Sophie Witherstone is a PhD student at the University of Chester. She is currently researching the utility of Ignatian Spirituality for female survivors of sexual abuse, focusing on embodied aspects, and the ways that this tradition reconnects sexually abused women with their own bodies and with God.
Autoethnography: The Voice of a Sexually Abused Body
Autoethnography, or self-narrative, is a qualitative research method that delves into the personal experiences and stories of the researcher themselves. The researcher’s personal and meaningful experiences are used as a source of a data, which can speak into academic research in ground-breaking ways. This method fosters the liberation of vulnerable and silenced voices, such as the voices of abused bodies (Olson, 2004; Fletcher, 2018; Crisp, 2004). Using the privileged platform of academia in order to present their own unique voice in such a creative way allows the researcher to reach out to those other abused bodies that remain silenced and hidden.
Autoethnography also gives the researcher license to portray their experiences in whatever way they choose, giving them authority and ownership over the effect their voice can have on others. It has been described as a “therapeutic” method for vulnerable voices, such as the voices of those who have experienced sexual abuse, offering a means of healing through writing (Ellis et al, 2011).
My own autoethnographic research is situated in feminist theology, where the silenced voices of sexually abused bodies are rarely heard (Morton, 1985). Abuse and trauma theologies (Rambo, 2010; Brock & Parker, 2001; Manlowe, 1998) have represented the sexually abused body, but there has been a lack of visibility in terms of the self-representation and self-expression of such bodies. In particular, the female sexually abused body has not been taken seriously enough. Certainly, some feminist theologians have tackled the issue of women’s silencing and abuse within the androcentric traditions of Christianity considering the ways that such silencing adds to women’s experiences of abuse. For example, abuse theologian Marie Fortune engages with women’s consequential experiences of God (and of religion as an institution) as survivors of sexual abuse, particularly where members of the clergy are the perpetrators (Fortune, 1983; 1998, 350-356; see also Sands, 2003). Building on the work of feminist theologians such as Fortune, methodologies such as autoethnography can further bring the voices and experiences of violated women to the surface.
In my research, I engage with the method of autoethnography because I am interested in the real, lived experiences of concrete bodies – of bodies that demand to be taken more seriously in academic reflection. My own body is no exception to this demand, and that is why autoethnography is particularly liberating for me – it does not discount my experiences from my research and does not perpetuate the silencing caused by my abuse.
Within autoethnography, the researcher delves into painful experiences, yet as Ellis (2004, 110-111) proposes, the pain need not take over. The ethnographic research process is purposeful and meaningful in evoking emotion, but this does not need to be negative emotion despite the depth of pain within experiences of abuse. The freeing of the vulnerable voice through autoethnography can begin to remove the hold that the abuse has had on survivors. According to Ettore, there is often a redemptive power in the use of self-narrative (2017, 357) – it has the potential to be emotionally transformative for the researcher themselves, and for their readers and academic peers. As a result, women may become reassured and encouraged that all women’s experiences can be heard, are valuable, and are unique – deserving to be expressed in their own ways. Indeed, authethnography can be a powerful platform for the voices of allabused and violated bodies, whatever their gender. The vulnerable self-exposure of revealing one’s own narrative of abuse opens a door to readers’ participation in one’s stories and thus, as Chang (2008, 145) puts it, a “mutual vulnerability” may unfold. For me, this “mutual vulnerability” represents a coming together of abusedvoices; uniting and forming a stronghold that encourages more silenced voices to speak out and be heard.
Sexual Storytelling: Engaging with the ‘Messy’ Bodies
Sexual storytelling is a lens that we can apply to autoethnographic research, as demonstrated by feminist liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid (1997) and sociologist Ken Plummer (1995). Sexual storytelling involves the inclusion of any experience related to the sexual, such as stories of sexual abuse, sexual behaviour, and sexual desires(Plummer, 1995, 4). Althaus-Reid uses sexual storytelling within theological reflection, describing it as a method of writing authentically and honestly, without leaving God outside our bedroom doors (2000; 2003). For Althaus-Reid, this radical notion is an attempt to “queer” theological hermeneutics, contrasting with more “normative” Christian frameworks that have only restricted and suffocated the freedom to embrace who we are before God (2003).
Within my research, the use of “sexual storytelling” is particularly meaningful as it allows women (and allbodies) to extract fragments of meaning and hope from their narratives of sexual abuse. In the revelation of these vulnerable stories, women may finally feel a sense of control and authority over the narratives of oppression and violence imposed upon them by the restrictions of the Christian tradition that have consumed their lives. The freedom in writing one’s own experiences of sex, particularly of abusive sex, can provide a sense of literary agency and control, which may be liberating for the abused body who lost control during their abuse and in their lives after the abuse. Sexual storytelling allows the freeing of the self from the androcentric bonds of Christianity. And, while some abused bodies feel that their only option is to walk away from their faith community (a place where they feel misrepresented or marginalized), for me, autoethnography offers another alternative solution to tackle this experience.
Although the concept of sexual storytelling can be freeing and allows God to be included in the sexual experiences of sexually abused bodies, this image and way of doing theology may be too overwhelming and invasive for those who are vulnerable. I am aware of the dangers of suggesting that God is in our bedrooms. For a sexually abused body like myself, sex is a fearful space, and (despite it not being the case for me) sex can be a space that has no hope of healing potential. It is therefore important to acknowledge some of the issues that need to be taken seriously when engaging with this method of sexual storytelling.
Working with abuse theologies, Susan Shooter (2012, 14) considers how the shattered boundaries experienced by survivors can cause difficulty in their intimate relationships; picturing ourselves intimately before God may be an uncomfortable task. All sexually abused women ought to be taken seriously, and granted patience in our journey towards rediscovering and re-entering sexual spaces. It is not easy to let ourselves back into the sexual realm, let alone for us to allow God to walk with us once again into this traumatic space. However, the method of sexual storytelling within theology works to reassure other sexually abused women that the fearful thought of God existing in our bedrooms can be the meeting point that saves us – where we conquer and rebel against the abuse. Locating God where the abuse happened is an act of revolt that may put a stop to the suffocation of spirit, setting God’s presence free into all the spaces in our lives.
Therefore, as Althaus-Reid argues, sexual stories exist within indecent theological reflection in which there are no pages cut from the books of our sexual experiences (2000, 146). Althaus-Reid’s imagery here is significant for sexually abused bodies, as it reassures these bodies that they do not have to censor their trauma, restricting themselves to only the “appropriate” experiences that will not upset those who listen to them. Althaus-Reid wants to eliminate this censorship, especially within Christian theology, as she argues that theology has thus far limited its engagements with sexuality to neat, tidy, and unrealistic boundaries (2003, 61).
As researchers who engage with self-narrative approaches, we should not have to eliminate the sexual, dirty, dark, or messy experiences from our stories. In doing feminist theology, we ought not to begin with those bodies considered “normative,” but should dare to do theology from a sexually abused body, as Grovijahn demands in her theological reflection on embodiment (1998, 29). As my own narrative consists of stories of sexual abuse, it is important for me that all stories – including those considered “obscene” (Goss, 2003) – are voiced and not silenced.
Althaus-Reid challenges the disembodied theological method of writing abuse, and asks, “why is the tortured male body of Christ less offensive than a woman’s tortured body?” (2000, 111). With this shocking image being laid before us, Althaus-Reid demands that abused women’s bodies be taken seriously and not ignored or brushed aside. For, such brushing aside only continues to distort and suppress the confidence and dignity of the abused female body. The work of theologians such as Althaus-Reid creates a revolt against the stigma surrounding “non-normative” bodies – it allows for an inclusion of all types of bodies that have not been taken as seriously as those defined as “ordinary” (Althaus-Reid, 2003). Althaus-Reid suggests that this can become a reality when we defamiliarize ourselves with the heteronormative God, and look instead to a stranger-God who may, like so many non-normative bodies, be left outside the gates of traditional theology (2003, 59).
Grovijahn (1998, 29) likewise argues that we ought to begin our theology from a place of authenticity, where we can be ourselves – daring to do theology from a sexually abused body. Similarly, Greenough (2018, 30) proposes that writing the sexually abused self into theological research can “enable individuals to move from sexual shame to embracing themselves.” Using sexual storytelling within queer theology, Greenough offers an “undoing” methodology in which honesty and vulnerability liberate the researcher to be reflexive on a deeper level. Greenough looks to “undo” the “diluted” (9), “normative theology” or “vanilla theology” (13) that engages with sex and the body, and to work towards a theology that uses sexual stories as a central framework that will “disrupt sexual ideology in Christianity” (23). It is a theology that is firmly grounded in the messiness of life (32) – finding God in our everyday experiences of sex and the body.
When researching the sexually abused body, feminist theology begins with the locus of the female body. It asks: how and where do women experience God? This question has led feminist theologians to begin their theology in the bodies of women of all shapes and sizes (see e.g. Isherwood, 2007who engages with “fat” female bodies). For Carter Heyward, “God is immersed in our bodyselves – in all our particularities” (1989, 103). In these particularities, Heyward refers to sensuality and the erotic, arguing that if we use the Bible as our primary authority, and we live in “denial of our bodyselves” (94), we will be pulled apart from the embodied God, each other, and ourselves (95). Heyward proposes that Christianity has developed a fear of the erotic (“erotophobia”) and has thus separated God from the realm of the sexual (1989, 5). She suggests that this is why distorted relational acts, such as sexual abuse, occur. Fear creates a divide from self, others, and God. She laments, “We have been stripped of our capacities to delight in ourselves, one another, and [God]” (1989, 4). Until we take our bodies more seriously and treat our bodies as authoritative, she warns, we will remain “untouched and untouching” (Heyward 1982, xviii). “Our bodyselves know better,” she suggests, “They speak the truth” (1989, 106).
Our bodies tell us so much about God and our personal relationships with this embodied God. We will come to understand that the bodies of women – their sexual acts, their sensory experiences – are the real presence of the divine (Isherwood, 2010, 78). We can learn a great deal about God in all our experiences, even in the surprising places such as the journey of healing and recovery from sexual violence.
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Feature image courtesy of Jon Nagl (Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/8Yvbs4)