How Our Disgust for Abuse Erases the Abused

Louisa003 Rewriting the Narrative, The Adoptee Journey

Writing about your encounters with rape and abuse is a difficult thing. And yet it heals from the inside out. It allows me to express my pain and be heard in my stories which help me and in turn help others. My passion for writing the uncomfortable truths of my past, bears most fruit when I receive letters from my readers, thanking me for writing the things that are hardest for them to speak about. Those stories, that no one else likes to hear. But writing at this level of honesty entails even more courage; not only because the memories are often painful, but also because they makes you disgusting in the eyes of others. Yes, disgusting.

Divulging your difficult past means sometimes meeting people who have read your stories, and they can’t quite look you in the eye. Who don’t know how to react to you because they see you as tainted by abuse. It’s unspeakable, unmentionable and disgusting, even if you weren’t the one who inflicted it. Sometimes they feel uncomfortable as if they’ve intruded on private matters, as if by publishing your stories, you have crossed their moral boundaries even though they’re the ones who have clicked on the headline. This type of judgment blocks compassion; I know because in the past, I have also been guilty of it.

We are programmed as human beings with a biological reaction called ‘disgust’ and as a society, have reinforced this through any number of mechanisms to be able to live together. It’s part of the reason why so many stories of abuse remain untold and why many abusers can go on abusing, sometimes over decades. Abusees become disgusting by their association to abuse. Their stories are often doubted, shunned or dismissed as inconsequential. In honour cultures, the consequences are even worse.

Disgust is a survival mechanism which evolves over time like any others through instinctive reaction, and learned socialization. Disgust is considered one of the 6 universal emotions along with fear, anger, happiness, surprise and sadness. There are three domains – pathogen disgust, which “motivates the avoidance of infectious microorganisms”; sexual disgust, “which motivates the avoidance of [so-called dangerous] sexual partners and behaviors”; and moral disgust, which motivates people to avoid breaking social norms, like abuse or incest1.

One of the more interesting aspects of disgust is that it is transferable. In an experiment in 1990 by Rozin and Nemeroff, participants were asked to wear a sweater once worn by Hitler and all declined, even if the sweater was torn, washed, or had (alledgedly!) been worn immediately prior by Mother Theresa. They declined, on the basis of moral disgust because… ‘once in contact always in contact’. You can’t wash that shit off.

Disgust is designed to protect us from death, one way or the other; moral disgust is designed to create a basic avoidance of harmful situations. As morals are culturally determined, ‘adherence to cultural standards procures greater protection […] through conformity and in-group identification which in turn leads to greater survival (Vugt & Kameda 2014)’2. We avoid abusers therefore through self-protection and the abused for subconscious fear of contamination by transference.

But you might be thinking… abusees are not sweaters, they’re people. Surely we aren’t so pre-programmed as to cast those who have been abused in the same way! Sadly many do. But not only by association which is easily worked on once we are aware of it, but also by the self-recognition of our deeper, darker humanity. It’s self-referent disgust. Disgust which refers back to us and reminds us of ourselves. A reminder of what we humans are capable of, what we are all capable of. We think that by distancing ourselves from those reminders, we can survive better. It’s not true, because you cannot escape your own humanity. It only creates division and the tenuous creation of the false but supposedly ‘pure’ self. In those days when I struggled with the rape apology ethos that is so pervasive in our society today, I too saw the hideousness of rape and felt disgust; it made me unable to see past the disgusting act, to the person who had experienced it.

I’ve mentioned before that loving ourselves is the key to everything. But loving ourselves is a tough call when we are also capable of vile acts. Not that we all might perform those vile acts, or even think of doing so, only that we are all capable of them. And that means every other human – even those who commit vile acts – is like a mirror. But loving yourself, all of yourself, is the only way, the only way, that you can feel get rid of self-referent disgust and start treating others (and yourself) with compassion. And yet there’s a consequence that is hard to take.

Compassion is not selective. Compassion will rain down on your world and wash away your hatred even of abusers. You will no longer be able to vilify those you once thought deserved it, your world will no longer be black and white only confusing shades of grey. But on the upside, you will start no longer avoid and dismiss those who have experienced abuse, just because they remind you of something you can’t bear to be associated with or to admit is buried deep within your own humanity.


2. The Revolting Self: Perspectives on the Psychological, Social, and Clinical Implications of Self-Directed Disgust