Tabooization: Translated it Means a Social “Shut Up”

By Jeanne Sarson | Oct 20, 2011


I am adding this word ‘tabooization’ to my language. Because, in my opinion, it reinforces gender-based oppression; it is used to silence persons who have suffered sexualized victimization. In effect, tabooization sends socio-cultural and relational messages to victimized persons, predominately women and girls, telling them to “shut up” about sexualized victimization which includes rapes, whether these were or are inflicted in the so-called public or private spheres.

I’m tired of tabooization. Because it cements in social denial and facilitates blame-the-victim responses; it heavily burdens victimized women and girls with a sense of emotional shame and Self-blame. It even reinforces the destructive messages delivered by perpetrators, especially the ones who spend years forcing their child victims to believe the lies hurdled at them, such as, “it’s all your fault”, “you’re bad” and “you asked for it”.  “What happens in the family stays in the family” is another taboo silencer as is being called “slut”, “whore” or “cunt” since toddlerhood. Linda and I support women who have specifically survived sexualized torture inflicted by non-state actors (private individuals/families/groups), who verbalize that such messages not only forced them to internalize Self-blame and shame but also led them to develop intense fear of being ‘discovered’—then, what would society think of them!

Being discovered as a victim of sexualized torture exposes them to painful socio-cultural and other forms of relational stigmatization and discrimination. Depending on where a victimized woman or girl lives, being socio-culturally blamed can even result in being stoned to death or beheaded. Female gender-blaming is embedded in the patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes that have been carried along through the centuries. Sexualized crimes are inflicted during tribal warring, nation warring, and during the gender ‘wars’ that thrive in ‘peacetime’. However, there are women who keep pushing for their human right not to be silenced and to attain their legal right to seek justice. Guatemalan women’s banners said it all—“When they rape one, they rape us all"—as they marched outside the courthouse where Juana Mendez was breaking the taboo of silence by seeking justice for being raped by two drunk policemen when she was being held in a jail for unclear reasons.[1] 

This morning I read, Silence lifted: The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust, by Jessica Ravitz.[2] Individual opinions in the article were divided. Those that know women so victimized need the freedom to speak if they so choose and those who expressed that speaking of the rape of women in the Nazi concentration camps could give the “wrong idea about the extent of rape during the Holocaust”. This latter statement gives rise to tabooization—that revealing sexualized atrocities may unfairly taint reality. Well, does not speaking about the sexualized violence endured by women and girls during the Holocaust not distort reality? For me, such tabooization is most troubling because I think of the reports revealing human experimentations and I have not read that these atrocities are not to be spoken of because their numbers are not large enough? Or, if spoken, it will give the wrong impression about the extent of the torture experimentations that went on.

Recently, Linda and I visited three holocaust camps and museums in various countries that are trying to tell the story of the Holocaust. Rape victimization is one of the stories we heard. I will focus on our visit to Ravensbrück, now a historical memorial which presents the Holocaust from a women and gender studies perspective.[3] Ravensbrück began as a concentration camp mainly for women and their children, included were women resisters and activists. It was also a death camp with a crematorium.

An hour on the train from Berlin, Germany, then a 20 minute walk from the train station in the town of Fürstenberg brought us to the cobble stone roads constructed by the women prisoners that led us into the Ravensbrück ‘camp’. It sits on the banks of beautiful, peaceful Lake Schwedt. The scenario immediately brought on a clash between environmental beauty and historical acts of human evil. Walking into “The Cell Building” there was, for all to view, photos displaying women’s legs and the so-called “experiments” they suffered. There was no concern that these images would give the wrong impression about the extent of the experiments carried out. What makes these atrocities ‘acceptable’ to be seen and spoken of yet when it comes to sexualized and reproductive tortures tabooization clicks in?

Between July 1942 and August 1943 women prisoners became human ‘scientific test’ victims. Reproductive tortures involving sterilization experimentations were inflicted on more than 100 girls by injecting, without anaesthetics, infection-inducing fluids into their uteruses or by applying destructive X-ray dosages. Should we not speak of these 100 reproductive tortures for fear of distorting the reality of gendered-violence? Reproductive tortures are a form of sexualized gender-based torture.

Inside Ravensbrück 500 babies were born, only a few survived. Should we not question how 500 impregnations occurred or when they occurred or consider whether these were forced impregnations? Should we not ask what happened to the women and the babies after the women gave birth? Since neither Linda nor I are into practicing tabooization I will briefly share some of what we learned. We learned that women who arrived at Ravensbrück pregnant faced forced abortions regardless of how far along their gestation. We learned that rapes did occur. We learned babies were born and most died within three months. We learned their mothers went to the so-called nursery to try and breast feed their babies but starvation did not allow their bodies to produce milk for nourishment. We learned that rats gnawed at tiny dying babies. Sexualized tortures include rapes as well as reproductive tortures. The women and the babies are worthy of being spoken of and of being remembered.

Why is it so important to expose tabooization? It is important Ravensbrück women’s voices are heard and if they choose to reveal the acts of sexualized and reproductive tortures they survived because their voices can help others. As do all the stories of sexualized torture that other women in many parts of the world speak of enduring and surviving. In 1993, when Linda and I were ‘introduced’ to non-state torture victimization that occurred in the domestic or private sphere, we could find no one to help us help the woman who was so tortured and in dire misery. We could find no grass roots literature on domestic gender-based torture. In the end, we turned to the torture and survival stories of women who spoke of State torture victimization. It was the voices and the writings of women survivors from places like the Nazi concentration death camps that we clung to, that helped guide us along a passage of surviving horror and human evil, to helping the first woman become safe. These stories of sexualized torture were there for us because some of the women who survived rejected tabooization and took a path towards social responsibility to speak their truths. They did not shut up! Neither will we! 

1. Arenburg, P. B. (2008, December 13). Breaking silence. The Chronicle Herald, B1-B2.
2. Ravitz, Jessica. (2011, June 24). Silence lifted: The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust. CNN.
3. Stiftung Brandenburgissche Gedenkstätten. (2008). Historical Overview and map. Memorial Ravensbrück. Ravensbrück Memorial/ Brandenburg Memorials Foundation, StraBe der Nationen, 16798 Fürstenberg/Havel, Germany.


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