How to Reclaim Your Body After Sexual Trauma
Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Now, think of the number of people who will be sexually assaulted in the time it takes you to read this article—it's staggering.
For people who have experienced sexual trauma, they do more than think about the statistics. They are part of the statistics, yet it doesn't have to define them.
"Sexual trauma impacts people in a whole host of ways," said Dr. Kyle Zrenchik, Ph.D., A.C.S., L.M.F.T., a couples and sex therapist and cofounder of All In Consulting, LLC. "Some of the most common impacts can be seen in the way someone values and connects to their body, how one forms relationships and how one experiences sex and intimacy."
What is considered sexual trauma?
Many acts fall under the umbrella of sexual trauma, but Zrenchik notes the term is generally used to describe any adverse sexual event you've lived through.
"With that, there is a range of sexual traumas," he said. "Being insulted and embarrassed for being sexual is a form of sexual trauma. Sexual abuse or exploitation during childhood is a form of sexual trauma. Sexual assault or rape is certainly sexual trauma. Being exposed to sexual images without consent, having sexual images of you or intimate information about you shared without your consent and having witnessed sexual violence of another is sexual trauma. Essentially, anything sexual that results in the person feeling hurt, ashamed, disempowered, coerced, forced, scared or injured is sexual trauma."
The real-life impact of sexual trauma
Kimberly King, a victim of sexual assault turned educator, author, advocate and crisis counselor, shared her thoughts on the impacts of sexual trauma.
"Sexual trauma is very difficult to handle and affects all parts of self," King said. "It may start with blaming yourself for the assault. Shame and blame surface and attack. It can damage your self-esteem and concept of self at a minimum. It can cause a complete detachment or dissociation from self and a number of severe mental health ailments."
Some memories are so traumatizing your brain will suppress them to protect you. It can take years of therapy and time to pass before victims actually release some of the misplaced blame and burden.
The healing process
The process of healing is going to look different for every survivor of sexual trauma. As King explained: "There is no real standard path because victims process trauma in numerous ways. For some, they may seek immediate help by reporting the event, getting support, finding a therapist and learning how to connect with themselves and their body."
On the flip side, victims of sexual assault often do not tell anyone or report it. Often the trauma is put on a shelf and victims blame themselves and begin down a path of avoiding the emotions.
Zrenchik laid out three steps to help overcome the effects of past sexual trauma:
- Naming it. Identify the trauma and the effects it has on you. This is easier said than done, as most people avoid the trauma, as King noted. They may know the effects are there, but the more they can intimately describe how they are still affected, the more thoroughly they can heal.
- Facing it. A victim of sexual trauma needs to come face-to-face with the trauma and reclaim their power, their body and their life. This can be done through trauma-specific therapies, speaking their story to others, forgiving themselves or others, or other means of facing the trauma head-on and disempowering it.
- Changing it. This means changing the relationship you have with your own body. Develop a deeper connection to your senses, desires and your own sexuality. You can now use the fact you survived sexual violence as a catalyst to know yourself and your eroticism better and more authentically.
Learning the legal facts about sexual abuse, sexual assault and consent can also be an empowering step on the path of healing, helping a victim come to terms with the fact that this was not their fault. The more we all educate ourselves and spread awareness of this pervasive problem, the better we will be able to support each other in surviving the trauma.