Instances of sexual abuse are prominent in our culture, and are experienced by people of all genders, not just women. For experiences more specific to men, please see one of my other blogs “Therapy for male survivors of sexual abuse”.
According to Rape Crisis England & Wales, 1 in 4 women have been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult. Most did not report it – as many as 5 out of 6 were either too embarrassed, or felt that there was nothing the police could or would do to help. All together, 6.5 million women in England and Wales have been raped or sexually assaulted since the age of 16 – and that’s before adding childhood statistics. According to an article in The Independent (2022), “girls under sixteen were victims in nearly a quarter of rape cases”.
Consequences of Having Been Raped or Sexually Abused
After the assault or rape itself, the women can be left with physical consequences such as bruising, bleeding, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. What is often even more difficult to deal with is the psychological turmoil that can follow, including conditions such as PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), depression, anxiety and a loss of interest in life. It is very common for victims to have difficulties with enjoying intimacy again, even with people who were not connected to the rape or assault, such as their partners. This is often confusing, frustrating and saddening for both.
How can Somatic Sex Therapy Help?
Counselling and psychotherapy sessions are often offered to support those women who have experienced sexual abuse. Although it is important to be able to talk to someone about the experience, talking alone does not necessarily resolve the physical symptoms. This is why it is also a good idea to have some somatic therapy, which often works well alongside talking therapies. Assaults directly impact on the body, and so it makes sense to involve the body in the healing process.
1) LEARN HOW TO RE-CONNECT WITH THE BODY WITHOUT BECOMING OVERWHELMED
Learn to Self-Regulate
Self-regulation means learning how to notice when your body is starting to get activated by going into a fight / flight / freeze response, and then being able to stop it from escalating. Often, the body can ‘flip’ into overwhelm very quickly and in this case it is also important to learn ways of knowing how to stop that response, so it also doesn’t continue to escalate. Self-regulation is essentially learning how to deal with feeling difficult sensations and emotions, without becoming overwhelmed by them.
Learn to Feel Safe Again in the Body
This is very important for anyone who has experienced unwanted touch or assault. If women are not able to feel safe in their bodies, they will find it difficult to let go and open up fully to intimacy and arousal. Tantric therapy and education is helpful in providing women with a space where they can learn how to stay present enough in their bodies to identify that they are feeling tense or not safe in some way, and tools for learning how to deal with these experiences.
Learn How to Come Out of Numbness / Dissociation in a Gentle and Safe Way
Dissociation is a common response to having been abused. It is the body’s defence mechanism to help us numb out from the pain and discomfort that is happening inside the body. People who dissociate often find it difficult to ‘connect’ with their bodies and emotions. If they were to access all of that discomfort all at once, the experience may feel too overwhelming.
This can be counter-productive, as it may strengthen the body’s defence mechanisms by making it want to dissociate even more. That is why it is important to work slowly, staying within the client’s window of tolerance, and helping to gently stretch it over time. Learning self-regulation – the ability to access challenging sensations and emotions and then being able to stop and come back to feeling good – is essential to the healing process.
Learn What a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ Feel Like
It is very common for women to say ‘yes’ when they actually mean ‘no’. When it comes to intimacy, this can be challenging, because the body will say ‘no’ in its own ways – by shuttng down to pleasure, or developing conditions such as vaginismus, where the yoni becomes too tight to be penetrated. This is why it is important to learn to listen to the body, and determine what a ‘no’, a ‘yes’ and a ‘maybe’ feel like. The next step is to get more confident and comfortable to express those preferences.
Learn About Consent, Boundaries & Communication
Learning what a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ feel like in the body is a good starting point in developing good boundaries. It is a skill that can be developed over time, and includes learning how to effectively communicate yeses and nos. This means not only feeling into what would be OK, but also learning what your body enjoys, and how to ask for the things you want. It is also getting comfortable with being able to express a no, and to hear a no without feeling rejected. A great place to start is Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent. There is good information on her website, or in person workshops across the UK and further afield.
Talk to Your Partner
Being able to talk to any existing or prospective partner about what happened to you can be a good way of deepening intimacy. By sharing your experiences, you can be in a better position to explain why your body may react in certain ways without the partner feeling blamed or that they are doing ‘something wrong’. You can also ask them for support in working together with you to help you to go at a pace that is comfortable where it comes to receiving touch. By working together, couples can develop better communication skills and become more attuned to each other. In the end, this can lead to being in a wonderful and erotically fulfilling relationship for both.
3) LEARN TO FEEL PLEASURE & AROUSAL AGAIN
Many services that are provided to rape and sexual abuse survivors can overlook the important aspect of how to enjoy sex and intimacy again. Feeling pleasure and arousal in the body can become linked with the expectation that something undesirable is going to happen, and the body can shut down to wanting to experience those sensations. The sensations of pleasure or arousal in themselves may elicit a fear response in the body. Somatic bodywork is a great practice for helping the survivor to experience the fear in a gentle way and at a slow pace, over time teaching the body that it is OK to receive touch again, that it is OK to enjoy touch, and that is it OK to enjoy intimacy.
I work with women and their partners to help them enjoy their bodies and relationships again. For more information, please get in touch.