I find it remarkable how many people, and especially women, have had some traumatic experience around their sexuality. Typically such experiences leave the deepest imprint when they happened in childhood, but even more recent events can be so traumatic that they get suppressed into the subconscious. For us humans, this is most often what happens with our traumatic experiences: At the moment when the incident occurs, it feels like too much to process, and so we block or suppress the emotions and sensations felt. Very often, we even suppress the memory that such an event occurred, or lose our conscious memory of what the event meant for us.
What causes sexual trauma?
Our nervous systems can register sexual trauma from a wide range of experiences. Here are some:
Direct sexual invasions
This happens when a person’s genitals or anus get penetrated without his or her conscious consent. Such incidents can occur with strangers, such as a man luring a girl to him in a park. They can also occur with familiars such as family members or friends of family.
Sexual touch, such as feeling the breasts of a woman, can be very traumatic if unwanted.
Non-sexual invasive touch
At any age, the body can register invasive experiences such as enemas or gynaecological examinations as a sexual invasion and remember it as such.
Sexual suggestions and associations can have a profound impact on a person’s psyche. An example is where a parent projects his unfulfilled sexual desires on to the child, and the child unconsciously takes responsibility for these feelings.
When emotional relationships become inappropriately entangled, this can register in the body as sexual invasion. In energetic language, we talk about an invasion of the etheric or emotional body. Since this experience is so intimate, the body can remember it as sexual intimacy.
Response to sexual experience
Very often, the trauma is caused by someone else’s response to the person’s sexual experience. An example is when parents severely reprimand children for sexual exploration that happened quite innocently.
The significance of age
The age at which a person has the sexual experience can be very significant.
Contrary to popular perception, we are sexual beings from our birth. This means that we are born with the ability to experience sexual pleasure, as well as trauma. Children come into the world without the knowledge and conditioning of adults. If a child has an unsolicited sexual experience at an age where this is new and unfamiliar to him/her, this can be very confusing. Typically, there is a coming together of conflicting sensations in the moment. The body may be experiencing some pleasure or excitement. At the same time, the child will pick up on and internalize any guilt or other emotions that the perpetrator may be feeling. (S)he will also internalize any negative reactions from specific people or society at large. An additional factor is that children look up to adults, older siblings and their friends as role models. If a trusted older person initiates a sexual experience that is traumatic for the child, the child can believe that it was his/her fault that it happened. The intensity of the experience as well as the paradoxical nature of sensations is likely to leave the child overwhelmed. As a consequence, the experience gets repressed and filed away in the unconscious.
Adolescence is the age when our sexuality becomes an overt part of our consciousness. Our society is still quite tight and constricted around sexuality in general, and particularly adolescent sexual exploration. As a consequence, first sexual explorations are often rushed and loaded with the pressure of taboo. On the lightest level, the body memory of rushed masturbation can lead to premature ejaculation for an adult man. More significantly, the feedback that adolescents get from the world at large, or significant others, about their first sexual experiences, can have a profound emotional impact on them. If this impact is too overwhelming, it goes unconscious, and comes up through associations in later sexual life.
After leaving school, a young person experiences a new set of social pressures. These include what we associate with being an adult in the world, such as: being a good lover, being attractive, being able to give and receive pleasure, being a potential life partner. Young adulthood is often an experimental time sexually. Youthful sexual experimentation can leave a person with the feeling that (s)he is promiscuous – a judgment taken on from society. If a person is less expressive sexually, this can also be a cause of severe self-judgment. Sexual experience had under peer pressure can also result in trauma and/or self-judgment.
Of course adults can also register a sexual experience as traumatic. Rape, resisted or unwanted sexual experience at any age is likely to be traumatic. Many women continue to have intercourse with their husbands or partners even though they find every penetration painful or invasive. The reason for the negative experience in the women’s body could be old trauma, but it can also simply be that the man is an unconscious or unrequited lover. Changes in a woman’s body around childhood can make her vagina very sensitive. There are various vaginal conditions, such as vaginismus, which will make any penetration very sensitive and even traumatic.
How we cope
How do people who have had traumatic sexual experiences cope in daily life? The answer is that we often cope remarkably well. Most often, we develop mechanisms to keep our emotions and sensations under tight control. We control our behaviour and performance. We develop compensatory mechanisms to cope with the bad feelings we have about ourselves, and that we assume others have about us. Another way of coping is withdrawing from relationships or from life in general.
Signs of sexual wounding or trauma
As stated before, the memory of sexual trauma often goes unconscious in us; we forget that the event ever happened. What signs are there in our lives that may hint at a suppressed sexual memory? Here are some patterns associated with unconscious sexual trauma memory (please bear in mind though that these patterns are not definite indications of sexual trauma):
• Premature ejaculation for men.
• Tight or dry vagina for women.
• Extreme sensitivity or nervousness about intimacy (emotional, physical or sexual).
• Withdrawal from life.
• Extreme shyness.
• Compulsion to please, impress and perform.
• Over-achievement, perfectionism and being overly driven.
• No sexual boundaries.
• Intense projection on to partners.
How unconscious experience becomes conscious
Our body-mind has ingenious ways to remind us of experiences that have been suppressed in us, or put away for later.
Body/ cellular memory
Whatever we have not fully experienced or integrated remains in our bodies as cellular memory. The body will remind us of what has not been properly felt. This can happen through body symptoms such as a tightening or over sensitivity of sexual organs. The particular nature of the experience that was suppressed will often determine where the body holds pain or contraction. For instance, if the judgment of others was the main cause of trauma, the tension may become a pain, contraction or disease in the stomach area (see http://www.shaktimalan.com/articles/tantra-and-the-chakras/). Another way in which the body can hold traumatic memory is through freezing, numbness, lack of sensitivity and coldness.
Associations in sexual life
Much of our sexual experience in relationship is associative. We come to associate one experience with another. For instance, many women experience any tenderness from their partners as a potential sexual approach, and so they freeze up immediately. Associations run deep and can be very primal. For instance, a woman not allowing a partner to touch her breasts can trigger an association from infancy for the partner of not being breastfed, and thus feeling emotionally abandoned. Associations mostly happen without our conscious knowledge. Paying attention to the moment when withdrawal, freezing, agitation or fear arises in intimate relationship can help you find the association.
Fantasies and taboos
The body has a wonderful mechanism for consciousness in our eroticism. Plato said: Eros leads to Gnosis. By consciously exploring your eroticism, you can release old trauma memories. It is best to do this gently and under guidance. Begin by keeping a diary of your sexual fantasies, and see if you can say yes to them inside yourself. Then they will start to reveal things to you. The meaning of fantasies is not always apparent; it often takes some enactment of them before the body releases the suppressed memory into experience. Often, this involves being willing to break some sexual taboo. This can be done in most cases without any real social consequences. For instance, a woman may have a fantasy of making love in public. Giving her lover a long French kiss in an empty escalator may be enough to undo the suppression. Or for someone who lives a very permissive sexual life, the fantasy might be to be sexually controlled and told what to do. For this person, really submitting to the directions of a lover (such as “touch me sexually, but you may not get aroused!”) can reveal the body sensations and emotions that have been suppressed. For more on fantasies and taboos, see: http://tantraschool.co.za.
The wise body: trusting the nervous system
The good news is that it is possible to release all the complex patterns that develop in us as a consequence of sexual trauma. The body of itself has the perfect mechanism to help us release trauma. Have you ever watched an animal go through a traumatic experience? Let’s take the example of an antelope that gets caught by a lion. As soon as the antelope knows it is caught, its body will go into “freeze” mode; it will fake death. In freeze mode, all the body’s energy goes to the internal organs, and so the external organs like the skin become cold. If the antelope is lucky, the lion will get distracted and leave the antelope for dead. The antelope will wait a while, and then stand up slowly while the spine starts to shake vigorously from head to toe. This shaking is the body releasing tension and in fact, all memory of the trauma with it. Once the trauma is shaken off, the antelope will gallop away as if nothing happened.
The first phase, where the animal first tries to run away from danger and then freezes when being caught, is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system. This is our body’s fight-or-flight mechanism; it brings the organism to maximum alertness and focus. The second phase, where the animal shakes, is when the parasympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the body’s system for relaxation and release.
We humans are the same as animals, except that we have conscious reasoning faculties. In a moment of crisis, our reasoning faculties will try to control, solve, change or suppress the experience rather than letting it pass through us. Consequently, we stay stuck in the fight-or-flight mode of contraction, tightening, freeze, over-activity and over-alertness. Especially “civilized” humans will hardly allow their bodies just to shake. Indigenous cultures like the San have shaking as a ritualized part of their dancing, since they intuitively sense how it frees the body-mind from its constrictions.
In a healthy nervous system, energy moves in a figure of eight from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. The body is continuously moving between focus and relaxation, attention and release. It is possible to release sexual trauma from the body by supporting this natural flow in the body. This method has been developed in great refinement by Peter Levine, and is called Somatic Experiencing. In simplistic form, the steps are the following:
1. When a traumatic memory is evoked, notice what happens in the body. Take time to describe to a partner or facilitator what you are feeling. Often energy (pain/contraction/coldness) will focus in a particular area. Stay with this sensation and keep witnessing it with a lot of love. No need to change anything. Go really slowly in your perception. Stay present, just feeling the body’s sensations.
2. Every now and again, pay attention to your feet, hands and the weight of the body on the earth. Can you feel your feet? What do they feel like? Describe the sensation. Notice any changes in the sensation. Do you feel supported on the earth? Notice any changes in this sensation.
3. Keep moving your attention from sensations in the rest of the body to the feet, hands and body weight. Go really slowly. By lifting all effort to change the experience, we make space for the body to feel the trauma that has been suppressed. Be patient. If you stay with it, at some point the sensations will change. In effect, what happens is that the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Some signs of this happening are little waves of heat, shaking or trembling in one or both feet, in the hands, or in other parts of the body. The sensations in the area of focus will also change.
4. The process is cyclical. It is likely that you will experience several articulations of contraction and release. Just trust the process, even if it continues for days. Every time you move through a cycle and stay present, more trauma is released from the body. Refrain from making associations with what is happening in your body. If your body is shaking, this does not necessarily mean that you are shaking in fear or reliving trauma. The body is just shaking because that is how the nervous system releases traumatic cellular memory.
Feeling your emotions
When trauma memories come up, either consciously or through the movements of the nervous system, this may open a flood of emotions. It is very necessary and healing to let yourself feel any emotions that surface. If you feel anger or even irritation, it may be very helpful to find a way of venting the feelings. Never vent your anger AT someone; always do it on your own or with a witness. For men, it is good to get physical – hit a pillow, for instance. For women, shouting from your guts is often very empowering. Once you have come in touch with your anger, you are likely to feel sadness underneath that. Give yourself space and time to cry or just to be sad. Eventually, you will find that you start to move quickly from one emotion to another. You are not going mad; this is actually a good sign. Emotions may also surface during lovemaking; just allow them to be expressed. Osho developed meditation techniques that are very helpful in accessing emotions – see osho.com.
Finding your NO
It is very important to find your “no” – to learn when something doesn’t feel good to you, and to say “no” to it. Practice saying “no” in a way that can be felt by others, and that sends out a clear signal. Be clear on where your “no” lies.
Finding your YES: Becoming embodied
People who have experienced sexual trauma often resist being fully embodied. Staying unaware of your body is a way of remaining in the fight-orflight/freeze mode. It may feel familiar and therefore comfortable, but it doesn’t help you in the long run. Notice what happens if you start to move – stretch your body – dance – feel. Take time to gently explore new realms of experience for the body. The psychologist Wilhelm Reich said that we try to protect ourselves from the outside world by creating body armouring. This armouring is a tactile and movement defensiveness that keeps us rigid and separate. Through gentle, loving, conscious movement you can move through these stuck energetic patterns and start to enjoy the bliss of being in a body again.
When you say yes to your body, you may find that unnecessary protection in the form of fat drops off. If you are too skinny, you are likely to gain weight and feel more vitality.
Honoring your story
The unconscious stories of our past can run our lives from behind the scenes. When these stories start to surface, it is important to honour them. If the trauma happened to you at a certain age, say five years old, really tap into the life of the five-year-old in you. Learn to listen to what she wants – what her desires and her fears are, and what the gifts are that she brings. Leslie Temple-Thurston (http://corelight.org/) refers to the child who experienced the trauma as the “frozen child”. The way to “unfreeze” the child in you is to pay attention to him/her. Once the child has been heard, the stuck energy will be released. With that, you can also release the story. Ultimately, we can let go of all the stories about our lives. But first we have to honour them and feel all that they hold for us. Then we can see, as Byron Katie says, “Who would you be without your story?”
While sexual trauma can cause great damage to our lives, it also holds hidden gifts. Lazarus (http://www.lazaris.com) says that sexual trauma can open spiritual gateways in a person and enable unusual receptivity. If this receptivity is developed consciously, it can take you rapidly along a path of awareness. Many people who have experienced sexual trauma are highly accomplished and sensitive individuals. By releasing the tension held in the body, we can also become relaxed, healthy and glowing.
Katie, Byron. 2008. Who Would You Be Without Your Story? Dialogues with Byron Katie, edited by Carol Williams, Hay House.
Levine, Peter and Frederick, Anne. 1997. Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.
Reich, Wilhelm. 1986. The function of the orgasm. Macmillan.