How I Took Back My Power After Experiencing Sexual Trauma
Sex. There I said it. Recently, I started thinking it was important for me to open up the conversation about sex — a potentially triggering but also very fundamental aspect of the daily lives of many.
As a survivor of childhood sexual trauma and abuse, sex is a topic I find people usually dance around, tread cautiously through or just downright ignore. In all fairness, I can understand their hesitation and frankly, it may not have anything to do with me. Perhaps they are just trying to be polite or empathic, maybe it is their own discomfort with discussing sex with anyone or another reason entirely. If it is due to not being comfortable, that is completely more than OK and I respect that. As we all have been told, boundaries are very important. I also have boundaries. I have limitations on who, when and where I like to discuss sex. I think this shows I have healed a great deal from my trauma. I can make healthy choices about what I want to share and with whom.
Truth be told, it is also quite conceivable that I am a little hypersensitive about being treated differently, so I do sometimes jump to conclusions inside my head. I will automatically assume people are doing or not doing something just because of me, which is a rather egocentric view, I have come to realize. More often than not, the behavior of others has absolutely nothing to do with me. Imagine that? It took me a long time to learn and subsequently believe this.
However, about seven years ago, I began to wonder why some people in my life would talk about sex with others, but tend to stray away from this conversation topic with me. I began to realize there may be an incredible “catch 22” when it comes to kicking around the conversation of sex. As I’ve healed I’ve wondered, When does sex transform from a triggering and scary topic to a “normal” and not triggering issue? I think the answer and process may be different for everyone. But I wanted to investigate it further for myself.
I started thinking being uncomfortable talking about sex was becoming problematic and was likely interfering in my healing. It was certainly healthy for me not to discuss my abuse with everyone I knew, however I decided I should be able to talk about sex with some people. I thought this would help me normalize sex and be able to participate in conversations. Additionally, I wanted to have a healthy sexual relationship and to be able to set good examples for my children regarding healthy sexual talk, boundaries and consent. I wanted to be able to give myself, my partner and my children this gift.
I took my power back and worked hard figuring out my own individual issues of trauma and sexuality. For me, sex and my abuse needed to become two separate issues, not all mashed together into one messy fear.
When it comes to my sexual abuse and sexuality journey, I have thought about five stages of healing.
1. Recognizing potential trauma and triggers.
In the early stages of healing, I felt triggers consume me in discussion of sex and in my participation in sexual activity. Often these triggers and my feelings associated with them were outside of my control. I felt I was trapped in trauma bonds whenever and however sex was involved. Memories flooded me. I felt it was impossible to stay present. I felt a constant presence of anxiety and stress. At the beginning, this task I had set out to do felt so overwhelmingly daunting, I just wanted to give up. I completely did not understand what the big deal was about sex. I was pretty convinced it was something I could live without. This brings me to point number two.
2. Experiencing desire.
I had no desire to talk or participate in any sexual activities. I did not feel self-love and I did not feel love for anyone else. The thought of being intimate with anyone was so intimidating I simply chose not to engage. I was safe and that was that. Coupling these feelings with medication issues and sexual/non-sexual side effects, I just felt zero desire for sexual contact. This worked well, except for then it didn’t.
After a short while, I felt lonely. My own self-inflicted isolation was making me feel different. I knew I disliked it when other people made me feel different so why was I doing it to myself? I knew I needed to challenge my thoughts around sex and then slowly my behavior would shift. Classic cognitive behavioral therapy.
3. Working on the ability to be present in the moment without being triggered.
I started off slow and this was key. I needed to build trust and self-love as I built my sexuality. I began reading about sexuality and trauma, I read about sex. I journaled about my feelings and triggers and I read my journal entries out loud and often. I talked to my therapist about sex using appropriate terms such as “penis,” “vagina,” “orgasm,” “penetration,” “breasts,” etc. Essentially I became comfortable with the language of sex, particularity with the language of positive sexual experience.
I began taking steps to become at ease with my own body. I took long baths. After I had a shower, I kept my towel off for a few minutes and went into my room to dress instead of quickly throwing on clothes in the bathroom. I slept alone naked. I wore a bikini in the summer in front of people. I went for massages. (Massages are not sexual, but to me this was an important task to do because I had to take off some of my clothes and be comfortable with someone in a professional role rubbing my back.) I touched myself and I’m thrilled, not embarrassed to write about that. Being able to touch myself was a key component of healing the shame I felt about my body.
These were all small but significant steps as I eased myself into the world of sexuality. Together they added up to huge gains. I stopped seeing sex as a shameful, embarrassing subject and started seeing it as a normal human desire. It felt like all was not lost for me after all. This step took a lot of energy and quite a bit of time, however I believe it was necessary for me to do this gradually and properly. Rushing this would not have laid down the trusting foundation I required within myself.
4. Normalizing sex for myself and others around me.
Once I was comfortable with myself and my body, I wanted to be included in conversations about sex, but was unsure how I should communicate this to others. I wasn’t going to post a Facebook status saying, “Hey Everyone, I’m ready to have casual conversations with you about your sex life.” No, I didn’t want to freak people out.
I knew I would need to take a leap of faith and just begin to talk. So I did. I began to engage in dialogue with people in my life I trusted, not just therapists. That was really important. Discussing sex with “regular people” is quite a bit different than talking with a paid, helping professional. I also took sexual activity slowly in relationships, talking before doing anything, choosing my partners wisely and making sure they knew enough about my history before any sexual contact occurred. I grew to have some curiosity about how sex could be different if I did not experience abuse. This opened up my sexual experience so much because I felt the fear I had so closely associated with sex was lifting. I was able to be present in discussions and sexual activity without feeling triggered. What an amazing feeling!
5. Being able to orgasm and enjoy myself with my partner.
Lastly, once I met my fiancé, our connection developed quickly. I knew early on he was the love of my life and I needed to ensure the sexual aspect of our relationship was cherished. I thought it was going to be difficult, but it wasn’t. It was relatively easy with him, which took me by surprise. I believe the work I put into myself before meeting him was paramount. I felt comfortable, confident and beautiful going into relations with him. I had a great deal of self-love and he could see this. I was not going to settle in any relationship and he treated me with respect for my past, present and our future.
Like in any relationship — especially ones where one person has experienced trauma — there are issues. At times, I can still be triggered. However, it is how we handle those triggers that is completely different from my past. I am not left to cope with them alone. I am supported and loved as we talk about them. I am able to grow from my triggers and over time, they have become less traumatizing. Additionally, the frequency has subsided a great deal, which is really the ideal I have always been searching for.
Perfection, when it comes to my sexuality is not really practical or achievable. Learning mistakes happen and trial and error comes with the territory of sexuality was so refreshing for me. Part of the fun was figuring things out together.
For me in the present, I embrace my sexuality with my fiancé. We enjoy a healthy sexual relationship full of love and respect. I talk age-appropriately about sex and bodies with my 8-year-old, as I believe this is a very important aspect of parenting. I am able to laugh over drinks and talk about sex with friends. I am able to have a real conversation with my therapist about my sexual abuse without it putting me into a trauma bond that spirals into self-destruction.
I now believe this is where the real healing comes. That’s where the gold is. The self-trust, the understanding, the self-validation, the potential for forgiveness and the ability to truly move forward for myself and my family. Being able to build a life for myself without excluding any part of myself. It’s a long-awaited, relieving and blissful feeling.
Thinkstock photo via Natalia-flurno.