On the Run, Homelessness and Non-State Torture Victimization

By Jeanne Sarson | May 15, 2012

No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Women,[1] is an important read. Written by Lisa Goodman, Katya Fels and Catherine Glenn with contributions by Judy Benitez, it chronicled a well-researched discourse on the complex reasons—past and present—of why women in the United States are homeless. In recent years the definition of homeless ‘living’ has expanded from relating to persons seeking cover in shelters, living on the street, or in vehicles, to those who are ‘couch surfing’—that is, calling on neighbours, friends and family members to provide them with shelter. The authors refer to the harsh findings of study after study revealing that homeless women frequently report multiple acts of sexualized assaults or child abuse victimizations inflicted by multiple perpetrators, beginning in childhood and that continued into their adulthood. At this juncture I suggest that some of this group of women would have suffered not abuse or assault but torture, including sexualized torture.

Finding a safe place is a challenge for a woman on the run!

Over the past 19 years women have courageously shared with Linda and I, minute details of their life-threatening torture ordeals and the impacts torture had on their developing personhoods as children and as adults, for the goal of torturers is to intentionally destroy the personhood and personality of those they decide to torture. When able to make a run for it—to try and escape, obviously, couch surfing was/is never an option as the torturers were their parents, extended family members, guardians and other like-minded individuals/groups. Being on the run created episodes of homelessness as described in the above mentioned article; not only did women live on the street and in shelters, sometimes homelessness meant seeking night shelter in unusual places. For instance, one woman speaks of hiding out on summer nights in graveyards, kept warm by lying on sun-heated gravestones. Historically, graveyards have provided a hiding place for others. Syvia, a little Jewish girl, hid with her father in a shallow hole he had dug next to a gravestone so she would survive a Nazi child-killing spree.[2] Other Jewish persons also hid there, and like this homeless woman, all were struggling for survival. But, for other homeless women who were tortured as children, graveyards were places of terror. Under the cover of darkness it was a safe place for torturers because they were unlikely to be interrupted. Therefore, finding a safe place is a unique challenge for a woman on the run from a family/group network of perpetrators of torture inflicted in the domestic sphere. These perpetrators inflict their terror in so many domestic places—indoors and out-of-doors—in homes, RVs, cottages, cabins, warehouses, basements, on farms and fields and private boats, anywhere that safely facilitates their organized torturing pleasures.    

Common Responses including Suicidality 

Depressiveness, hopelessness, shamefulness, Self-blame and Self-guilt are heavy weight emotions. Torturers intentionally transfer these onto the girls/women they victimize. Forcing them into life-long silence because they believed the degradations misogynistically and repeatedly hurled at them. Severe acts of humiliations that dehumanized were sometimes, for some women, drowned in alcohol and drug abuse, including smoking cigarettes because they said this helped them control their painful torture memories and emotions. Self-harming, including Self-cutting, was/is another example of survival coping as it focuses attention away from the woman's severe torture pain and suffering. Coming down off a life-time of over-the-top stress hormones can also lead to periods of risky behaviours, such as walking in areas that are unsafe, associating with fringe drug groups, or when supportive finances are not forth-coming women are sometimes forced into submitting to survival sexualized exploitation, taking the risks of suffering the battery of a violent “date”. Using the term “date” helps a woman cope as it distances the objectification she feels and has felt all her life.

Escaping acts can begin early. Some women tell of how they tried running away or tried to commit suicide as toddlers, their injuries described as accidents by the parent-torturers. It needs to be kept in mind that for women who have suffered torture victimization since infancy they have lived for years with life-threatening suicide and death thoughts. Holding these in reserve helped them to cope but often, at the same time, hoping that someone would care and rescue them as a way out. Based on Linda and my experiences, women so tortured need to have the freedom to have conversation about suicide and death—often daily—until they begin to believe and trust they can be/are safe.

Dissociating, Flashbacking, Re-enactments, ‘Body Talk,’[3] and Auditory Memories

Dissociative responses helped women survive years of life-threatening torture ordeals. It is important not to misunderstand their behavioural responses when triggered by sights, sounds or other environmental stimuli when they react and respond dissociatively, becoming disorientated, losing connection with the here-and-now, have episodes of wandering aimlessly to the point of not even remembering who they are. Triggers can cause flashbacking which propel a woman on a ‘journey’ into a specific past torture ordeal, altering her perceptions so she thinks and believes her torturers are present and she will be tortured again. These flashbacking episodes are not to be mistaken as hallucinations.

Re-enactments can appear suddenly. Re-enactments display the acts the torturers inflicted against a woman/girl, or can illustrate how they may have coped. For example, following a torture ordeal a woman/girl may have engaged in head-banging as a survival mechanism that diverted her focus away from the severity of the torture pain and suffering and horrification. When a woman can access informed and safe care these coping responses can be replaced with healthier patterns that help her to deal with emotional feelings and stress. 

‘Body talk’ is about the storage of torture pain at the cellular level. For instance, as a child a woman probably had bladder infections as a consequence of the chronic sexualized torture ordeals, when no longer being victimized she may have bladder infection symptoms but laboratory testing is negative. What can be occurring is cellular memory. When a woman has not had torture-informed support to process her victimization she may be unaware of the meaning of the cellular memories and think that these body talk memories means there is something seriously wrong with her. Such a worry adds to her overall anxieties. Body talk also occurs in the here-and-now; these are referred to as symptoms. Women do get bladder infections which create pain when urinating or sometimes causes referred pain to the lower back for instance. This is present day body talk. These symptoms tell a woman all is not well and the laborary tests will validate she has a bladdar infection. Body talk cellular memories can also be called ‘symptoms’ but are stored memory responses and these diminish as torture memories are processed.

Auditory memories—hearing the torturers’ voices in their head—are normal responses of torture victimization which need to be recognized so a woman will not be misunderstood as being schizophrenic, for example. Or, considered ‘crazy’ which is a common concern of the women Linda and I have come to intimately support. Again, the fear of being crazy adds unnecessary anxiety for she is not crazy. Because torturers never let up on demeaning the woman throughout her childhood, the torturers' voices are like recordings that never stop playing in the woman's mind, leaving little space for her to develop connection with/to her own thoughts and beliefs. Here again, with informed support, auditory memories can be challenged as a woman develops increased awareness of her own thoughts and Self-talk and separates these from the torturers verbal and emotional attacks.

These are very brief insights into torture victimization/traumatisation responses with explanations as to why it is necessary to know that torture, including sexualized torture, is a form of relational violence some women have/do suffer. Otherwise, young and older women will continue to be misunderstood, disbelieved, not listened to, stigmatized, discriminated against, marginalized, given mental illness labels, and/or be over medicated—system responses that add to their already overwhelming suffering.

System and Professional Violations

Women frequently tell Linda and me that as children and later as adults they were abused, assaulted, or tortured and trafficked by professionals in mental health settings, professional offices, clinics and hospitals. Their stories suggest that often in childhood there was a relationship between the parent-torturers and the perpetrator-professionals. Perpetrator-professionals also took damaging advantage of  the extreme vulnerabilities of the women when they were adults trying to recover. Understandably not trusting was/is a normal response given these experiential realities. And as the authors of No Safe Place stated, women’s shelters may well fail to provide beds to women who suffered violence inflicted by non-spouses. This is a situation a young woman recently confronted when she fled her apartment and job because of chronic stalking, break-ins to her apartment and repetitive rapes by her father. Her interactions with police, she states, have been consistently unproductive because in Canada, as in many places, torture by non-state actors (parents, intergenerational family members, etc) is not on the radar as a specific and distinct form of crime that some women endure—whether they are homeless or have homes and are seeking torture-informed services and protection.

Identifying that some women—homeless or having a home—have suffered torture victimization is essential to safe and effective service provision. The authors of No Safe Place rightly state that “stability may be elusive until trauma is named and at least partially explored.” There certainly is power in naming but there can be risks if the naming is incorrect. For example, based on Linda and my experiences, women who were tortured in childhood were frequently tortured never to tell but if they did they were taught to Self-harm or commit suicide. Women have told us how, as children, they were forced to practice Self-harming; for some women this meant being "taught" how to "sacrifice" their Self for "the family". This is important knowledge when efforts are undertaken to explore the victimization and trauma suffered. Self-harming or suicidality conditioning that can be triggered when women begin to tell can and needs to be addressed so that stability can begin. It is hard and painful work but healing is possible.

I wrote this Blog to widen the reality about the degree of violence some women suffer. When the authors of No Safe Place revealed studies stating that often homeless women report multiple acts of sexualized assaults or child abuse victimizations inflicted by multiple perpetrators, beginning in childhood and that continued into their adulthood, this statement has to be looked at from the perspective that some of the women/girls suffered severe acts of torture, terror and horror. For too long global social conditioning has ignored this reality—it has ignored that torture can happen in the home. This invisibilization must stop. Therefore, to assist women who have endured torture victimization in the domestic/private sphere regain their dignity as persons,  

  1. Women so harmed must be recognized as persons who have survived torture so they are understood, believed and effectively supported and protected, and
  2. Torture inflicted in the domestic sphere must be recognized and named as a specific form of victimization that exists and that women/girls might suffer. It needs to be criminally differentiated, for example, from sexualized assaults/abuse in order to promote torture-informed services, thereby preventing forms of secondary re-victimization that can result when such knowledge is ignored, rejected and invisibilized.

Not to be subjected to torture is a human right—it is every woman’s human right and every girls’ human right!


[1] Goodman, L., Fels, K. & Glenn, C. with contributions by Judy Benitez. No Safe Place: Sexual Assault in the Lives of Homeless Women.  Available http://www.vawnet.org/Assoc_Files_VAWnet/AR_SAHomelessness.pdf

[2] Roy, J. (2008). Yellow star (69-79). New York: Scholastic. 

[3] Sarson, J. & MacDonald, L. (2011, September 8). Sexualized Torture in the Domestic/Private Sphere and ‘Body Talk’: A Human Rights and Relational Feminist Paradigm. Paper delivered at the Sexualized Violence Conference, Middlesex University, London, UK.


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