"Compulsory sexuality": a measure of well-being
Criminology, Politics and Sociology University of Huddersfield Huddersfield, UK
In a (Western) world increasingly informed by therapeutic discourses, childhood is constructed as a time of sexual innocence, at the same time as we are led to believe that we can and should (and have the right to) live better, brighter, happier, more fulfilling, satisfying, and successful (sexual) lives. This has enabled a lack of childhood sexual innocence or a lack of sexual knowledge and desire in adulthood to be identified as evidence of childhood sexual abuse, but there are a number of problems with using sexual activity in this way. It denies children's sexuality and constructs children who do not conform to childhood sexual innocence (whether they are victims of sexual abuse or children beginning to explore their own sexuality) as problematic. It also constructs as problematic women who "deviate" from what, drawing on Rich (1980), I have called "compulsory sexuality", and thereby puts pressure on all women to adhere to the norm of a healthy, and therefore sexually active womanhood.
This paper presents findings from an ESRC funded in-depth study of sixteen women in the UK, which looked at their engagement with the recovery literature aimed at adult victims of childhood sexual abuse, and in particular that aspect of the literature which dealt with sex and relationships. Although all the women had, at least temporarily, believed themselves to be victims of sexual abuse in childhood, the majority had no concrete memories and for some their only evidence of such abuse was the identification of sex or relationship difficulties in their adult lives. The paper highlights some of the problematic assumptions which underlie much of the childhood sexual abuse recovery literature before going on to look at how women engage with this literature. The research suggests that women, including those who have no knowledge or memories of having been sexually abused as children, use the ideas promoted in this literature to reinterpret child and adult experiences within a narrative framework of childhood sexual abuse and construct themselves as victims of such abuse, and in doing so ignore those external factors which may better explain or improve their adult lives.