Help for Lesbian Abuse Survivors

Therapist authors a text on a subject long ignored by publishers

Donna Rafanello, a lesbian survivor of abuse who is now a family counselor, ends her own silence as well as that of several other sexual abuse survivors in “Can’t Touch My Soul: A Guide for Lesbian Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse.”

The book is a symmetrical collection of personal stories, academic analysis, and self-help advice, punctuated by pertinent quotes by everyone from Audre Lorde to Oprah Winfrey.

The narrative design generally works, resulting in a wealth of information beautifully stitched together. But at times Rafanello presents an abundance of ideas without providing the tools to process them, and the reader is left wandering through experts’ findings and survivors’ stories (many of which contradict one another) without a map.

Nevertheless, the book is groundbreaking in its candid treatment of topics that have been ignored by publishers, such as connections between lesbian identity and sexual abuse, similarities between coming out as a lesbian and coming out as a survivor, internalized homophobia as it is connected to abuse, violence in lesbian relationships, lesbian sex, and the challenges of relating to family as both a lesbian and a survivor.

For the most part, Rafanello discusses these issues with careful thoroughness. In one chapter, “Lesbian Identity,” she takes on the popular myth that sexual abuse leads to lesbianism. The author argues that this misconception is both homophobic and misogynistic since the search for homosexuality’s “cause” is by nature heterosexist (after all, nobody’s looking for the cause of heterosexuality) and because the very idea that abuse produces lesbianism is an effort by patriarchal society to blame the victim. Further, Rafanello establishes that lesbians are no more likely to have suffered childhood sexual abuse than straight women and that lesbianism is not a symptom of abuse from which one must recover.

Rafanello goes on to trace the coming-out process of lesbian survivors and, by recounting her own experience, encourages other women to embrace both their lesbian and survivor identities.

“To suggest that something as ugly and painful as the abuse contributed to my ability to love another women deeply and build a healthy and satisfying relationship with her strikes me as impossible,” she writes. “I recognize now that I was always gay; I suffered great pain at the hands of my brother in my preadolescent and adolescent years, but that did not make me gay.”

Rafanello continues, “I am proud to be a lesbian. He could not have caused this. He only caused pain and anguish. It is a testament to the human spirit that I emerged from the destruction of my childhood to create a loving bond with a woman.”

Rafanello’s intermittent use of the first person is wholly appropriate since one of her objectives is to give a voice to lesbian survivors like herself. However, the autobiographical perspective betrays some contradictions in her discussion on spirituality, titled “Healing.” There, Rafanello invokes her Christian-based faith, capitalizing the words “God” and “Him,” an implicit acceptance of a patriarchal deity. Rafanello recognizes that individuals follow many spiritual paths, but despite her own feminist approach to understanding human sexuality, ultimately she does not challenge Christianity’s fundamental patriarchy.

By contrast, her experience in psychotherapy, as both a patient and a therapist produces a remarkably thorough discussion of abuse-related disorders and the available treatment options. Rafanello provides a checklist of symptoms for post-traumatic stress disorder, common among sexual abuse survivors, along with helpful information about addressing depression, eating disorders, chemical dependency, rage, self-mutilation, and other destructive behaviors often rooted in abuse.

Rafanello’s review of treatments is extensive. She discusses talk-therapy (both group and individual), medication, meditation, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), art and music therapy, bodywork, and 12-step recovery programs. In addition, there is an outstanding section on how to find a therapist that is sprinkled with survivors’ success stories and cautionary tales.

Ultimately, it is these stories and tales that make Rafanello’s book an important addition to the genre of human sexuality. Beyond its thoughtful examination of childhood sexual abuse and adult sexuality, including its useful self-help advice about therapy and relationships, “Can’t Touch My Soul” bears witness to the lived pain and triumph of lesbian survivors whose stories have been ignored for too long.

We also publish:

More from Around NYC