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Friday, February 27, 2009

Facing & Healing Sexual Trauma

By Felice Newman, Somantic Coach & Sex Educator

Intimate relationships stir things up—for all of us. Whatever your history, being in an intimate relationship will call on you to look at yourself in new ways. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse or other sexual trauma, sex in the context of intimacy can be an opportunity to attend to the issues of the past and to deepen your own capacity for intimacy and sexual pleasure. It can also be scary.

You get into a relationship, everything's great…at first. But then all those old triggers, memories, and fears come bubbling up. It's not that there's anything wrong with the relationship (though you might jump to that conclusion). Your history is offering itself up for healing. Your job is to pay attention.

Many women and men are survivors of childhood sexual trauma. Since one in three girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they reach adulthood, it's likely that you will someday be in a relationship with a survivor of childhood sexual trauma.

And it's not unusual for both partners in a couple to have experienced sexual trauma. Each may be in a very different stage of healing. Your partner's work may cause you to face events you'd never explored. Or your partner's healing process may cause you to revisit issues you thought you had resolved long ago.

For couples dealing with sexual trauma, Staci Haines offers the question: "How can we support each other in this healing process and also take care of our adult relationship?" In her DVD, Healing Sex, Haines outlines what she considers the key elements to taking care of your sexuality over a lifetime: self-pleasuring, discovery, and dedicating time to your sexuality inside your partnership.

While there may be times that partner sex takes a backseat to your healing, you are in a sexual relationship. Don't let the process of healing past abuse to rob you of that.

As a trauma survivor, the key is to continually to turn toward triggers rather than avoid them. Of course, in order to face the sources of your pain, you'll need to create a context of safety for yourself—support may come from a coach, therapist, group of friends or more formal network, as well as from your partner.

What exactly is a trigger? It's an automatic response to present-day stimulus that is caused by past trauma. Triggers can be experienced as emotions, like anger or sadness, and as physical sensations in the body. (For instance, this article may be pushing your buttons. Is your stomach tense? Are your shoulders tight? Do you feel an overwhelming urge to quit your browser? Want to toss your laptop across the room? Are you breathing?)

Turning toward triggers doesn't mean recreating or mimicking trauma. Putting yourself in harm's way will not toughen you up. Past trauma doesn't go away if you power your way through it. Though you may become desensitized to your own painful emotions, you'll also lose the sensations of pleasure and joy. That's not healing; in fact, that's a capsule description of how your body (quite intelligently) shut down to protect you from trauma in the first place.

Turning toward triggers means intentionally risking discomfort in order to stretch your capacity for sexual engagement. The point is not to avoid triggers, but to face them. This is how you can heal. Over time, you will be able to experience a wide range of sensations and feelings without needing to shut down. Sexually, this means you will be able to tolerate more and more pleasure.

What about partners? Partnering with someone in the midst of healing from sexual trauma is not easy. Your support and love really can help your partner heal. Just the fact of being loved, over time, with all of those triggers and all of that history, can be healing. Certainly, your steadfast presence can help your partner to learn how to trust. Most importantly, by taking care of yourself—including your sexual fullness—you can stand as a reminder to your partner that sexual wholeness is possible. On a bad day, that will go a long way toward encouraging your partner to hang in there.

Here are some suggestions for partners of trauma survivors:

Be authentic. That doesn't mean being selfish. It means that you remember who you are. What are your concerns? What are your aspirations?

Negotiate sexual frequency, sexual activities, affection, and nonsexual touch. Be proactive. While you may negotiate a time out from sex—for either of you—remember that your sexual heat is good. It's good to be sexual. It's good to want sex, to feel sexy, to get hot, to be turned on.

Masturbate. Keep that intimate connection with yourself vital.

Don't take it personally when your partner gets triggered. You didn't cause the trauma, and you didn't do anything "wrong." For survivors of sexual trauma, it is inevitable that triggers will arise during sex.

Don't shrink your shared sex life in order to avoid triggers. Keep gently expanding the comfort zone—for both of you.

Develop a trigger plan. Staci Haines' book Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma suggests survivors create a detailed, step-by-step plan for handling triggers during sex. You can create a similar plan for yourself. How do you want to handle triggers that come up for your partner? By listing your options ahead of time, you'll have more choice in responding to triggers that arise during sex. You can talk about it with your partner and come up with a joint strategy for maintaining your shared erotic life while respecting the need for safety—for both of you.

Don't be a martyr or a savior. You can't "save" your partner from the pain of healing by sacrificing your own well-being.

Get your own support, including touch. Along with friends, therapists, and discussion groups, support can include massages, bodywork, and hugs from friends.

Felice Newman is a sex educator and Somatic Coach certified by the Strozzi Institute. She has studied human sexuality through San Francisco Sex Information and the Body Electric School. She is the author of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book: A Passionate Guide for All of Us (Cleis Press), and a founding co-publisher of Cleis Press.

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