Reclaiming Sexuality for Trauma Survivors

Sex is supposed to be fun, right?  Who wouldn’t want to feel the pleasurable sensations, and the connection to a partner that comes with making love?  For the survivor of sexual abuse or trauma, this possibly loving act is often a landmine. The psychological wounding can manifest in emotional and physical issues, including disconnection from arousal, an inability to be touched, a lack of desire.

If you are a survivor, know that you are not alone.  Witness these statistics:

  • The United States has the highest rape rate among countries, which report such statistics. It is 4 times higher than that of Germany, 13 times higher than that of England and 20 times higher than that of Japan
  • An estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today.
  • Every  2 minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.
  • 1 in 6 American women are victims of sexual assault, and 1 in 33 men. (reported)
  • In 2004-2005, there was an annual average of 200,780 victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault.
  • 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.
  • 1 in 5 children are solicited sexually while on the internet.
  • Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults (including assaults on adults) occur to children ages 17 and under.

(courtesy of www.healingsexualtrauma.org)

I know this firsthand. I was sexually molested when I was 8, and from that episode I took away two painful beliefs, 1) that it was not safe for me to be in my full vital, sensual self and 2) that I was supposed to be available butterfly_thumb.jpgfor the sexual needs of others in spite of my own feelings. I spent many years divorce from my own body.  My low sens of self was painful.  I offered sex in the hopes of getting love, and usually failed.  I had some enjoyable sexual encounters, but true surrender to pleasure eluded me.  And the connection between my heart and my pelvis was severed. If any of this sounds familiar, the good news is that there is hope.  It is possible to reclaim the connection to ourselves as sexual beings that may have been robbed from us. I have done it, and now I help others do the same.

I began my healing around this at age 27, when I went into therapy and consciously took back my rights to my own body.  But it took another 7 years for me to begin the journey to discovering my authentic sexuality. When you are beginning the healing process, here is what I recommend:

  1. Stop the self-damaging behaviors that you are using to stuff your feelings. They might have worked for a while, but in the end food, drugs, alcohol, cutting, overwork, you name it, will become more damaging than the pain they are masking.
  2. Confront the memories full on with the help of a trained psychotherapist. There are a lot of feelings to process from shame and guilt to anger and confusion. It took someone else to help me understand that it wasn’t my fault.  I also came to terms with the fact that a part of me was intrigued and sexually excited by the incident, adding to my juvenile feelings of confusion and guilt.
  3. I had to find forgiveness for myself and my perpetrator.  For me, this came from walking a spiritual path. I found a God of my own understanding that loved me completely no matter what. I  embraced the concept that everything happens for a reason, and that my past might help others.

Step 1 can actually pertain to anyone who feels unfulfilled.  Ask yourself, where am I using distraction as a coping mechanism? What would it really take for me to be gratified, and what fears are blocking me from pursuing it? Am I resisting pleasure because I am afraid of hurting others, or losing control?

At this point, I  had cleared away enough of the past to begin moving into my future.  Here is a simplified version of the steps I took:

  1. I had to learn where my boundaries were, and then develop strategies to create the safety that was required for me to be present and feel safe
  2. Increase my self-esteem to the point where I felt entitled to those boundaries, and able to express them
  3. Begin unlearning all the beliefs I had around sex as performance. The wake-up call around this came when I asked one of my mentors how I could just lay back and enjoy sex without worrying about my partner’s enjoyment.  She said, “why would you exchange your pleasure for a poker chip?”
  4. Give myself permission to embody all of my vitality. This is an act of deprogramming and reprogramming through affirmation, and re-parenting myself.
  5. Allow myself to explore what was available and then listen to my body for cues about what I liked and wanted. This involved trips to sex toy shops, lots of reading, and lots of workshops.

Reclaiming my sexuality could not have been done alone. I was fortunate to find teachers, mentors and a sex-positive community along the way.  It is vital to surround yourself with people who can model the healthy enjoyment of their own sexuality, and who will support you as you find your way.  I was blessed to find sexual partners who understood my needs, and were willing to be patient, and allow me to find my voice. I’m by no means done with my learning.  However, I have grown from a woman who jumped whenever someone came up behind her, to being able to surrender to pleasurable touch.  I can even wear a blindfold (sometimes!). I’ve gone from “Are you done yet?” to “Can we do it again?” I have sex when I want to and how I want to, and I have  fewer issues asking for what I want. And I believe that the best is yet to come.  There is still more permission I can grant myself, and more pleasure to be had. Most importantly, I am fully here.  I am in my body, present to myself and other people.  I can feel all of my emotions, and connect to others without shame or withholding.

As a sex educator and coach, I help others on this journey to reclaim their sexuality. One of my clients had endured years of childhood sexual abuse.  When she came to me, she had a very fulfilling spiritual life, many friends, and career success behind her.  But she was  disconnected from her body, and felt lonely for a romantic partner.  During our work together, she explored her own body, and gained anew appreciation for it.  She began cultivating pleasure in more areas of her life, including the clothes she wore and the food she ate. She learned how to touch herself in ways that made her feel sensually alive.  She gained the confidence to start internet dating, and at our last check in, she had had several dates with an interesting man.

If your past is preventing you from having a fully gratifying present, you can heal.  If you are willing to seek out help and do the work needed to grow beyond your challenges, you can live vibrantly as a fully expressed sexual and sensual being.  In the words of 19th century British physician, Havelock Ellis, “Sex lies at the root of life, and we can never learn to reverence life until we know how to understand sex.”