Healing from sexual trauma can be a complex process. Sexual violence is all too pervasive, the survivors are often left reeling after the traumatic event, and can experience profound impacts to their mental health. Some victims of sexual trauma even will develop symptoms of PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder. In this episode of the Modern Intimacy Podcast, Dr. Kate Balestrieri and Dr. Holly Richmond discuss how survivors can heal from traumatic sexual encounters and identify steps towards healing.
What Causes Sexual Trauma?
Sexual trauma can be caused by any sexual contact that is unwanted, unexpected, and/or forced upon another without their consent, leading to short or long term negative impacts to one’s sense of safety, mental health, trust in others, and their relationship to sex/intimacy with oneself and others.
Sexual trauma can ensue after overt unwanted sexual contact such as sexual abuse and rape or more covert methods of sexual violation such as slut shaming, being exposed to unwanted sexual content (i.e. nude photos/flashing), or being constantly sexually objectified.
It’s important to note that what someone identifies as trauma is up to each individual. One person might experience an unwanted sexual advance and regroup quickly not feeling too affected, and another might be devastated, terrorized, and notice common PTSD symptoms shortly thereafter. It’s not helpful to declare other people’s experiences as traumatic or not, rather, we should let people decide that for themselves as only they know their experiences best.
What Common Symptoms Stem from Sexual Trauma?
Research shows that some of the most common symptoms of sexual trauma include, but are not limited to: flashbacks and nightmares, feeling detached from feelings (sometimes called dissociation), feeling physically unwell (somatic symptoms), intense fear, avoidance of certain people, places, or situations, and isolation, among many more troubling experiences.
Symptoms can range from mildly uncomfortable to completely destabilizing and severely impact one’s ability to function in everyday life.
The Journey of Healing from Sexual Trauma
The words ‘journey’ or even ‘process’ are often used in the context of sexual healing as it’s often not a linear experience and can involve highs and lows. In addition to healing from the emotional, mental, and physical impacts of sexual trauma, many go through a profound unearthing around healing the damage the trauma has had on their relationship with sex and how they understand their sexuality.
Many sexual trauma survivors come to feel complicated about sex after experiencing sexual trauma. Some feel terrified, others feel completely indifferent about sex, and many other feelings in between the wide range of emotions. Healing usually requires the survivor to grieve the way their autonomy and feelings about sex have been stolen from them and eventually, if needed, discover how they can move forward in a way that is autonomous, powerful, and in control of their body and choices. Healing looks different for every person, but there are a few common resources that have been proven to have beneficial impacts for survivors.
Process experiences in therapy
Therapy can be a safe space to start the work of healing from sexual trauma. It might feel scary for some to think about divulging trauma with a stranger but disclosing every detail about your experience is not a requirement for effective therapy. It’s important to ensure that you are working with a mental health professional who specializes in treating trauma or even a somatic therapist, as they can help work through the impacts of trauma on both the body and mind.
Engage in support groups
Going through trauma can be incredibly isolating. Talking about trauma can bring up shame, embarrassment, and guilt, especially if the people you’re speaking with do not have similar experiences and understand what you are going through. There are many in-person or even virtual support groups for sexual trauma survivors to find community and support with others who have some idea what you might be experiencing.
Reconnect with your body
When you experience sexual trauma, living and being present in your body can become a scary thing. During trauma, the brain and body often disconnect from each other as a means of keeping the survivor at a psychologically safe distance from the violation. Reconnecting with the body can be a difficult task because even if there is not a real, imminent threat anymore, the body is still on high alert and may still be acting as if the trauma is still occurring.
Engaging in yoga, meditation, body scans, and working with a somatic, trauma informed therapist can help you feel safter and more embodied after going through trauma.
Define your sexual boundaries
After experiencing a sexual trauma, it can feel like you don’t have any autonomy over your safety and needs. It can be a learning process to fully believe that it is your right to set and have your sexual boundaries be respected. What boundaries can you think of that would allow you to engage in sex in a way that feels safe, contained, and pleasurable? This could be a great journaling exercise to identify healthy and beneficial boundaries.
Trust Yourself & Trust the Process
Healing from sexual trauma is no easy feat and it’s a feat you are absolutely capable of. You did not choose to have to heal from something so violating; this shouldn’t have to be your work to do. That being said, you have everything naturally inside of yourself to rise from trauma, thrive, and have a fulfilling relationship with sex in the end.
If you or someone you know is in need of support, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673
Dr. Holly Richmond is a Somatic Psychotherapist, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT) and Certified Sex Therapist (CST). She sits on the Clinical Board of Directors for Dame Products and is the Associate Director of Modern Sex Therapy Institutes.
This unique combination of credentials enables her to focus on clients’ cognitive processes as well as mind-body health. In addition to teaching numerous sexual health-related subjects, she works with women, men, couples, and gender-diverse individuals on relationship and sexuality issues.
Her treatment specialties include low libido, sexual dysfunction, compulsive sexuality (often called “addiction”), desire discrepancies in couples, recovery from sexual trauma, and alternative/non-traditional sexual expression.
Her book Reclaiming Pleasure: A Sex-Positive Guide for Moving Past Sexual Trauma and Living a Passionate Life is an innovative look at both somatic and psychological factors in survivors’ erotic recovery.
Dr. Holly is regularly quoted in publications and media outlets including The New York Times, CNN, Shape, NBC, Wired, Forbes, Oprah, Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health. Each interlinked facet of her work is grounded in a sex-positive perspective: all sex is good sex as long as it is consensual and pleasurable. This non-judgmental position allows her to assist clients in discovering their true needs, desires, and personal path to wellness.
Dr. Kate and Dr. Richmond discuss finding pleasure after sexual trauma. They highlight triggers that can surface years after the trauma such as pregnancy, birth, and major events. They also talk about when and if to tell your partner about your sexual trauma history.