With sexual harassment and abuse being covered so frequently in the media over these last few weeks, it seemed like a good time to talk about how to move forward and start to heal after abuse. Of course, this is a huge topic, so we're getting started with how to manage the effects of sexual trauma on your own. Next week, we'll talk about navigating the waters with new partners. The healing process looks different for every person, but here are some steps that you may find helpful.
Art by Angelica Alzona
Acknowledge the Trauma
First and foremost, it's important to acknowledge that you've been traumatised. Denial, distancing and minimising are extremely common reactions for sexual trauma survivors. My clients say things such as, "That happened so long ago," "Other people have had it way worse than I have," or "It wasn't even that bad."
It's difficult to acknowledge sexual trauma because it's something you didn't want to have happen in the first place. Having to acknowledge it feels even more painful. A lot of male survivors struggle to acknowledge sexual trauma, since we stereotypically believe that only women can be victims.
If you catch yourself minimising your trauma, you can say to yourself something like, "I know it's hard to acknowledge that I've been abused. But it did happen, and it needs my attention. I deserve to acknowledge what happened to me, and to heal."
Don't Blame Yourself
On the other side of the spectrum, a lot of sexual trauma survivors blame themselves for what happened. Society and the media can be immensely victim-blaming, and it can be hard not to internalise those beliefs. You may believe that you were at fault due to the clothing you were wearing, the way you acted, the things you said, or the situation you put yourself into. But please know that victims can never, ever be at blame for their abuse.
Be Aware of Potential Impacts
Sexual trauma is incredibly difficult because not only do you have to deal with the act itself, you also have to cope with its ongoing effects. This kind of trauma can drastically alter your relationship to yourself and to your body, your relationships with others, and your sex life. Many survivors aren't prepared for the ongoing effects, especially if they have minimised or distanced themselves from their abuse.
It can be helpful to know some of the common response patterns that survivors may experience, such as:
- Getting scared or jumpy when approached, talked to, or touched in specific ways.
- Feeling hypervigilant.
- Having a hard time trusting others.
- Feeling scared of losing control.
- Dissociating during sex. Feeling like you go somewhere else mentally.
- A low or nonexistent sex drive.
- Difficulty getting turned on or reaching orgasm.
- Feeling disconnected from your body, or even hating your body.
- Not knowing how to make healthy and safe decisions about sexual activity.
- Sexual pain conditions and health issues, such as vulvodynia or UTIs.
It's important to get a sense of which effects are showing up in your life. This comes back to acknowledgement. The first step in any healing process is acknowledging what the problem is. Once you have a sense of how this trauma is showing up in your life, you can start taking steps to address it.
In case the title isn't clear, mutual masturbation is when you and your partner masturbate in front of each other. I think it's one of the most underrated sexual acts; very few people do it, but it can be one of the most erotic experiences you'll ever have.
Identify Your Triggers
In a similar vein, it may also help to start to create a trigger list. Sexual abuse survivors often get triggered by certain actions or words. Try to start gathering information on what triggers you. When you do feel scared, uncomfortable or nervous? When do you feel dissociated? What words, actions or activities don't feel safe?
Creating this list can be a tremendously sad experience for many sexual abuse survivors. For that reason, I also recommend creating a safe list. What sexual actions or activities do feel safe to you? Write down any little item on your list, no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem.
Come Up With Goals
Many sexual abuse survivors feel like their abuse has taken their sex life away from them. They no longer feel in control. You can help yourself start to regain that control by thinking of goals for your sex life. What do you want your sex life to look like? What do you want to feel comfortable doing or saying? How do you want to relate to your body, to yourself, or to others?
Take Really Good Care of Yourself
Sexual trauma can take a huge toll on your relationship with yourself and lead to depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other mental health issues. It can tank your self-esteem, and even make you hate yourself. It can be particularly tough on your relationship with your body - it may seem difficult to feel present in your own skin. You may even feel like your body betrayed you during the abuse itself.
It's crucial that you take exquisitely good care of yourself. Ignore the negative thoughts and impulses that may be running through your head, and try to be an incredible friend to yourself. You may have favourite self-care activities that you already know you enjoy, such as cooking healthy meals or getting plenty of sleep. Or it may be time to brainstorm a new self-care routine. What does your body really like doing? When do you feel the most at home in your own skin? When do you feel happy, calm, safe or content? Possibilities include exercising, taking a bath, sitting in the sun, cuddling with your pet, wearing favourite items of clothing, journaling, meditating, or watching movies. Try to do at least one kind thing for yourself every day.
You should never, ever feel like you have to manage the impacts of sexual trauma alone. What happened wasn't your fault, and you deserve plenty of support in processing it. I highly recommend getting personal therapy. It doesn't matter what type of therapy you choose; just find someone you like and start processing. You may also find it helpful to join a support group. You can also call 1888 Respect at 1800 737 732 whenever you're feeling alone or want someone to talk to. Feeling supported is vital to the healing process.