Violence Against Women as Intergenerational Trauma
Hi all! So nice to be posting here again – finally. I have no idea why such stagnation, but my writing simply has not been flowing in a very cohesive manner, so I’ve not been posting. I started out with such gumption and gung-ho. What the hell happened? Argh. I loathe the stagnation that plagues me at times, but I try to just work with it and not let it get the best of me – especially when we are in such strange times. Just trying to let it flow where it needs to. Not all areas of my life have been stagnant however and I’ve actually been experiencing great flow and movement in some regards, so I try to simply appreciate that and recognize where my energy is being called.
I may have mentioned previously that I am currently in a master’s program. I wanted to share with you a final paper I just completed for one of my courses, as it feels especially relevant during these times and for this blog. It is an academic paper, but I have tried to reformat it a bit better for this blog and have removed all the citations (though if anybody is interested in them, please shoot me an email and I can share them with you). So if this sounds a bit academic for a blog, you will know why! I did not want to reinvent the wheel and rewrite the whole thing in more appropriate blog style – so you are getting it pretty much the way I wrote it for university – with theory and all! Do feel free to comment, like, share your thoughts, etc. Oh – and for those of you interested, I received a grade of 97.5% for my efforts here. Yay!
The topic of my paper is violence against women and the resulting intergenerational trauma that we are all deeply affected by. I always attempt to bring my spiritual practice and mindset to my academic pursuits, as oftentimes I feel the academic world is seriously lacking in the spiritual and feminine qualities of our human experience, which is a large part of what has led to the extreme imbalance of masculine and feminine energies – too much focus on facts, numbers, and what can be “proven,” with a huge disregard to intuition, feeling, magick, and spirit. I do my part to bring it back into balance in whatever way I can. In sharing this here with you all, it is my intention to bring more awareness to this imbalance and to offer suggestions that will aid in the healing. It feels especially important to me to bring BALANCE – not to swing too far in the opposite direction, as some people feel called to a matriarchy to counter the patriarchy. My passion is in promoting balance, harmony, and union between Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine energies, not promoting one at the expense of the other. That is how we got ourselves into this mess and swinging the opposite direction will only cause further heartache, separation, and turmoil! No thank you!
So, without further ado, here it is:
Violence has been perpetrated against women for the past few thousand years in the forms of physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse. This abuse has been suffered at the hands of family members, intimate partners, strangers, and the systems put in place by governments and religions. The extent of the violence and oppression has far-reaching consequences not only for women, but for men as well. This paper explores the factors contributing to, as well as the impact of, intergenerational trauma, as experienced by women, but especially as it relates to society as a whole, as women are the ones giving birth to both males and females. Intergenerational trauma is viewed from three lenses: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of Development aids in understanding the various systems and elements of violence at play; shamanism enriches our understanding of intergenerational trauma; and direct realization spiritual traditions further enhance our understanding of how violence against women has created the experience of intergenerational trauma for all members of society.
The following paper explores the notion that violence perpetrated against women for the past few thousands of years has led to intergenerational trauma that deserves much more research and attention in order to foster healing for both women and men, as well as facilitate much-needed societal change. Much research has been done on the effects of intergenerational trauma in other populations, but is almost non-existent when it comes to how on-going violence against women is affecting current lived experience, especially in regards to mental health issues, physical health issues, poverty, relationship issues, and spiritual connection. Intergenerational trauma has deleterious bio-psycho-social-spiritual effects on not only women, but men as well, as women are the ones giving birth to all members of society and it is impossible to have one half of the population dealing with the effects of on-going trauma without the other suffering effects as well. I believe that through gaining an understanding of how this trauma is passed down through generations of women, a deeper understanding of the how and why to support and heal women (and men) will be gleaned.
According to one text book, trauma is an event that “is extremely upsetting, at least temporarily overwhelms [an] individual’s internal resources, and produces lasting psychological effects.” Abuse, violence, natural disasters, accidents, rape, sex trafficking, torture, assault, war, and murder are some of the major types of trauma a person can experience. In addition to suffering from these experiences at a personal level, witnessing traumatic events or even learning about them secondhand can also have traumatic effects on an individual. Some of the effects of experiencing or witnessing trauma include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder (ASD), substance use disorders, and a number of other psychiatric disturbances including dissociation, psychosis, and borderline personality disorder. Not only are these effects detrimental for one’s psychological and emotional well-being, but also have negative repercussions on physical and spiritual health. A number of risk factors can make one more or less susceptible to trauma responses, female gender being at the top of the list.
Some definitions of violence limit the term to refer to only such acts that intentionally use physical force to cause harm to a person, while others consider violence to include psychological maltreatment as well, including verbal abuse, threat, harassment, denial of or restriction from resources, and limitations to freedom . For all intents and purposes, violence in this paper refers to a number of forms of abuse, including physical, psychological, sexual, emotional, and social – most of which are intentional, some of which are not. While all members of the human race can be affected by these varying forms of violence, this paper focuses on women’s experience of violence.
Violence Against Women
For the past few thousand years, women have been on the receiving end of atrocious acts of violence, usually perpetrated by the hands of men – not only individual men, but also by the men in charge of the numerous systems of society – family, religion, government, medical, and educational systems. This violence shows up in the form of rape and sexual assault (suffered at the hands of intimate partners, strangers, and/or family or other known acquaintances), domestic and intimate partner abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological), stalking, femicide, sex trafficking, psychological maltreatment and control tactics, limitations of freedoms and rights, limited access to resources, very little access to power, and very minimal to no control over what happens to their bodies. Until very recently, women had no right to property, no right to vote, limited access to education, and held no positions of power in our government or in religious institutions. The issue is extremely complex as these numerous forms of violence intersect and overlap, creating an intricate web of dominance and control over women that they themselves often do not even recognize and even support through their own internalized belief systems.
The violence perpetrated against women is a global issue. In the United States alone, a rape is reported every 6.2 minutes (keep in mind the amount of unreported rapes is likely to be five times as high); South Africa had an estimated 600,000 rapes in 2013; in America, 11,766 women were the victims of domestic violence homicide from 2001 to 2012; also in the US, in 2010, women soldiers reported 19,000 cases of sexual assault; and “honor killings” and bride-burning continue to this day in South Asia and the Middle East. According to the Panel on Research on Violence Against Women, National Research Council, American national surveys estimate approximately 2 million women are battered each year by their intimate partners; 3.8 million assaults were sustained by women over the course of 1 year; and 13 to 25% of all U.S. women will be raped at some point in their lives. Between 2009 and 2011, gender conflict resulted in the deaths of 16,900 women in Brazil. These are but a few of the many, many statistics out there.
The concept of intergenerational trauma is based on the idea that the physical, psychological, emotional, and behavioral effects of trauma can be passed down and carried over from one generation to the next. Researchers started noticing this phenomenon when studying behaviors of the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Historical trauma is another term used to describe this type of on-going trauma as it relates to a specific group of people who share a common experience, such as Black people or Native Americans, or in the case of this paper, women. One way that trauma may be passed down from generation to generation is that trauma alters a person’s genes, predisposing children to be more sensitive to future traumas or stressful events. Trauma has been thought to have a number of effects on the physical body, including nervous system diseases, digestive disorders, stroke, cancer, chronic pain, hypertension, and endocrine disorders, all of which may be contributing factors for the change in genetics.
Trauma also has profound effects on the mental health of survivors and may result in a number of psychological ailments including various forms of anxiety, stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, complicated grief, major depression, dissociation, psychosis, substance abuse disorders, and/or borderline personality disorder. As with ongoing physical stressors, it is possible that suffering from continued psychological distress might have permanent effects on one’s body, which would in turn be passed on to one’s offspring. This could be even more so if one is suffering from traumatic experiences and effects while pregnant. Trauma is also be passed down through behavior – reactions to trauma and subsequent coping mechanisms affect how a child is raised and how it learns to experience the world, as passed down by the parents.
Understanding Intergenerational Trauma – Two Perspectives
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of Development
Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory of Development provides context for understanding how various systems interact and intersect with each other to influence, shape, and create an individual’s life experience. Bronfennbrenner felt that not only is a child influenced by their immediate environment, but also the surrounding environment that they grow up in. The theory places the individual person at the center of their life, then shows how five systems contribute to that person’s development. The micro- system is the immediate environment, such as home, school, work, and family; the meso- system highlights the interactions between the parts in the micro- system; the exo- system shows influences between the immediate setting and a setting in which the individual does not have an active role; the macro- system pertains to the larger cultural and social context that the individual lives in; and the chrono- system factors in the role of time – both in the context of the person’s life and in the context of a larger historical consideration.
This theory is especially helpful when trying to gain a comprehensive understanding of all the factors contributing to the various forms of violence against women and how it passes from generation to generation. The inclusion of the element of time as one of the main systemic influences is especially relevant to intergenerational trauma. In addition to understanding cause and effect, this theory will also help us gain appreciation of where and how to address this on-going violence, as it is not isolated to one system, but permeates each and every one.
When looking at the micro- system, we consider first gender roles and a female’s experience within her family and school. In many societies, females are considered inferior to males and simply being born in a female body sets the stage for being treated unjustly (even killed and discarded), with less rights and power in the family than their male counterparts. From birth, many females are conditioned by their families and school systems to believe their options are limited, that getting married and having children is their duty, that they need to be subservient to men, and that many occupational fields are off-limits to them. It is here in the micro-system that a female is molded into her gender role and learns what appropriate behavior is for her and what is appropriate for males.
Domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault may all be part of a female’s experience and it is in the microsystem where she will start to form her understanding of relationships based on the way her family relates to each other – is domestic violence present/normalized/acceptable/encouraged? Is she encouraged to be submissive, polite, dress appropriately, be accommodating to males, keep her emotions in check, be ashamed of her body, and take responsibility for not getting raped? It is also in this system where boys learn to dominate females, that being hyper-masculine is rewarded, that females are subservient to males, that females who dress a certain way are “asking for it” and are supposed to “give it to them,” and that females are basically sex objects and should stay in their proper place caring for a man.
The mesosystem highlights the interactions between the elements of the microsystem and, for this purpose, we will consider the messages that are exchanged between the parents and the school which support the gender roles and children learning their place in the world. Again, boys receive messages about what masculinity should look like and girls receive messages about what femininity should look like. School curriculum is upheld by the relationships between the parents and the schools, further enforcing societal norms and gender roles. Enforcement comes by means of having to dress a certain “appropriate” way at school; sexual education classes teaching children “appropriate” sexual behavior; rules for how genders are supposed to behave get decided between the various elements.
The exo-system includes a number of different influences that contribute to the ongoing violence against women. Pornography promotes violence, the domination of women, the inferiority of women, and the hyper-sexualization of women, as well as the hyper-masculinization of men. Advertising and mass media also perpetuate male dominance, unhealthy hyper-masculine and hyper-feminine gender roles, and the hyper-sexualization of women. The news media perpetuates the discrediting of women who do speak up against their oppressors, questioning their motives, the truth to their story, what she was wearing, and did she deserve it. Religions across the world continue to limit women’s roles in their institutions, if they are allowed at all, and restrict their access to teachings, to temples, and to religious practices. Laws limiting women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies continue to be enacted and upheld. Women receive less pay than men for the same amount of work and also provide exorbitant amounts of unpaid labor in the form of childcare and homecare. Women continue to have limited roles and/or power in government offices and institutions; sex trafficking is a serious issue all over the world and continues to go mostly unchecked; rape and torture is used as a control tactic during war time.
At the macro level, we have a patriarchal society that promotes men’s dominance over women; men possess more political, social, economic power than women; there is a continuously reinforced belief that men are superior to women; as well as a belief that violence is an acceptable way to maintain power. Religions shun and degrade women and their bodies, contributing to misogynistic belief systems that further perpetuate the acceptability of violence against women. Domestic violence is still deemed acceptable in many cultures: bride burning, wife beating, wife killing, and honor killings are still every day occurrences.
At the chrono level, we consider the ongoing patriarchal belief systems that have dominated the globe for thousands of years. Though we have seen much advancement in women’s rights and some diminishment of the violence against women due to the recent feminist uprising, still much work needs to be done. Awareness is finally rising and more women are starting to stand up to the violence. Because of the length of time the violence and trauma has been prevalent, however, the experience of intergenerational trauma runs deep and is very much embedded in cultures all over the globe and in our DNA. When we look at the extent of the violence and for how long it has been prevalent, we can gain better appreciation for how it plays out through the generations and how deep the issues go. We can also appreciate the support and awareness that is growing and utilize this moment in time to make further progress in ending the violence. In regard to the concept of time, seeing how far the feminist movement has come in such a short time, but also seeing how slow the progress is can also be beneficial in aiding us to stay the course. Looking at all of the levels and layers that contribute to the violence lends great understanding as to how it has been perpetuated from generation to generation.
Though intergenerational trauma may be a relatively new concept to modern science, this is not new in other fields of consciousness, experience, and thought process. Spiritual traditions, such as shamanism and direct realization traditions (i.e. Dzogchen, Kashmir Shaivism, tantra) have been working with the reality of intergenerational trauma for thousands of years, though they utilize terms such as karma, ancestor puja, ancestor healing, and kriya yoga. These traditions understand that ancestors who are unhealthy in body, mind, emotion and spirit will not give birth to offspring that have healthy body, mind, emotion and spirit.
In Hindu and Buddhist spiritual traditions, these concepts can be understood by understanding karma. Karma is energy that repeats itself over time. Karmas are the habits, patterns, and behaviors that we are made up of; our DNA is a gross, or physical, expression of karma that is passed down from our parents – also known as our ancestors. Being born in a human body is also a karma, as we could have been born as something else. When contemplating karma as it relates to intergenerational trauma, when experiences of violence or trauma occur and are not properly healed, these energies continue on throughout time and throughout our lineages. If the traumatic event is an isolated one, the karma created is not as strong, but when events overlap and continue on chronically, a strong unhealthy energy coalesces and gains momentum, continuing on and repeating itself throughout time – in family context, this shows up in our genetics and our DNA, our behaviors, and our thought-patterns that repeat throughout generations. In societal contexts, it shows up as the pervading norms and attitudes of the people, as well as the laws, the systems, and the people in power.
Intergenerational Trauma Applied to Violence Against Women
Given the understanding of how intergenerational trauma passes from one generation to the next, it is necessary to explore how this violence against women manifests as it has been passed down over the ages. There are many physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual repercussions that must be recognized and addressed – not only for women, but for men as well. Since women give birth to all members of society, these traumas are passed down to and embodied by every one of us, not only through our DNA, but through how mothers raise their children, learned behaviors and attitudes, types of relationships we form with others, psychological disorders that get passed down, and in the ways we do or do not contribute to society. Though each of us will express this trauma in our own way, many common themes emerge. Most important to note, however, is that violence against women affects each and every one of us – it is not just a “women’s issue.”
As noted previously, the physical effects of trauma that women experience as a direct result of the many forms of violence they encounter include PTSD, anxiety, stress, illness, and sustained injuries. PTSD, anxiety, and stress can have long-term repercussions, affecting organs in the body and contributing to diseases such as heart failure, cancer, digestive disorders, chronic pain, hypertension, and endocrine disorders. All of these can be passed down through genetics and DNA, affecting offspring, both male and female. One study I came across reported that women with a history of PTSD and/or sexual trauma are more likely to have complications during pregnancy, again, affecting the child they are giving birth to. Medications prescribed for trauma, stress, anxiety, and psychological disorders also have negative impacts on unborn children and on the mother herself. These medications alter brain and organ functioning, which in turn gets passed down to the next generation.
In regards to emotions, it makes sense that a mother who is unable to regulate her own emotions due to the traumatic effects of violence will be unable to teach her child how to regulate their emotions. This can also be said of unhealthy relating and coping skills – victims of chronic trauma, abuse, and violence are likely to pass on unhealthy behavior patterns, communication styles, and unhealthy ways of relating with others, perpetuating the pattern of abuse and victimization . This is a main way that trauma moves from generation to generation – learned behavior. For children growing up witnessing domestic violence, boys learn that violence towards women is acceptable and normal; girls learn the role of the victim and often end up in their own cycle of abusive relationships as they grow older. Children who grow up in situations of domestic violence and/or are the victims of sexual abuse often suffer from low self-esteem, low sense of self-worth, PTSD, depression, a variety of psychological issues, are more likely to suffer from drug and alcohol abuse, carry on unhealthy relationship patterns, suffer from eating disorders, and do poorly in academic settings and in society in general.
A number of attitudes and factors contribute to the ongoing experience of violence, dominance, and resulting trauma. Thousands of years of psychological abuse has taken a huge toll on women and contributes greatly to the effects of intergenerational trauma. Women are forced to carry the shame and burden that many religious institutions have place on them for being the originators of “sin.” Women’s bodies are a thing of scorn and contempt; women are evil seductress’ looking to damn men’s souls; women are deserving of punishment. At the same time, women’s bodies are objectified and hyper-sexualized. Women are scorned for not looking and being sexy enough, yet are shamed and scorned for being too sexual and for tempting men into sin and evil – it is extremely challenging for women to find their power in this confusion. All of these tactics are utilized as a way to control women and keep them from being in their power; much of this comes down to the threat of violence for women – the threat of being shamed, raped, beaten, or even killed.
In addition to the threat of physical violence, women live in fear of losing more rights, losing more control over their bodies and reproductive choices, losing support from community and family, being defamed and discredited if they do speak out, losing job opportunities, losing what little bit of power they have fought for over the past many decades. The men in control of government systems continue to pass and enforce laws that keep power from women and keep them from being in control of their bodies.
Attitudes of the media (another system ruled by men) support discrediting women by reporting on what she was wearing, what she was doing, and questioning her motives if she does indeed report any sexual assault or other form of violence. Only then is it newsworthy if the man in question is of high power and authority. For the most part, however, the media fails to report the majority of violence perpetrated against women, adding to the acceptability, the normalization of, and unimportance of these acts of violence.
In the patriarchal systems that rule the majority of the world, feminine qualities of caring, intuition, expressing emotion, and child-rearing are also shunned, denied, and dismissed as irrelevant, unimportant, and inferior to masculine qualities, further negating women’s lives and experience, as well as their right to power and equality. All of these control tactics serve to keep women silent, keep women from supporting each other, and keep women from expressing themselves and standing up for themselves. Again, all of these attitudes, behaviors, and effects of psychological trauma carry on from generation to generation, hindering our ability to have healthy, nourishing relationships with each other and living lives of peace and contentment.
A Way Forward
This intergenerational trauma has a number of repercussions for society at large, not only for the women suffering from the violence, but also for men as well. Not only do women embody the physical effects of violence and trauma that show up as disease, passing them down to their offspring, but they also pass down unhealthy behaviors and emotions, psychological disorders, unhealthy relating styles, unhealthy sexual expression, a lack of spiritual connection, lack of love, low sense of self-worth, substance abuse issues, ongoing power imbalances, chronic sorrow and loneliness, and an unhealthy relationship to the earth and the environment. When human beings are out of alignment with our inherent goodness and are disconnected from love, we all suffer greatly. It is not possible to perpetuate this violence or live in a society that condones such violence without being deeply affected by it, as we are all connected fundamentally. It is this author’s stance that a disconnect from this foundational principle and from our spirituality is at the heart of the matter. The shaming and shunning of women’s bodies and their place in this world – the disconnect from the feminine aspect of our experience – has caused a split in our psyche that has reverberated throughout the globe and has led to much devastation of the planet and of ourselves. We must return to our hearts and to a place of loving ourselves, which will only be possible in a world that sees an end to the violence perpetrated towards all members of society.
It is my belief that merging together Eastern and Western traditions and knowledge will bring about a huge degree of change. This blending and merging of East and West is very much in alignment with the blending and merging of masculine and feminine energies – and will bring about greater cohesiveness, unity, and harmony that will contribute to fostering the wholeness that we currently lack. Bronfenbrenner’s Systems Theory provides an excellent and thorough understanding of how the various elements of society have created, fostered, and condoned violence against women. Utilizing shamanic and tantric energy practices will provide powerful tools to heal and shift the energy as it moves through time.
Shamanism is especially beneficial in working with intergenerational trauma, as it works directly with time and with our ancestors. Shamanic practices manipulate and heal energy threads as they travel throughout the past, present, and future, releasing karmas and ending harmful patterns. Eastern tantric practices (kriya and karma yoga, pranayama, puja, etc.) also work directly with energy as it moves throughout time, making it another excellent tool for interrupting and healing negative energies, behaviors, and patterns, which in turn stops these energies from continuing forward into future generations. Not only do these practices heal us in this present moment, but they work backwards to heal the pain and trauma of our ancestors. Modern science is starting to understand that time is not a fixed experience as once believed; it is a subjective experience and time can be altered and manipulated. Quantum physics is opening us up to understanding the existence of multiple dimensions and the power of our thoughts and intentions. This is very much how shamanic and Eastern practices work – they understand that this experience is not a fixed one and that there are many ways to work with and alter it. This means that there are many other ways to work with, heal and interrupt this experience of intergenerational trauma. Let us start the healing process now and start sending love and positivity throughout time. We can create new positive karmas, patterns and behaviors – a new society that embraces the dualistic aspects of our human nature – a new society that celebrates feminine and masculine, that embraces East and West, that supports a thriving, healthy planet. Let us put an end to the violence that we have been enacting upon ourselves! We are all responsible for the situation we find ourselves in and, together, we can all put an end to it!