LEDA’S LOTUS: Dating Strategies for Sexual Abuse Survivors
Who, you may ask, is Leda? And what is she doing with a lotus? And what does any of this have to do with dating strategies for sexual abuse survivors?
I grew up in the sixties. And on of the most powerful lessons I learned from my feminist and civil rights activist foremothers and forefathers was how to transform the power that oppressive words and images have into momentum for self-empowerment. As young women, in the seventies, we learned not to be afraid of the “b” word, or the “c” word or, if we were gay, the “d” word; but to use humor and anger and the restless joie de vivre of youth to embrace the vibrancy of these words and make it our own. I chose Leda because she is the heroine of a particularly nasty little myth which, since I first read it in adolescence, has always deeply troubled me.
The gist of the story is as follows: Leda, a young married woman, refuses the advances of the god Zeus. Later, not to be rebuffed, Zeus disguises himself as a swan, swoops down, and rapes her.
Of course, there are many ways to interpret this story. One of my favorite interpretations exists in the form of a famous poem by William Butler Yeats (see Yeats’ Leda and the Swan). In the poem, Yeats breathtakingly captures the myth’s suggestion of humanity’s helpless entrancement in the grip of the unfathomable inevitability of desire and fate.
I find the story evocative and disturbing on many levels; not least of which that, of all creatures, the rapist is a swan. Take a moment to think about what the image of a swan conjures for you…For me, it represents transformation. The ugly duckling becomes the swan. The gangly adolescent develops into beautiful, graceful womanhood. All of that promise, here in this story, is turned on its head. Burgeoning womanhood is defiled by the very creature who has so often been used to represent it.
For sexual abuse survivors, this story is particularly resonant, on many levels. For many of you, that time of adolescent sexual development was a sad, anxiety-ridden transition, rather than a proud, joyful blossoming. For some of you, it was precisely during this transition that the sexual abuse began. For others, earlier abuse had already conditioned you to feel shame about your own feelings of sexual stirring and your curvier, more sexually-evocative body.
In Buddhist literature, and other eastern traditions, the lotus has long been associated with transformation. The lotus is a beautiful, white or pastel flower that emerges, as if by magic, pristine and bright, from its bed of mud. It symbolizes not only transformation, but the triumph of joy and beauty over difficulty and deprivation. In the Buddhist tradition, when we study the lotus, we learn more about our true selves. Like the lotus, we all have beautiful aspects, and parts of us that are ruled by selfish, competitive, shameful desires and fears–the mud. To really love the lotus, one must learn to love the mud. The deeper secret of the lotus is that the flower and the mud are one.
All the experiences you have had that make you uniquely you–the experiences of love and of abuse, are one. Experiences of pain, fear, shame or deprivation, when you can really claim them, create depths of self-love and compassion for others that enhance, rather than detract from, inner beauty.
In the eyes of someone who truly sees and loves you, all aspects of you, even those that you now associate with shame, are beautiful. Your fear of being gazed upon in a sexual way becomes a lovely shyness. Your lack of mutual, freely chosen sexual experience is an exhilarating canvas on which a universe of possibilities are waiting to be painted. Your sensitivity to even incremental changes in others’ moods–a common legacy of traumatizing relationships–gives you a unique ability to sense and respond to your lover’s most subtle desires.
Right now, mired in fear, shame and misplaced guilt, you are already a lotus, ready to open to the sun.
During the coming weeks, I hope you will join me in delving deep into the mud; talking about the many specific fears, insecurities and uncertainties that keep you from exerting your full effort toward finding someone with whom you can give and receive love.
Ideally, this blog will be more of a dialogue than a lecture. To find out more about me, please go to my website. You can also e-mail me through the website with either specific dating questions and strategies, or any other issues that arise related to the blog. I will make every effort to respond to questions within a week or two of receiving them. The more you, the reader, contribute, the richer a dialogue this will become.*
*Male survivors of sexual abuse who happen onto this blog may sense a certain gynocentric slant. While it is true that I am beginning by speaking more directly to women, men are very welcome here. The dialogue, ideally, will unfold in a somewhat fluid way. If more men join the conversation, the conversation will shift. I also strongly suggest that male survivors seek communities of other male survivors, because of the issues unique to sexual abuse of men. For example, the pernicious and alarmingly prevalent notion that men, and even boys, do or should want sex, irrespective of the interpersonal context in which it occurs, often separates men from their own feelings and from one another. A good source of exploring issues related to the sexual abuse of men is the book Betrayed As Boys, by Richard Gartner, Ph.D..
Often, one of the most devastating consequences of sexual abuse is isolation. Let this blog be a bridge out of loneliness and isolation. Let it be a way to connect with other survivors and see that the fears that isolate you are shared by a community of others. Together, understanding and compassion can create changes that, right now, are difficult even to imagine.