Picture description, the image shows a heart shape made from short, red lit tubes, against a black background, suggesting a fractured or broken heart.
Content Note for rape, sexual assault, and abuse.
There is, of course, no typical client. Nor do I believe there is such a thing as a hierarchy of trauma, but, a recurrent issue for those who seek counselling is help on the journey to heal from sexual trauma. I use the phrase sexual trauma quite deliberately because it covers a whole range of different life events including (but not exclusive to) childhood sexual abuse, exploitation, rape, harassment, intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
It would be quite impossible to cover all the of the ways an individual might need to recover from sexual trauma, so in this post I am going to explore the reclamation/rediscovery of your own body and sexuality, in future posts I shall look at different aspects of how people may be affected, and helped to heal.
The deep well of guilt
There is so much guilt felt by survivors, not helped by a society which polices clothing, behaviour, alcohol intake, almost anything a victim does prior to an assault. The constant question I hear is “What if?” As survivors try to imagine a world in which they had not been hurt, a world where they took a different bus, dated a different person, left the bar half an hour earlier, or alone. One of the most powerful things I can say as a therapist is “It was not your fault,” The only person responsible for an assault is the perpetrator, they had a choice, a choice not to harm another human being, and they chose to enact that harm. No decision of a victim changes the fact that the perpetrator is also an individual, who at any moment could have chosen not to harm, but did not.
This guilt can be exacerbated if a victim/survivors experienced a sexual response to being sexually assaulted.I hesitate to use the word natural, since it can seem a loaded term, but it is a basic fact of human physiology that consent is not needed for our bodies to respond to stimulus. We may want to believe that a sexual response should be more complex than a reflex test, but wanting to believe it does not make it so. Furthermore the idea that sexual responsiveness indicates consent is used to push horrific concepts such as real rape, and to disempower survivors. This can be a particularly issue around the treatment of male rape and sexual trauma, where the physical response of having an erection is seen to somehow indicate consent. The myth that there can be no physical sexual response to sexual assault harms people of all genders, making survivors/victims feel that since they orgasmed/ were erect or experienced other physical responses they must have somehow been consenting.
Sometimes the guilt comes from the belief that society must be right, that a genuine victim would feel no physical response. It’s one of the areas in which self-directed research can help, knowing that it is in fact not unusual, even if it is rarely talked of can be incredibly healing for survivors. As can learning about how the body responds to stimulus, regardless of the mind controlling the bodies needs, wants or consent.
Another deeply traumatic response can be a feeling of betrayal by ones own body. The sense of self is deeply rooted in how we see our body, and if we associate sexual responsiveness with consent it can feel as if our body is no longer our own. It may even feel as if our body is a traitor, siding with the abuser, against our will.
Reclaiming the body
The process of reclamation can be a long journey, and not necessarily a smooth one. Recovery rarely takes place at one speed, and there may be moments where someone feels everything is going fine but then is blindsided, triggered by a new memory or new experience. Excellent campaigns such as My body back (sadly currently only available in London) are starting to get medical professionals to understand that for survivors many different forms of medical intervention can be a frightening, traumatic experience. If you feel able sharing with your nurse, gynecologist, or other medical professionals your experiences of sexual trauma can be helpful. Some people find asking someone they trust to advocate for them also helps. Part of the trauma around medical examinations can be the replication of the feeling of powerlessness, and explaining the why you are triggered can be a way of taking some of that power back.
Reclaiming the sexual body can seem an impossible task to some survivors, but it can be done.(Assuming they are not asexual, and this is what a client wishes to explore). It can be helpful to begin with a solo exploration, rediscovering for yourself what is, and isn’t pleasurable.This doesn’t have to just be around specifically sexual acts such as masturbation. Massages, showers, baths, even the feel of certain comforting fabrics against your skin can be steps towards accepting your own pleasure is OK. If certain activities with partners are too triggering these can be safe ways of experiencing pleasure and fulfilment.
Just as sharing with medical professionals can make examinations less triggering, so being open with partners can be very helpful. Avoiding certain acts, positions, even rooms (a bedroom isnt the only place where sex has to take place) can often change how you approach sexual pleasure. When you have experienced sexual trauma at the hands of a partner your ability to trust again, to allow yourself to be vulnerable can be shaken. I explore here some of the effects this may have one someone.
It needs to be said, if a partner attempts to push you into a sexual act before you are ready, or dismisses your reaction, that in itself is abusive. There is no set time for healing, no “shoulds” around consent. Pressuring you to heal is not acceptable, ever.
It is an old saying that time heals old wounds. It is not true, wounds can fester, and if ignored they can kill us. However when recovering from sexual trauma one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is time. There is not sell by date, no time line to follow, and each person’s recovery is unique. This being the case the suggestions here are not meant to be rules, nor should there be a sense of failure if you cannot yet, or do not wish to reclaim your body, only you know when the time is right. It might take professional support, it might take more than one period of therapy, or other life changes. But, healing is possible.
I can be contacted on northumberlandcounselling@gmail or 07442808719 if you would like to discuss counselling around the issues raised here.
Rape Crisis offer free, confidential and non judgemental support, often also with the option of face to face counselling.
2 thoughts on “Healing from sexual trauma”
I feel that we often blame the victims as a socitey. What if they had never turned down that street, or had that last drink? I really like how you put it. We should remember the attacker had a choice. It was their choice to hurt someone. What if they had decided to just not attack or hurt someone? My cousin is dealing with this right now. I am worried for her and can only imagine the pain and confusion she may be feeling. I think that a good counselor will be the best way to start the road to feeling good again.
I am sure your support, and understanding is a huge benefit to your cousin right now, especially as you understand it was not her choices which should be blamed, but the person who chose to hurt her.