Healing Sexual Trauma and Shame
Healing Sexual Trauma: How turning a blind eye to sexual abuse can lead to shame and self-abandonment
I often work with people on healing sexual trauma. However, it was a surprise to me when I realised recently, how much of my own sexual trauma was still unprocessed.
As it is for many people, New Year is always a reflective time for me. Thinking about the future can give us a new perspective on what we want to let go of. As a therapist, I’m no stranger to doing “the work”. But it's no easier to confront our demons than for anyone else.
Over the last few years, the conversation around sexual abuse and consent has been changing. Thankfully, and long overdue!
This has led to a vast awakening of people who have unconsciously been carrying the shame of historical abuse. These may have been perceived as early sexual encounters.
Like many women, men and people of all genders who have experienced these kinds of violations, I never spoke about them. Believing I had come to terms, I felt it was better to let it go and just move on.
Silence Around Sexual Abuse
I quietly diminished my experiences, and even convinced myself that they were my choice. Even as a therapist, I told myself that my experiences weren’t “as bad” as other people’s.
Telling myself to not be so dramatic as there were many others who had experienced much worse. This may be true, but that doesn’t change the fact that what happened to me was not cool or right in any way.
For me, it was easier to blame myself all those years. Rather than believe that the people I'd trusted could do such things. Maybe this was a way to feel safe in the world. Whatever the reason, shame played a big part in my silence. As it does for many others in similar situations to mine.
Sexual Trauma and Shame
So why don’t people speak up? There can be many reasons why a person decides not to talk about sexual trauma. Some people can go through their entire lives without mentioning a word about it.
Most often, this is down to shame and fear that people will judge or not believe them. But why should someone feel ashamed of something bad that happened to them?
For me, it’s taken over 30 years to understand this, and to even begin to fully confront the issue.
My own experiences date back to early childhood. Memories of being flashed and coerced into inappropriate touching while in the bath, remain a murky inkblot on my subconscious.
Having little understanding of what those events mean as a child, it’s only later on that we question such memories. But we can also begin questioning the validity of them, being buried so deep in our past.
Other worrying questions around family connections and trust may surface along with these memories. The temptation to leave them buried can seem a much easier way to deal with them.
For me, it was a combination of events leading into my early adulthood that resulted in my pattern of silence and self-blame.
The Passing Down of Family Trauma
Growing up in a household filled with family trauma and addiction, unsurprisingly I felt the need to grow up fast. When my father committed suicide, our mum (mother to 4 children), coped as best she could.
I can only imagine the toll this must have taken on her, as she battled with her own childhood trauma and addictions.
To say she was distracted would be an understatement. Her inability to face and begin healing sexual trauma in her own childhood, forced her into a state of denial. She was unable to see the dangers around her own children.
We had moved into a squat in London, surrounded by men in their mid 20s to 40s in the grip of a drug fuelled existence. As you can imagine, there were many times when our safety was compromised.
Drowning in a soup of depression, anger, grief and substance abuse, my mum was blind to the fact that her boyfriend at the time was grooming me at age 13. She even allowed him to take me alone back to Wales (where we’d lived for 3 years and where she’d met him), while he attended a court case. Sounds like a trustworthy guy eh!
I remember feeling so grown up, believing I was in a secret relationship with this man. I'd been so angry at my mum. Partly for my dad’s death (not that I blame her anymore of course), but also for abandoning us to her sadness and addictions. Armed with this anger, I justified the behaviour as though it was my choice.
Luckily, he didn’t try to have sex with me. But he did coerce me into other sexual behaviour which was far beyond any expectations of a 13-year-old girl. Especially from a man well into his 30s.
Holding onto Shame
Carrying the shame of cheating on my mum in this way, it was years before I understood what had actually happened.
By the end of my 13th year on this planet, I had been forced to perform oral sex by a man in his mid to late 20s, and had several fully grown men fondle me unwantedly.
These kinds of experiences continued into my late teens, including being physically forced by older men to touch them inappropriately. Some of these people I had regarded as being like family at the time.
How Sexual Trauma Can Lead to Poor Boundary Control
Many people who have experienced sexual violation in their early years, find themselves engaging in risky sexual behaviour as adults. Several studies listed in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, highlight some of the ways early sexual assault can result in RSB.
Some people become hypersexualised or turn to alcohol and/or drugs. Many end up in abusive or harmful relationships. It is not uncommon for survivors of sexual abuse to engage in risky sexual encounters with strangers.
A common form of RSB is to lose a sense of self-care and respect. This can include patterns of drunken or drug fuelled one-night stands. Often neglecting to alert friends or loved ones of their whereabouts or use protection.
Dissociation and Sexual Trauma
Dissociation can occur as a way to detach from the reality of what has happened someone who's suffered sexual abuse. This can be triggered when the person engages in sexual activity, causing them to ‘mentally check out’.
It can sometimes cause them to become completely unaware of what is happening to their body. Dissociation can be confusing and dangerous, leaving the person with more shame and regret later on.
In my case, I found there was a sense of self-punishment in these kinds of encounters. I found myself attracted to men who had as little respect for me as I had for myself. When they cheated, became abusive or controlling, I assumed the blame.
Why Healing Sexual Trauma Needs a Collective Approach
Like many women, some men and of course non-binary people too, by the time I reached adulthood I had a string of less than consensual sexual experiences behind me. I remember feeling a kind of ownership over these, as though they somehow proved I was as grown up as I felt.
I was so desperate to be wanted that, although, I didn’t welcome these advances, in some way I believed they were evidence that I was desirable.
To open yourself up to sex with someone is to make yourself completely vulnerable with them. For someone with sexual trauma (of any kind), this can be extremely triggering in ways that they are not even aware of.
The Importance of Consent
The word ‘consent’ has gained more awareness in the past few years. Events such as the #metoo movement and the slew of historical sexual abuse cases brought to light in the entertainment and media industry, have shone a light on what the word really means.
Betty Martin, developer of the Wheel of Consent, talks about the role of permission in “take and allow”. She highlights that the number one factor involved must be that you are respecting each other’s limits.
Rebuilding trust in sexual partners is at the heart of healing sexual trauma for those who have experienced sexual abuse. Your approach to your partner around this can either trigger their trauma or help to heal it.
And that’s why it’s so important on all sides of a partnership to get to grips with this.
The Role of Consent in Healing Sexual Trauma
But understanding what full consent means can sometimes be tricky. We now know that just because someone says yes, it doesn’t always mean yes.
Some people with sexual trauma find it difficult to say no when something doesn't feel right. They may have an emotional flashback, feel threatened, dissociate or become submissive when faced with sexual demands.
Saying no isn't easy for anyone, regardless of trauma. Social taboos around being "frigid" or "uptight", can cause a person to feel pressured into sexual acts.
Some people might be afraid of "causing a scene", or making the other person feel guilty.
Reading the Signs That Say No
Body language and facial expressions can give subtle yet powerful clues as to what a person is or isn’t comfortable with. This is why it’s so important to stay present when checking in with your partner.
However, a no is always a no, no matter how feeble or seemingly playful it seems.
So, what does consent really mean? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean.
What consent is NOT:
- Getting consent doesn’t always mean you have to verbally ask out loud if it is okay to touch someone. Or if they want to have sex. It doesn’t hurt to do this, and sometimes it is necessary if the signals are unclear. But there are other ways to tell if someone is willing to engage in sexual activities with you or not.
- Consent is not a one-time event or permission slip that gives you access to a person’s body any time you want it.
- Your partner’s consent is NOT negotiable. If someone says no with any part of their body, verbal or otherwise, it is not consent.
What consent IS:
- Consent, in a sexual context, is a mutual agreement to enter into, or engage in any act of sexual pleasure giving, sharing or receiving.
- It can be given verbally or non-verbally.
- Consent is fully wanting and being open to engaging in any specific act of sexual activity, at any specific time.
- Gaining consent is an ongoing, time-bound, situational condition that can change at any time. It is completely fine to give consent one minute and change your mind the next. It’s your body.
When healing sexual trauma, it is important to develop an understanding of what is, and what is not okay for you.
Because many survivors of sexual abuse can experience self-abandonment and poor impulse control, developing boundaries around your body and values is key.
You might struggle to connect to your body, or identify the signs of what feels right for you. If this resonates with you, you may want to work with a therapist. A qualified therapist can help you reconnect to yourself and develop boundary control.
What Classes as Sexual Abuse and Why We Need to Stop Victim Blaming
In my experience, it can be easy to dismiss unwanted sexual encounters. Alcohol or drug infused situations can also make it difficult to fully recall all of the details of these events.
Even in my adult years these kinds of intrusions continued. Once, at a work Xmas party, an older male staff member thought it would be funny (or who knows what he thought), to grab me unexpectedly and French kiss me in front of our other colleagues.
I was completely caught off guard and physically unable to defend myself as he tipped me backwards (movie style) and forced his tongue into my mouth.
I found this highly embarrassing, especially as it was in front of the guy I was seeing at the time.
Worse still, my boyfriend blamed me for the encounter. Not only did I feel violated and humiliated, but I then had to deal with the shame of being accused of inviting the unwanted attention.
On this occasion I did speak up. I went to the manager as soon as I went back to work, who arranged and mediated a meeting. But it wasn’t easy, especially without the support of my partner. Needless to say, my relationship didn’t last much longer.
Sexual Abuse Includes:
Any kind of touching, kissing or penetration of a bodily cavity that is unwanted and unwelcomed, is an act of sexual abuse.
If this has happened to you without your consent, it is not your fault and you have the right to speak out.
It is not uncommon for survivors of sexual abuse to stay quiet. According to the Rape Crisis website, a joint official statistics bulletin produced by the ONS (Office for National Statistics) in 2013, suggested that only 15% of those who experience sexual assault report to the police.
This isn’t surprising when other stats reveal that 90% of victims know their abuser prior to the event. In addition to this, only 5.7% of reports lead to a conviction.
Getting Help for Healing Sexual Trauma
It can be a scary thing to admit that you’ve been the victim of sexual abuse. You may have pushed thoughts or memories aside for a long time. Or you may have been judged or dismissed as a liar in the past.
You may not feel ready to confront this yet, and that’s okay too. But if you’re thinking about getting help with healing sexual trauma, there are many ways you can do this.
Some people find that talking to friends or family can help, and this may be where you’d like to start. However, for some people this is not an option, particularly if the person responsible is connected to family or friends.
In this case, it may be helpful to reach out to a qualified therapist for some support.
Many people find that talking to a qualified and experienced therapist about their experience can help to ease their burden. After all, “shame needs secrecy to survive”, according to Brené Brown, the world-famous researcher on shame and vulnerability.
You may be worried about the consequences that speaking to a therapist could have on the person responsible. In some cases, where there is an active risk of harm to you or another individual, it may be necessary for a therapist to report a crime to the police. However, this is not always the case.
If you’re worried about this or have any questions, you can talk to your therapist first so that you understand any actions that may be taken before you go ahead.
You may also want to speak to a charity organisation first, to get some confidential advice. Please read on to find links to some of these organisations below.
If you are currently experiencing sexual abuse, or you know someone who is, it is extremely important that you get the help you or the person at risk needs.
There are people out there that can help you break free of this abuse. You don’t have to go through this alone.
Cognitive Hypnotherapy for Healing Sexual Trauma
As someone with lived experience, and from working with many clients on healing sexual trauma, I know what a powerful journey it can be. Cognitive Hypnotherapy can help you to safely explore and heal experiences and memories that are troubling you.
It is important to work with a fully qualified therapist who understands trauma and who you feel comfortable and safe with. I offer my clients complete empathy, understanding and non-judgement as we go on this journey together.
Whatever your experience, no matter how disempowering it has been, I want to assure you that healing is 100% possible. You may have been a victim to a crime that you could not control, but you do not have to live your life as a victim anymore.
If you feel ready and you’d like to explore how we could work together on your healing journey, please get in touch for an informal chat. I offer a free 30 minute confidential telephone consultation, so we can both see if we’re the right fit to work together.
If you are a victim of sexual abuse or are at risk of sexual violence of any kind and would like help, please call 999 (UK) or contact one of the following organisations for confidential advice immediately:
Stop It Now: https://www.stopitnow.org.uk/have-you-been-abused/
The Survivors Trust: https://www.thesurvivorstrust.org/national-helplines
You can also find access to a range of national and local support services through the Sexual Abuse Support Campaign