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living with sexual trauma and healing

by Kai – Somatic Sex Practitioner (Coach and Educator)

 You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own fact”. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

We all have some form of experiences with trauma in our lives. You might know someone with trauma, or you might be living with sexual abuse and trauma yourself. Either way, it affects us all. The toll from trauma can be felt for generations and it’s devastating to anyone in its wake.

Some feelings are likely to be evoked in you from this blog. I ask you to create a space for empathy and curiosity within yourself. If you have experienced sexual trauma and start to re-live your trauma I would like to guide you at this point to pause and breathe through these felt bodily experiences. Gently breathe in through your nose and gently breathe out through your mouth. Nice and slow, being aware of where your tension might be. Feel into it, relax with it and let it out on your out-breath. If your reaction is overwhelming please consider not reading any further and follow up with someone who you can confide in and support you. If this is not possible then seeking the support from a Counsellor or Psychologist.

It’s taken some time to get around to writing this blog. Not out of not wanting to write it, but time to feel into it. Time to reflect on past experiences. Time to just be with my bodily feelings and thoughts in the present moment. To help dampen my emotions to these past experiences I am going to use a technique recently described by Dr Peggy St Jacques from the University of Sussex on visual perspectives in memory. Her work suggests viewing experiences such as trauma in the third person. Using this perspective might help reduce the amount of emotion I feel when describing my personal experiences to you. It’s really important not to re-live one’s trauma persistently. 

I initially struggled writing about my experiences as I was confused about the language I would use to describe a reality that existed in the past and the present. I have written many drafts over the last few years. Today will be my final.

You see, I am a casualty of teenage sexual abuse. I won’t use the word victim. I don’t like this word. It feels somewhat coarse. I get a bodily sense of roundedness when using the word casualty. The nomenclature of both words is somewhat similar. But casualty for me represents the circular effects of sexual trauma. The circle that just keeps cycling through until such time you can break it, move it, and let its hold on you go.  

Another reason for holding out on this blog is I grappled with the amount of detail I would share with you and the broader community. This story is part of my journey that involves my lived experiences. It’s deeply personal, ingrained into every part of my being. It’s a retrospective story. At the time of events, I didn’t have a vocabulary or an internal awareness to describe what was happening, nor was I ever empowered to say no or stop. I now know that my body was trying to apply some form of break that it couldn’t and wasn’t able to access. 

I have decided to weave parts of the story with work from leading scholar and pioneer in trauma research Professor Bessel Van Der Kolk. He is also the author of The Body Keeps The Score – Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Integrating and sharing his work with you is important. Hopefully, it creates awareness within you around the dynamics of sexual trauma and the effects it has on the body and mind. 

my story

I was placed into a series of unfortunate situations in my teenage years due to extenuating social circumstances from my earlier life that resulted in being placed into foster care from parental disinterest. In a bizarre series of events, I ended up eventually living with my paternal grandmother. During my teen years, there was a persistent conflict between myself and my grandmother. 

It was 1996. At the time I was part of a well-known volunteer community group for children and teens. It was during this time I was introduced to ‘him’, an older man. He was friendly and took a somewhat supportive interest in me. Looking back, I can now easily see what made me attracted to him. He was almost like a father figure – something I had not had in my life. I guess you could say I was curious about what having a father felt like. 

In what feels to be a short period, his presence around me continued to grow. Some might say he was opportunistic, that he began to prey and groom. I might say his presence was just there and intertwined with my older friends who also knew him. The language ‘prey’ and ‘groom’ were not words I was aware of. 

I got to know him well through older friends that I had become close to. Often they would hang out for coffee at a local cafe and drive me home after a meeting. My only mode of transport was the bus. My grandmother did not drive. I appreciated the lifts home late at night.

It started when I was sixteen. I am not too sure when exactly. My memory is somewhat hazy with snippets and flashbacks of particular sensory experiences. The first thing I do recall was that he would sniff, look down at my crotch then look back up at me. His sniffing felt uncomfortable. I am not too sure how many times this kind of behaviour happened. After a while, he would get close when talking to me or walking near me and brush his hand past my pelvis and groin. Initially, when this first happened it felt accidental. Like “Oops sorry, too close”. I didn’t pay too much attention. But it continued to happen more and more and around other people who were not aware. Something inside of me felt very uncomfortable and uptight in my body but at the same time, his touch would be enough to make my dick tingle and that slightest brush feel good. When I think about it now, I can sense that the uptightness was possibly my alarm. But for some reason continued to ignore it as just feeling odd.

It wasn’t long and an older friend suggested that I move community groups as I was transitioning from the teenage section to the adult. He was also the leader of this particular group. Unfortunately, there were no buses directly to those meetings so I was reliant on getting a lift with ‘her’ (another friend) every week. She told me she would be working late one night and suggested that I could get a lift home with him. He only lived about 5 minutes from where I resided. As I was an eager member and enjoyed my time at the meetings I accepted the offer. 

The tension around that time at home had been increasing. Arguments with my grandmother were often. I had been recently dating a girl at school and was awash with teenage hormones. I was also curious and in love with my best male friend. Needless to say, a lot was happening in my life. I guess you could say I was a pretty boy, young and even a little effeminate, constantly being targeted as ‘gay’ in high school and often brushed this aside. My internal world was all over the place at that time. 

One night after a meeting, he drove me home. We got talking, I started to confide about the situation at home. It was not good at the time. He seemed to care and listened. I would say I felt supported. It was something I needed at that time of my life. He continued to pick me up and drop me home from meetings. He also started to talk about his life.

Once on the way home, he asked me about my sexuality. I felt uncomfortable, I was confused. I didn’t even know what my sexuality was. He told me he was bisexual. I think I said, hesitantly “not sure, probably gay”. I was aloof. Only because that’s what I was being labelled at school. I am not too sure if this is when he first touched me on my leg. I continued to feel uncomfortable in his presence but he was the only adult in my life who was listening and it felt oddly nurturing. 

It feels late and dark. We continued to talk about my home situation and the need for me to get out. Or should I say, my grandmother’s threats about kicking me out! I can’t recall exactly what was being said to me, but he placed his hands on my leg asking me if it felt good. I was like “yeah, I guess it does.” I instantly became hard. I felt very embarrassed. I kept talking about home, trying to distract him from what was happening with my body. I could feel my heart pounding and my body was tense. Even as I write this now I have noticed myself clenching my jaw. He drove around the block and parked on the side of the road not far from where I lived. 

He kept staring at my crotch. It was obvious that he could see the bulge of my erection. I couldn’t escape my hard-on. I desperately wanted that feeling to just go away. So badly. With a sense of surprise in his voice, I recall some kind of muttering like “oh look at that”. He began to place one of his hands on the outside of my pants and started to rub my dick. My whole body suddenly felt frozen with a strange sense of pleasure. How could this be pleasurable? This feels very wrong. I was now complicit, fully engaged and compliant with his requests for gratification. This is what sympathetic coercion feels like. I think he tried to kiss me. His breath stank and he had a beard that felt unpleasant.

Helping victims of trauma find the words to describe what has happened to them is profoundly meaningful, but usually it is not enough. Bessel Van Der Kolk

When an individual’s body is not feeling consensual and insulted by a sexual act, the nervous system kicks in automatically. Its the sympathetic response that engages the heart rate to increase (that pounding feeling in your chest), you start to breathe faster probably not being aware of it, and your muscle tone increases. That is, you feel tension and tightness throughout your whole body. Such a response readies us to fight or flight, or freeze. If you can escape or avoid the situation you will be able to dampen your sympathetic responses and take charge.(1)

If you are in a freeze response your body will likely become dysfunctional, sexual arousal will increase and things will become fragmented and very confused.(1) Your body is confused because one part of you wants to escape and the other feels intensely aroused and they are both functioning from the same system. No person could be expected to have an awareness of this in their body or comprehensively understand this, so the insult will just continue. Particularly a teenager or child. Even adults struggle with this. This is when you start to feel a sense of shame internally. It’s so subtle at the time but will continue to grow to the beast that it is. You can’t describe it then and there but this shame comes from a sense of confusion between bodily pleasure and arousal and what felt like your involvement in the wrongdoing.  Scenarios play out in your head, “you let this happen”, “you’re a slut”, “that’s deviant”, “people won’t believe you”. Or in my situation, all of these and “you’re now gay because of this”.

Eventually, if something doesn’t break that cycle we will end up collapsing and our body’s response to this can become life-threatening. Unresolved sexual abuse trauma creates a memory in our bodies and will linger until you can access someone to teach you to distinguish between hyperarousal and shocked body states.(1)

On the same occasion, he asked me if I had ever had my dick sucked. Before I knew it, he was pulling down my pants and started to suck my dick. It wasn’t too long before my hands were on his dick and then my mouth. His hands playing with the back of my head. I had never seen a mans penis before. I recall the smell of soap and muskiness with my head down in his groin. Then he started to rub my dick. I think I was masturbating him. He pulled my hand away suddenly. He came quickly and was embarrassed – but I didn’t know why. I could smell the strong stench of his cum. My dick and jocks were wet with his saliva. 

I think he said something like “let’s keep this a secret, or to ourselves”. I am unsure though. I remember I was dropped back at home. My grandmother was furious that I was late, chastising me persistently. From the shower, I could hear her yelling at me, telling me to hurry up and stop wasting water. My recall of this is very strong. I stood in the shower scrubbing my dick with soap. I felt so dirty – I quietly let the tears run down my face and awash with the water flowing from my head. I was incredibly confused. I felt alone. 

The next time it happened, he took me back to his house for coffee after a meeting. He showed me around, led me to his bedroom. It ramped up again. He talked about his divorce, children and previous wife. Then things started to move south. I can recall this time he was showing me his dick, comparing it to mine. I had a foreskin and he did not. He told me he had got circumcised later in life (something to do with his wife’s penis preference maybe). I don’t know where my compliance was coming from but my body just went with it. He sucked me off again. He had sharp teeth and kept biting my dick. It started to sting. I looked at my dick and noticed a small tear with some blood. I close my eyes now and I recall the tear was like a paper cut. It stang for days. He also left a permanent dark scar on my dick where I was bitten.

My grandmother was throwing me out around that time with nowhere to go. He offered for me to stay with him. It was the streets or his house – I didn’t have much choice. So I ended up living with him. Always feeling on edge. Uncomfortable in my body. Months later I just had enough of his persistent attempts at sexual contact. I felt paranoid. On constant alert. Once he tried to put it on me in the kitchen. I finally cracked it. I threatened to chop his dick off with a knife if he kept coming on to me (not that I would have done that btw). But every part of my being was so angry and that’s all I could come up with.  I think that is when I found my voice for the first time. No more. I knew this didn’t feel right. In a twist, he found someone new to play with. A girlfriend. It was not long after she moved in I moved out. 

life after

I kept my story silent for a very long time. It profoundly affected my younger adult years. During the abuse, I began to experience intense headaches. Often debilitating with photophobia, nausea and vomiting. Eventually, these headaches were diagnosed as migraines. Later in life, I discovered one of the many causes of migraine can be attributed to sexual abuse. Strange because that is when I started to experience them. I get these when my body is under stress.(2,3,4,5)

My earlier experiences of abuse had reorganised the internal perceptions of my sexuality. Despite my natural curiosities, to begin with, I eventually felt fixed in my sexuality. This seemed to be confirmed in the first year at University when I had my first sexual experience with a woman and wasn’t able to orgasm and felt detached during intercourse. In my head, I was like “this must be because I am gay”. I didn’t put it down to performance anxiety, or the natural clunkiness of being a virgin or stemming from being sexually abused.

Often I just had sex with men because it’s what I knew. I entered relationships with men easily. It was what I felt most familiar with and what I kept going back to. I was going to suggest it was what I felt comfortable with, but it was by no means comfortable. I now know that shame was hiding out in my life, consistently being blended in with my erotic desires. The excitement of entering new relationships enabled me to numb out. Even blow jobs made me feel detached from my body and genitals. Sexually abused persons experience shame as a dominant emotion. This allows one to hide the truth.(2)

Bessel describes such experiences succinctly so: “Victims of childhood sexual abuse may anaesthetise their sexuality and then feel intensely ashamed if they become excited by sensations or images that recall their molestation, even when those sensations are the natural pleasures associated with particular body parts”.(2)

Persons affected by sexual trauma often create meaning from their experiences of pain. They often feel completely alive when revisiting such pain.(2) This was another situation for me – I felt alive in relationships with men, but it always felt temporary and short-lived because I kept following the same script – a script that I had learnt from being sexually abused. Strangely, and horrifyingly, the grooming that I had lived through was now replaced with courtship. It feels debilitating to me now but I can honestly disclose I may have even enjoyed the pain of break ups. Quite possibly because I experienced relief from ending the relationship. This kind of behaviour and the emotional reactions to such events would be unacceptable to me now. But at the time they felt real and alive. Sexually abused persons are often not in control of their reactions, lack of reactions, and irrationalities to situations in life.(2)  Many other meaningful pain scenarios played out in my erotic world. I had limited insight into these behaviours until later in life. This is a very common thing for sexual abuse victims to experience. They are unable to decipher what’s going on around them, let alone in them.(2)

To feel present you have to know where you are and be aware of what is going on with you. If the self-sensing system breaks down we need to find ways to reactivate it. Bessel Van Der Kolk

Looking back, what I wasn’t aware of at the time of abuse is that I was gravitating towards emotional comfort and fatherly affection. At some point, that source of comfort somehow got caught up with a sense of bodily arousal which crossed a barrier and became the sexually unwanted series of situations out of my control. But once I was on that rollercoaster it just kept going. I was never in consent with my body. The man I was trying to connect with emotionally for support had been playing me. But I was too adolescent to understand this and with limited life experience. 

Let me fast forward. It’s now 2012, and I started to realise I was unhappy in my current relationship. Sex was non-existent. I felt like something was missing. I started to question my sexuality. This was probably the first time I also became aware that the touch from my partner or anyone was fucking irritating. I didn’t feel anything – looking back now this theme had continued to play out in every relationship I had been in. If I was being touched, I was complicit but I didn’t know why I hated it so much. Van Der Kolk describes persons who have been “sexually violated desperately craving touch while simultaneously being terrified of body contact”.(2)  When I feel into past touch experiences my body cringed and my muscles tensioned, I numbed out or pushed away. But I continued to allow this to happen without realising the source of its origins.  

I became curious about my erotic body and sexuality, what if I wasn’t gay? How could I possibly know? I had never been in a relationship with a woman. I certainly didn’t feel attracted to women – ‘I can’t feel, I haven’t allowed myself to feel’. There was a theme still playing out. There was an overriding feeling to discover my sense of sexual confusion and internal erotic pain. As Bessel points out, sexual abuse persons are “rarely in touch with the origins of their alienation”.(2)  It was going to take more time to get to some realisations.

healing myself

Healing for sexual abuse persons can take on many forms. No one can tell you how to heal. Only you can decide that. My healing took on a journey of its own and I am grateful that it did.  

I started to gravitate to heterosexual porn to help me work through this confusion. I wanted to know if I felt sexually attracted to women. After all, I did feel aroused when I first experienced sex with a woman. Sure enough, it surprisingly didn’t take much to get hard to this porn. I started to fantasise about what it would be like. I wanted to explore the social constructs of bisexuality which was not helpful. I acted outside of my relationship and went to visit a sex worker. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel judged. There was no pressure. I was able to be me. It was a wonderful and enlightening experience. I felt a shift in my erotic body and mind. Something changed. (Please don’t ever discriminate against sex workers or those who have seen them. They have a unique capacity to positively change people’s lives).

Eventually, my partner found out, and our relationship ended. Yes, I experienced that ‘relief’ again. During this time, I started to date women and have some very beginner learning experiences. I was erotically charged. But I could not connect emotionally. It wasn’t long and I moved back to what felt easy, but falling into the same spirals. 

It was a few years later when I experienced some unsettling behaviours in the workplace. I had an instant reaction to this. The memories, the pain all kept flooding back. I realised I had to get out. Not just get out of work, but the country. I flew to London within the space of a few weeks. Time out allowed me to recognise the trauma that had been acting out from the shadows. London was the break I needed. I had time to walk, explore and just think about shit. 

I came back to Australia with a sense of clarity and curiosity that I discovered roaming the streets of London and exploring the countryside of the UK. I started to seek out an esoteric spiritual world that involved Tantric practices. Coming from a research health science background, it didn’t take me long to delve into the origins and history of tantra and realise its Western contrived form was hocus-pocus (to discuss this would require another blog article). This didn’t deter me from experimenting with esoteric sex practices though.

I engaged with a tantric and what I learned about my body from her would change my life forever. The power of touch can not be underestimated when used in a capacity of healing sexually. This is where I started to self-heal, learn and be guided through embodiment practices such as breath, movement, relaxation, and arousal. ALL of it combined allowed me to engage with my body more. There was no shame, there was just this body. Everything felt welcomed in my body for the first time in my life. I felt supported and nurtured. There was no sexual script to follow nor sexual trauma influencing my erotic body and mind. It felt safe. I felt safe.

Someone who has experienced sexual trauma will never recover until they can connect to the sensations of their body. The bodies of sexually abused persons are often tense and defensive. It’s only when they find ways to relax can they feel safe and engage with their body again.(2)  “Physical self-awareness is the first step to realising the tyranny of the past”.(2)

I accessed a Psychologist who I could talk to outside my social setting, she was the first person I ever truly confided in (thank you). She recorded my story and believed me. Being believed was liberating. Imagine just being able to put your story into words for the first time. Let alone the felt sense of those words.  It’s important to find a Psychologist or Counsellor who has worked with persons living with sexual trauma. They will have the empathy and the experience that is needed to help talk through a variety of situations. Ideally, they should also be aware of and support the decision to access safe bodywork with someone who is certified. I was fortunate enough to have a Psychologist who was aware of bodywork and its relevance to working alongside trauma. Despite her intensive work with me, it was vital to continue the work on my own body at the same time. Something Psychologists cannot help with due to the boundaries of their profession. Safe experiential touch is not part of their work. However, neuroscience in trauma does support safe touch experiences and mindfulness tools for those working through trauma.(1,2,6) As Bessel points out “you can talk forever, but talking cant reclaim your body or its felt experiences”.(2) Dalila Ammar’s work below captures aspects of feeling and connecting with one’s bodily experiences.  Her work resonates within me so I am sharing it with you.

The work I was doing with myself made me realise that people with sexual trauma need to have access to safe touch experiences so they can change and navigate the way they feel about themselves. So this is where my journey of self-healing and discovery continued alongside my professional learning in somatic sexology and somatic sex education. It was during my course intensive with the Institute of Somatic Sexology that I learnt another powerful tool that would come from a class exercise.

The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming, and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery. Bessel Van Der Kolk

I was practising engaging in safe touch experiences with a classmate. During my experience, she asked me if there was anywhere on my body I would like to be touched. I said my arm. She gently massaged my arm. She asked me what that felt like. I said nothing. She kept massaging me and persisted to keep asking the same question. I responded, in the same manner. The exercises intention was to feel into the experience. That was my felt response. However, she didn’t understand this and continued to elicit a response from me. I started to feel uncomfortable and quite possibly dissociated briefly. This was a learning experience for her and something a somatic sex practitioner should never do. 

One of the support persons after the exercise asked me if I would like to talk about my experience. So we found a quiet place to talk. He asked me, “Kai, have you ever said the words ‘no’ to someone when you feel uncomfortable, or asked them to ‘stop’?”. I said, “no not really”. The whole of my being just crumbled inside. I was trying to hold back the tears. Wave after wave of emotion was felt. I realised I was never empowered in my life to say the words ‘no’, ‘stop’, ‘I don’t like what I am feeling’ or ‘I don’t like what you are doing to me’. 

This year, I experienced some flashbacks. I am not sure how this played out in my life. I was recently jolted back in time. I feel a sense of anxiousness in myself. It’s a very cloudy moment. He called my penis a “tabby”. There was some blood. I was really upset. My willy (frenulum) was painful. Tenderness comes to mind. I remember being in the bedroom. He was “around”. I have a sense he was fondling with my willy. Pulling my foreskin back. Or did he pull my foreskin back hard and makes it bleed in the process? I also recall something to do with the toilet. I will never know. After discussing these flashbacks with my Psychologist it’s very possible I was sexually abused when in foster care. However, the memory from early childhood and the time in between will never allow me to recall the specifics. It’s only what I can feel in my body mixed with flashbacks.

What was important for me in my healing journey was very much about embodiment, becoming an embodied person, feeling into my body and its experiences. Working out what felt right, what didn’t feel right. Accessing safe and supportive touch. Curiously exploring my erotic mind and body without judgement. This is what eventually helped me differentiate between genuine love, pleasure and arousal from the unwanted sympathetic sexual reactions and dissociations of pain and trauma. It also helped me move on from the shame of trauma that was inflicted upon me. I won’t deny that I don’t have occasions in my life where I experience subtle reminders of past events. They will never go away. But its how I react and feel into these subtleties that have changed in my life. 

If you are someone who has experienced sexual trauma or abuse, I want you to know you’re not alone, despite the complexities of your world and the intricacies of the trauma you hold in your body and mind. It’s ok to just be with these. Work through them and heal at your own pace. Maybe you have suffered from sexual trauma and don’t have awareness in your body as yet. That’s ok. If this is the situation for you maybe you could create some space and just acknowledge this. I want you to know that there’s no shame in what you have felt or are feeling. As I post this today. I feel from a sense of usefulness.  So here I am. My door and work open to you if you need it.

Love and peace.

 

notes

Below are useful notes from Bessel Van Der Kolts work from The Body Keeps The Score. I feel they are pertinent but didn’t have time to embed them in my story.

  • “Traumatised people tend to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them”.(2)
  • “Traumatised people look at the world in a fundamentally different way from other people”.(2)
  • “Helping victims of trauma find the words to describe what has happened to them is profoundly meaningful, but usually it is not enough”.(2)
  • “The act of telling one’s story doesn’t necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of the bodies that remain hyper-vigilant prepared to be assaulted or violated at any time. For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present”.(2)
  • “People can never get better without knowing what they know and feeling what they feel”.(2)
  • “The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming, and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery”.(2)
  • There’s no need to recreate the story. Revisiting a sexual abuse script will only recreate the experience again. It’s important to focus on things like sounds, feelings, smells and images. Snippets from these experiences are useful without fully being re-assaulted.(2)
  • When working through your experiences, one needs to feel grounded and present. Moving forward is necessary and visiting the past is not helpful.(2)
  • “Sometimes we use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide gather”.(2)
  • “To feel present you have to know where you are and be aware of what is going on with you. If the self-sensing system breaks down we need to find ways to reactivate it”.(2)
  • “Somatic symptoms for which no clear physical basis can be found are ubiquitous in traumatised children and adults”.(2)
  • “Traumatised people often have trouble sensing what is going on in their bodies, they lack nuanced response to frustration. They either react to stress by becoming spaced out or with excessive anger. They often can’t tell what is upsetting them”.(2)

references

  1. Aposhyan, S.  Body-Mind Psychotherapy: Principles, Techniques, and Practical Applications. Norton and Company; 2004.
  2. Van Der Kolk, B. A. The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking Penguin; 2014.
  3. The Connection Between Migraines and Psychological Trauma [Internet]. [cited 17th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-shrink/201706/the-connection-between-migraines-and-psychological-trauma
  4. Why Emotional Abuse in Children May Lead to Migraines in Adulthood [Internet]. [cited 17th August 2020]. Available from: https://theconversation.com/why-emotional-abuse-in-childhood-may-lead-to-migraines-in-adulthood-59226
  5. Childhood Abuse and Migraine: Epidemiology, Sex Differences, and Potential Mechanisms [Internet]. [cited 17th August 2020]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3972492/
  6. Moskowitz, MH and Golden MD. Neuroplastic Transformation. Neuroplastic Partners; 2013.