Overcoming Sexual Abuse: Healing the Sacred Wound
“What generally gets overlooked is that sexual energy and life-force energy are virtually one and the same.”
- Peter Levine
Experiencing sexual abuse is undeniably one of the most distressing events that an individual can encounter. Sadly, it is an all too familiar occurrence in our society. Whether it's sexual molestation, date-rape, or incest, sexual trauma has affected almost one third of the population at some point in their lives. Not only does sexual abuse cause deep emotional scars, but it also has a profound impact on our very essence, altering how we view ourselves and engage in intimate relationships. This blog will delve into how sexual trauma affects the body and nervous system, explore the benefits of somatic healing modalities in releasing trauma, and provide insights into ways to recover from the experience.
The Prevalence of Sexual Trauma
Grim statistics underline the dire reality of sexual trauma. Unfortunately, the numbers we have are just the tip of the iceberg - a shocking 75% of incidents go unreported in the United States each year. The reasons for this are varied and complex, but include a deep-seated fear for personal safety, a sense of guilt or shame, and a fundamental disbelief that justice will be served. Sadly, some people are even unable to speak out due to age or other factors outside their control. The true scale of the problem remains unknown, but one thing is clear - sexual trauma is a grave and pervasive issue that we must face head-on.
The statistics surrounding sexual assault in the United States are both alarming and heartbreaking. Every 73 seconds, an American falls victim to sexual assault, and tragically, every 9 minutes, that person is a child. Over 20% of adults report having experienced sexual abuse as a child, with the vast majority of child survivors being abused by someone they know and trust.
In the military, reporting sexual assault continues to be a challenge, with only a fraction of offenses being reported by service members. It's important to recognize that sexual violence affects both women and men, with 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experiencing physical contact with sexual violence at some point in their lives. These statistics illustrate the urgent need for greater education, awareness, and prevention efforts to help combat this pervasive public health issue.
Early Sexual Trauma
Childhood sexual abuse is a serious and traumatic experience that can have long-lasting effects on those who have endured it. Survivors have been violated on an interpersonal and sexual level, often by individuals they know and trust. The impact of this abuse can disrupt the natural development of sexuality, causing identity impairments that can persist into adulthood if left unaddressed. It's crucial to recognize the gravity of childhood sexual abuse and provide support for those who have experienced it in order to ensure their continued healing and wellbeing.
One of the long-lasting consequences of childhood sexual abuse is the difficulty survivors face in defining their personal identities. Often plagued by negative perceptions of themselves and their bodies, those who have experienced this trauma can struggle to construct a positive sense of self. Shame and guilt contribute to these damaging perspectives, and can be especially distressing when linked to memories of abuse. Survivors may find that their struggles with identity play out most visibly in their sexual lives, where their sexual self-concept, or their personal ideas about themselves as sexual beings, are muddled by past experiences.
Research indicates that our sexual self-concept undergoes significant development during our adolescent and adult years. Social expectations, sexual growth, and experiences all play integral roles in shaping our perception of ourselves as sexual beings.
However, survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience notable challenges in developing self-esteem and positive perceptions of sexuality. They may view themselves as sexual objects, believing that their existence is solely intended to meet the sexual needs of others. In some cases, survivors may even find validation in fulfilling the sexual desires of others, reinforcing their worth based on their ability to do so. The trauma of childhood sexual abuse can also lead individuals to believe that they are inherently flawed or damaged, exacerbating feelings of shame and guilt. It is crucial to recognize the significant impact that trauma can have on sexual self-concept and to provide appropriate support to address these challenges.
The aftermath of sexual violence goes beyond emotional and psychological damage. Studies have shown that negative coping strategies, such as smoking and substance abuse, are prevalent among survivors. Adjusting back to normal life can be equally challenging, with survivors having difficulty maintaining personal relationships, resuming work or school, and reclaiming their sense of self. Sexual anxiety is also a common experience, as healthy sexual encounters may trigger memories of past trauma.
Sexual Trauma & the Self
The aftermath of sexual trauma can deeply impact an individual's self-esteem, self-worth, and self-compassion. Those who have experienced such trauma may struggle with feeling deserving of care and love, or may feel undeserving of happiness and pleasure. They may encounter difficulties setting boundaries or advocating for their needs, and may grapple with emotions like anger and resentment.
One of the most prevalent effects of sexual trauma is a feeling of detachment from oneself. Survivors may experience numbness or disconnection from their emotions, body, and sense of identity.
A sense of guilt and shame is another common symptom of sexual trauma. Survivors may hold themselves responsible for the trauma and regret not preventing it or reacting differently. These feelings can result in self-loathing and self-hatred, making it challenging to form healthy relationships with oneself.
Physical symptoms are also typical in survivors of sexual trauma, such as chronic pain, digestive problems, and other physical symptoms associated with nervous system dysregulation and the stress of the trauma. These physical symptoms can exacerbate the sense of detachment and make it difficult to feel connected to one's body.
The Issues in the Tissues - How Sexual Trauma affects the Body
“Trauma is something that happens initially to our bodies and our instincts. Only then do its effects spread to our minds, emotions, and spirits.”
- Peter Levine
While many people associate trauma with mental and emotional distress, it is important to recognize that trauma is also stored in the tissues of the body.
One way that trauma can be stored in the body is through the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating the body's involuntary functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion. When we experience trauma, the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is activated, which triggers the fight or flight response. This can result in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
If the trauma is not resolved, the body remains stuck in a state of hyperarousal, which can lead to chronic pain and other physical symptoms. This is because the sympathetic nervous system is designed to prepare the body for action, not for long-term maintenance. When it remains activated for an extended period, it can put a strain on the body's resources and lead to a range of health problems.
In addition to physical symptoms, nervous system dysregulation can also lead to a range of emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Individuals may also experience flashbacks, nightmares, and a heightened sensitivity to triggers that remind them of the abuse.
Sexual Trauma and its Impact on the Pelvic Floor
One area of the body that is particularly impacted by sexual trauma is the pelvis, where trauma can become stored in the tissues of the genitals and pelvic floor muscles.
The pelvic floor is a big, complex muscle that consists of three layers. It runs from the pubic bone to the tailbone, supporting the bladder, uterus, and rectum. The pelvic floor serves as the center of our musculoskeletal system, while also functioning as a vital muscle responsible for supporting and maintaining the position of our internal organs. In addition to this, it plays a significant role in regulating urinary and bowel movements, as well as sexual function.
When an individual experiences sexual trauma, the body’s natural response is to contract and hold tension in the pelvic floor muscles, in an attempt to protect itself. When this tension becomes chronic, it can lead to a range of physical symptoms such as pain during sex, vaginismus, urinary incontinence, painful periods, PMS, premature ejaculation and constipation.
In addition to physical symptoms, trauma stored in the pelvic floor can also impact sexual function and pleasure. Individuals may experience difficulty with arousal, orgasm, and intimacy, as well as a disconnection from their own bodies.
This is why sexual trauma requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and emotional aspects of trauma. While traditional talk therapy can be helpful in addressing the emotional impact of trauma, it often overlooks the ways in which trauma is stored in the body.
Somatic Approaches to Healing Sexual Trauma
Somatic therapies such as Somatic Experiencing® (SE) and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE®) can be very effective in releasing trauma held in the body and restoring balance to the pelvic floor.
Somatic Experiencing is a body-based therapy that helps individuals release trauma held in the body through the use of gentle touch, movement, and awareness. SE works by helping individuals track their bodily sensations and movements, allowing them to access and release trauma held in the nervous system.
Another effective somatic therapy for healing sexual trauma is TRE® (Trauma Releasing Exercises). TRE is a series of exercises that help release tension held in the body, particularly in the muscles in the pelvis, abdomen, and legs. It works by inducing a natural tremor response in the body, which helps release trauma held in the tissues.
Healing from sexual trauma with somatic therapies requires a commitment to self-care and self-compassion. In addition to somatic therapies, other body-based practices such as yoga, dance, and meditation can also be helpful in healing sexual trauma. These practices help individuals connect with their bodies and cultivate a sense of safety and connection.
The Role of Emotions
One of the critical aspects of healing from sexual trauma is the role of emotions. Emotions are a natural response to trauma and are an essential part of the healing process. They are a crucial factor in addressing and resolving past trauma. Sexual trauma can lead to a range of emotions, including fear, anger, shame, guilt, and confusion. These emotions can become overwhelming and may interfere with a person's ability to function and heal.
The first step in addressing emotions related to sexual trauma is to acknowledge and accept them. It is essential to give yourself permission to feel and express them. Suppressing or ignoring emotions can be detrimental to the healing process and can lead to further emotional distress.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) can help individuals process and release intense emotions that are often stored in the body as physical sensations. SE recognizes that emotions are not only felt in the mind but also experienced in the body.
Through SE, individuals learn to identify and track sensations in their body associated with emotions. They are taught to observe and tolerate these sensations without becoming overwhelmed or dissociated. The therapist may guide the individual through slow and gentle movements or touch to help them become more aware of their physical sensations and emotions.
The process of releasing trapped energy and tension can also help individuals become more resilient and better able to cope with future stressors and triggers.
Another critical aspect of managing emotions related to sexual trauma is self-care. Self-care can include engaging in activities that promote relaxation, such as yoga, meditation, and exercise. It is also essential to prioritize sleep, nutrition, and other aspects of physical health to support emotional well-being.
The journey towards healing from sexual trauma can be a long and challenging process, but there are steps that individuals can take on their own to support the healing process.
Here are some simple steps people can do on their own to support the healing process from sexual trauma:
Here's how to do it:
Sit on a firm surface with your feet flat on the ground and your spine tall. Bring your awareness to the bony prominences at the bottom of the pelvis that you are sitting on. Notice the sensation of sitting on the sit bones. Imagine how your sit bones are melting into the surface you’re sitting on and try to relax the pelvic floor as much as possible by breathing deeply.
Now try to bring the sit bones closer together: Begin to engage the pelvic floor muscles by imagining that you are bringing the sit bones closer together. This action may feel like a subtle lift or squeeze in the area around the sit bones. If you’re doing this exercise for the first time, you may not feel anything at all, but as you keep practicing, you will begin to notice the build-up of a subtle, pleasurable tension between the sit bones, which indicates that you have activated the levator ani - the most important, third layer of the pelvic floor.
Hold for a few seconds: Hold the contraction for a few seconds, and then release. You should feel a release and relaxation of the pelvic floor muscles when you let go. Make sure that you release and relax completely - there can never be too much relaxation in the pelvic floor.
If you identify as a woman, avoid tensing up the vaginal muscles, as you would during Kegel exercises. Instead, focus on relaxing the vagina as much as possible while attempting to bring your sit bones closer together. Kegel exercises may activate only the second layer of your pelvic floor and potentially create an imbalance, leading to increased tension in the pelvic floor over time, which is not desirable. Connecting with the levator ani, the third layer of the pelvic floor, can both strengthen and relax the entire pelvic area, leading to better pelvic health and increased sexual sensation.
Repeat the exercise multiple times, gradually increasing the duration of the contraction. Remember to release and relax for at least as long as you contracted, if not longer, to avoid over-tensing the muscles. Connecting to your pelvic floor will make you feel more grounded, improve your posture and can also help maintain hormonal balance. It is a powerful way to become more embodied and centered.
In conclusion, healing from sexual trauma is a complex process that requires time, patience, and support. It is important to remember that healing is a journey and that seeking professional help may be necessary to fully heal and move forward.
Along with somatic therapies, there are many other approaches to healing from sexual abuse, including talk therapy, support groups, and self-care practices. Find what works best for you and to give yourself the time and space to heal at your own pace.
Here at Red Beard Somatic Therapy we have a team of dedicated somatic practitioners that specialize in somatic approaches to trauma healing.
If you are interested in starting your own healing journey from sexual abuse please reach out and schedule your free consultation call now!
We would be honored to support you on every step as you walk along your path of healing and growth.
List of references:
Cantieni, Benita (2013): Tigerfeeing: The perfect Pelvic Floor Training for Men and Women. Munich: Südwest Verlag.
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Childhelp (Sept 2020). Retrieved from https://www.childhelp.org/child-abuse/
Deutsch, A. R., Hoffman, L., & Wilcox, B. L. (2014). Sexual self-concept: Testing a hypothetical model for men and women. The Journal of Sex Research, 51 (8), 932-945. https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2013.805315
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Levine, Peter (2008): Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of your Body. Louisville: Sounds True Inc.
O’Sullivan, L. F., Meyer-Bahlburg, H. F., & Mc Keague, I. W. (2006): The development of the sexual self-concept inventory for early adolescent girls. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30(2), 139-149. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00277.x
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (Sept 2020). Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem
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