I had an eye-opening insight during a recent training class. We were talking about the #MeToo movement and trauma that carries forward from one generation to the next. It suddenly struck me that sexual abuse and violence against women was a trauma all women bear. When I shared my newfound wisdom, many of the women in the class nodded and said something like, “No, duh!”
I could have felt embarrassed because I hadn’t understood the depth of the #MeToo movement and the impact that sexual assault has on women as a group. Instead, I felt even more connected to the women in the room. If we haven’t been abused ourselves, chances are we know someone who has. If that person is our mother, our grandmother, or our great-grandmother, we may hold the impact of that trauma in our own bodies.
How Common Is Abuse of Women?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 35% of women around the world have been physically or sexually abused at some point in their life. Risk factors include low income, less education, fewer job opportunities, and living in communities that value men more than women.
If you are a woman of color, your odds of being abused go up. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), black women are 35% more likely than white women to experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner.
The WHO and DOJ studies don’t include emotional abuse or childhood emotional neglect, so I have to assume the problem is worse than the statistics show.
What Is Intergenerational Trauma?
How can abuse that happened to someone else affect us? Studies have shown that when you have a traumatic experience, it can alter your body chemistry and even change your genes. As a result, the stress from traumatic events or being sexually assaulted or abused can be passed down from one generation to the next.How can abuse that happened to someone else affect us? Studies have shown that when you have a traumatic experience, it can alter your body chemistry and even change your genes.
Rachel Yehuda, PhD, director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, studied the impact of stress on people who survived the Holocaust and 9/11. As part of her study, she looked at whether the survivors passed the stress down to their children. When the environment turns a gene on or off, it is called an epigenetic change. Dr. Yehuda found survivors of both 9/11 and the Holocaust passed these changes on to their children.
These traumatic events didn’t just affect the survivors. Dr. Yehuda found that trauma actually changed their children’s genes. The children of survivors showed the same biological and emotional effects of stress from the trauma. They had lower levels of the hormone cortisol, which helps the body manage stress. As a result, they were more likely to have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety. The children’s bodies were affected by trauma even though they didn’t directly experience the traumatic event.
The Impact of Violence Against Women Across Generations
Today, women continue to be the victims of sexual and physical violence. In the United States, we live in a male-dominated society where women often have less power. Having less power can increase one’s risk of being abused.
Recent headlines about Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and other famous men who have been charged or convicted of sexual abuse are only part of the story. It’s not just high-profile cases or ultra-powerful men. One in four women is sexually harassed or assaulted in the military. They are raped on college campuses—23% of female undergraduates report being raped. One in four women in the United States is severely abused by an intimate partner. According to a new study, 81% of women reported they were sexually harassed on the job.
Women who feel helpless in the face of abuse pass that trauma and stress down to future generations.
In this country, women of color have even less power than white women do. Because women of color are a minority, they are often more vulnerable to abuse. Over the course of history, many generations of women of color have lived through sexual bullying, assault, and abuse. Even today, they may be ignored if they choose to say “no” or report the abuse. Women who feel helpless in the face of abuse pass that trauma and stress down to future generations.
Healing and Reason for Hope
The good news, as Dr. Yehuda explains, is that inherited changes work both ways. When we learn how to soothe and manage the symptoms and stress of trauma, we pass that healing down. Even if we’ve experienced trauma, we can create change when we learn how to self-soothe. And our children may be stronger for it.
That being said, self-soothing doesn’t come easily to everyone. It’s hard to manage stress if your body is sounding an alarm even when there’s no danger. This overactive stress response happens for some people who have experienced trauma. We now know it can also occur if your parent was traumatized. Trauma therapy can help you learn how to manage emotions and work through trauma in a safe, supportive environment. You learn tactics that teach your body to return to its ideal level of arousal. When your body learns it’s not constantly under attack, you begin to feel less stressed. If you feel you could benefit from trauma therapy, start your search for a therapist here.
Self-soothing strategies go a long way toward helping you manage the stress that comes with trauma. Learning to self-soothe could also help future generations by supporting genetic changes that make it easier to thrive. But if racism, bigotry, and violence against women and minorities continues, the trauma will also continue to affect victims, survivors, and their children. If we don’t make and create change, the legacy of trauma will continue for future generations of women. It’s time for all of us to do things differently.
Campus sexual violence: Statistics. (n.d.) RAINN. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence
- Chatterjee, R. (2018, February 21). A new survey finds 81 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment
- Military sexual assault fact sheet. (n.d.) Protect Our Defenders. Retrieved from https://www.protectourdefenders.com/factsheet
- Rodriguez, T. (2015, March 1). Descendants of holocaust survivors have altered stress hormones. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/descendants-of-holocaust-survivors-have-altered-stress-hormones
- Statistics. (n.d.). National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Retrieved from https://ncadv.org/statistics
- Tippett, K. (2015, July 30). How trauma and resilience cross generations. Retrieved from https://onbeing.org/programs/rachel-yehuda-how-trauma-and-resilience-cross-generations
- Violence against women. (2017, November 29). World Health Organization. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women
- Women of color network facts & stats: Domestic violence in communities of color. (2006). Retrieved from https://www.doj.state.or.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/women_of_color_network_facts_domestic_violence_2006.pdf
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