"Our sexuality is one of the tenderest, most vulnerable aspects of who we are. It needs us to be safe and to feel trust. Then it can come out with the confidence, creativity, and even fierce passion that are its natural expressions."
Sexual trauma is incredibly common. Some estimate that it happens to three out of every four women and one in every six men. The incidence rate is even higher for queer, trans, and nonbinary people. It’s interesting that there is so much shame and silence around it considering such a majority of us have experienced it, on some level or another, at some point in our lives. It’s not rare and it’s nothing to be ashamed of, though many survivors tend to blame themselves, keep quiet, and avoid getting help.
When we are first dealing with the consequences of trauma, we need to get safe. We need to take care of our bodies, get away from anyone who might threaten that safety, and handle the crisis. But, eventually, crisis mode is over. We want to come back to a healthy, rich, connected life, which includes a healthy sex life. Anyway, that’s how I felt, when it happened to me: I had recovered, some, but my vitality, my pleasure, and my desire still seemed really far away.
Not surprisingly, sexual difficulties are very common side effects of sexual trauma. Our sexuality is one of the tenderest, most vulnerable aspects of who we are. It needs us to be safe and to feel trust. Then it can come out with the confidence, creativity, and even fierce passion that are its natural expressions. Our sexuality is related to our vitality, that lifeforce energy that drives us not only toward sex, but also toward connection, the courage to take risks, the drive to learn and evolve and grow. Our erotic energy gives us our inner light. Trauma tends to dim that light.
There’s a simple reason why this happens: Yep, it’s stress. When we experience something that makes us feel out of control and unsafe, whether it is a plane crash, a divorce, or someone stealing our purse, it can hang around in our bodies long after the event itself. One way of thinking about trauma is that it is that which sticks with us, that which teaches our nervous systems that we are no longer safe. If we go through something horrible but on the other side we can easily feel trust, safety, and connection, it wasn’t a trauma, it was just a bad experience.
Trauma isn’t so much about the experience itself or how extreme the experience was, it’s about how our bodies, our minds, and our nervous systems process that experience. Two people can go through the same exact thing, and for one person it was traumatic while for the other it was just unfortunate. No one can tell you what trauma is from the outside. It’s something we experience on the inside.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is called that because it is, essentially, a stress problem. The stress never quite leaves. Our bodies are stuck in fight-or-flight mode. That means our blood and energy are going to be more focused on adrenaline, muscular movement, and running way or fighting someone than on mundane things like digestion or procreation. Our brains essentially steal from our sex hormones in order to keep producing the cortisol and adrenaline that stress feed on.
So if we want to find a way back to sexual connection, we need to teach our bodies to get out of stress mode. There are many ways to do this in our everyday lives, including exercise, meditation, yoga, nourishing food, massages, acupuncture, and so on (see my course Stress Management Skills for Real Life). But there are ways we can work within the realm of sex to manage our stress as well.
The first way to do this is to work on your sexual relationship with yourself. That’s right—you don’t need to involve another person in this part of the process! Treating yourself with sensual attention is a beautiful practice. This can include slowing down in the shower and massaging your hair while you shampoo it. Taking the time to put lotion on your skin after bathing. Putting on some music you like and dancing around at home in a way that feels good. If you feel up to it, you can also practice sexual self-pleasure. Treat it like a form of meditation: Close your eyes, relax, breathe deeply into your belly, and approach it with an attitude of curiosity and compassion rather than aiming for any specific goal.
The thing we must understand about pleasure, especially when it comes to trauma, is that it requires that we feel our bodies. Pleasure asks us to be fully present, and that means letting in all of our emotions, including our fear, our pain, our anger, and our shame. Sexual pleasure can be especially difficult after sexual trauma because it might very well bring back some memories of what happened to us. Just as with a meditation practice, we must simply learn to stay present and be kind to ourselves through these experiences. If we choose to let someone else in on that, they must be someone that we can trust if those difficult emotions do arise.
With time and a little mindfulness, survivors can absolutely come back to their tender, loving sexual selves on their own, and also with a partner if that’s desired. As we release stress and invite trust and curiosity, we can come back to a healthy sexuality. Even if we don’t choose to express this energy in sex specifically, we will find ourselves more confident, more creative, more connected to our desires, more able to feel pleasure, and absolutely more powerful in who we are.