The circuit metaphor is particularly apt for describing the effects of sexual assault because of the ways in which the trauma can infiltrate your whole system. “It isn't just something that happened to our bodies; it isn't just something that happened to our brains,” says Eborn. “It is all-encompassing.”
“It’s not that you’re broken, but you have to navigate yourself in a new way.” —Jimanekia Eborn, trauma-informed sex educator
That reality can make it easy to feel like you’re broken. But the switchboard isn’t dead; it’s more accurate to say it needs some reconfiguring. “Sometimes, I have days where my body feels very disconnected from me, or I feel like I’m existing at an angle,” says Eborn, of healing from her own sexual trauma. “It’s not that you’re broken, but you have to navigate yourself in a new way.”
What that path looks like will be different for every survivor, says somatic coach and restorative-justice advocate Marlee Liss. “There’s no one-size-fits-all roadmap to reclaiming your sexuality and pleasure after assault, and it isn’t a linear process either,” she says, “but I think realizing that is a really big part of the healing.”
How sexual trauma can disconnect you from the experience of pleasure and your own sexuality
Though the body can respond to trauma in a number of ways, any response is “an attempt at protecting you and helping you to feel safe,” says Liss. (And it’s helpful to see it through that lens in order to find some self-compassion if your body’s response isn’t what you’d like it to be.)
In terms of a person’s relationship to sexuality, two opposite responses are the most common, says Liss: hyposexuality and hypersexuality. The former is an aversion or fear of sex that typically looks like shutting down desires, rejecting sexual feelings, or numbing out in sexual circumstances “often so that you can feel a greater sense of control over your body and your decisions,” says Liss. It’s the body’s way of compensating for a loss of that control in the past.
The latter, however, is a compulsion toward sex, when “someone hyper-sexualizes themselves more than their typical amount, perhaps because they’ve internalized sexual objectification that's been imposed upon them or because they’re trying to deny or minimize the reality of the trauma they’ve experienced,” says Liss.
This hypersexualization response may make it seem, on the surface, as if the person has fully learned how to reclaim their sexuality after assault when, in reality, they’re sexualizing themselves purely as a result of trauma, and not because they’re in tune with their body or seeking pleasure.
It’s also possible for sexuality to ebb and flow post-trauma. “Perhaps, one day, all the switches on your circuit are off, and you just want to stay in bed all day, and the next, they’re all on, and you’re craving a sexual experience,” says Eborn. “I think there’s so much shame and blame placed on both sides [of that spectrum] that people struggle figuring out where they fall. But in a healing journey, there’s room for all of it.”
The key to reconnecting with an honest expression of your sexuality after trauma is to be able to observe the way your body responds to different sensory inputs and then listen to its cues.
The key to reconnecting with an honest expression of your sexuality after trauma is to be able to observe the way your body responds to different sensory inputs and then listen to its cues. “Our bodies are constantly telling us in many different ways whether we're feeling safe, whether we're feeling unsafe,” says Liss. But when you go into a hyposexual or hypersexual state, or enter another kind of trauma response, it’s easy to miss those cues, she says.
Learning how to turn back toward your own body’s senses and sensations, notice them, and value your right to feel however you feel is the core process of sexual reclamation.
5 strategies that can help you learn how to reclaim your sexuality after assault
1. Release yourself from shame and blame
While it may seem obvious that the survivor of sexual assault is never to blame, the reality is that trauma can get twisted in retrospect.
“There’s a lot of shame that can come with experiencing sexual assault,” says Eborn. And when you consider that the brain is our biggest sex organ, it’s no wonder that holding onto all that shame can distance you from sexual pleasure. “If you’re constantly thinking, ‘This is my fault,’ or ‘I could’ve prevented this,’ it’ll be very difficult to reclaim your sexuality,” says Eborn.
Her advice? Remember that shame is a feeling put upon you by other people, other things, or other circumstances. “Instead of owning that shame as yours, think about it like, ‘This feeling is not mine, and it’s not of my creation,’” says Eborn. Yes, you have to deal with it now, she qualifies, but the important thing to remember is, you didn’t ask for or deserve this.
2. Take yourself on pleasure-focused “self dates”
It’s essential to carve out solo time on your calendar that’s designated just for your pleasure while you’re on the journey of learning how to reclaim your sexuality after assault. Eborn and Liss both call these pockets of time “self dates.” They can be any length of time—whether three minutes or 60, depending on what you can swing—and the only rule is that you use the time to feel good.
Notably, that means you’re not going into these self dates with a particular goal to accomplish or sexual act to achieve. “I think that there can be this kind of capitalist, productive approach to healing from sexual trauma that's like, ‘I need to be okay again, and I need to be like I was with sexuality, and I need to get there by tomorrow,’” says Liss. “But that kind of pressure can lead us to cross our boundaries and just put ourselves in re-traumatizing places.”
Instead, the point of the self-dates is to focus purely on pleasure—and not necessarily orgasm or masturbation or even anything sexual at all. While you certainly can use the time for a solo sex session, you might also use it to take a hot bath, dance with reckless abandon, or savor a piece of pizza.
"Ask yourself, 'What would bring me pleasure right now?' or, 'What would allow me to connect with 1 percent more pleasure right now?'" —Marlee Liss, somatic coach and sex educator
To figure out which route to go, Liss says to ask yourself the deceivingly simple (yet often overlooked) question, “What would bring me pleasure right now?” Or, if that feels too inaccessible, even just, “What would allow me to connect with 1 percent more pleasure, or peace, or comfort right now?”
This practice can help increase your awareness of your own body and senses, allowing you to practice self-consent, says Liss: You’re asking yourself what would feel good, and then you’re acting upon that, which is a beautiful reclamation of power over your physical being.
Indeed, allowing yourself to answer the question honestly is a reminder of an essential truth: “You know yourself better than anyone else does, no matter what anyone tells you or tries to talk you out of or talk you into,” says Eborn.
3. Reimagine the physical or mental context you’ve created around sex
Simple changes to your environment or approach to sexual pleasure can make a world of difference in how you perceive it in the wake of trauma.
On the physical side of things, consider how you might rid your space from as many triggers as possible, says Liss. Toss any objects that take you to an uncomfortable space, remove triggering songs from playlists, adjust anxiety-provoking lighting, and the like. And at the same time, consider how you might add glimmers—aka the opposite of triggers—into your physical space. Perhaps these safety cues include a particularly calming sound or smell, or a comforting blanket. (Some people take their comfort a step further with something more permanent that they can carry with them always. The Medusa tattoo's meaning, for example, is all about survival, strength, and overcoming assault.)
When it comes to the mental context you’ve constructed around sex, Eborn also suggests dropping preconceived notions and starting fresh by taking the Erotic Blueprint quiz, which sexologist Jaiya Ma created. The five categories it includes—energetic, sensual, sexual, kinky, and shapeshifter—each encompasses unique sexual turn-ons (for example, soft and wispy touch for the sensual people and something that feels personally taboo for the kinky people).
“By taking the quiz, you can see what might feel connected to get you back in your body,” says Eborn. That answer certainly may have changed as a result of experiencing trauma—and that’s not a bad thing so much as something important to notice. “It’s okay if you no longer want or feel comfortable doing that one thing that was once a turn-on,” says Eborn. “There’s so much body, there are so many ways to touch it, and sex is about far more than penetration.”
4. Redefine your sexual boundaries
Part of learning how to reclaim your sexuality after assault is identifying and honoring your own sexual limits. One way to do this is by creating a Yes/No/Maybe list, says Eborn. Just like it sounds, this involves categorizing any number of different sex acts, fantasies, toys, and positions as “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe,” based on your interest (or lack thereof) in trying them.
This way, you have a reference—“a cheat sheet of sorts,” says Eborn—for what you enjoy, what you don’t, and what you’re open to exploring, which you can also share with a current or future sexual partner, if relevant. Though it might seem like TMI to share it, it’s important to remember that “most people actually want to know how to have sex with you, rather than guessing,” says Eborn.
You can also explore where your sexual boundaries fall during one of your pleasure-focused self dates, above. If you’re tuned into what feels pleasurable, you’ll also be able to better identify what doesn’t (or when something stops feeling good). “A key piece that’s easy to miss is that sometimes, the most liberating breakthrough is you being like, ‘That’s enough for today,’ and knowing where to draw a boundary,” says Liss. “That, in and of itself, can be an experience of pleasure.”
5. Know that sexual reclamation post-trauma isn’t all or nothing
In the headspace—and body-space—of healing from sexual trauma, accessing pleasure of any sort can sometimes feel like a stretch. Which is why, Liss says it’s important to remember that two things can be true: You can feel grief or sadness or pain or anger (or all of the above) about the experience of sexual assault, and you can also reclaim pleasure. “Different feelings can coexist,” says Liss, “and the journey to healing is really about allowing that coexistence to happen without denial.”
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