and political discipline of enemies. The testimony method building on ``the private is political'' was a de-shaming strategy developed within the consciousness- raising groups. Torture Rehabilitation Centers -- fighting for Human Rights: Already from the beginning of the seventies various groups started providing mental and physical health assistance to torture victims and they were instrumental in creating a context to understand and address the ``shame disorder'' (Judith Herman, 2014) of sexual torture.

Funding & No Conflicts Declaration

Part of this literature review was funded by DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture. There are no conflicts of interest in this research.

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