Most women I have counseled, and many of the men have at some point reported experiencing sexual trauma which continues to affect them even decades later. It is endemic, profoundly painful and limiting, and impairs survivors’ potential in multiple areas of life. The culture of shame and silence around sexual exploitation and victimization does nothing to help.
In his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk, explains how unprocessed trauma is “stored” in the body, wears us down, makes us vulnerable to “triggers” in daily life, which cause symptoms like invasive thoughts and memories, nightmares, exaggerated startle reflex, sleeplessness, an avoidance of situations that remind us of the trauma. Even though survivors may cope by trying to forget the trauma, it is impossible to avoid bringing the thoughts and feelings into situations which arise in family life, work, the communities we are part of, and of course in love.
The extraordinary events which are outside the normal experience of life don’t go away when the event is over – they stay with us, and often we feel ashamed of our thoughts and feelings, rather than recognizing ourselves as heroic survivors. Some of us exhaust ourselves by trying to act “normal” and by keeping secret the traumatic experiences.
Trauma can come from a lot of places – we often think of military/combat experience when we think of trauma, and that is certainly true. Accidents, natural disasters, things we witness that didn’t actually happen to us, family violence, can all produce traumatic symptoms. But sexual trauma is different in that it is an experience of another person or persons deciding to take your choice away. It is
compounded because of the propensity of survivors to keep the secret for a range of reasons including threats by the perpetrator, belief that family or social systems would be de-stabilized by telling, cultural acceptance of sexual exploitation and abuse, shame, and the possibility of being re-traumatized by not being believed, or even blamed.
While some therapists are unfortunately not trained to ask about sexual trauma history, there are numerous therapies for trauma, including Brainspotting, EMDR, Mindfulness, and a specific type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called systematic desensitization, as well as peer support groups and self help books.
Telling someone you can trust is a good start toward healing, as is learning about trauma so that you know you’re not alone. The National Sexual Trauma Hotline is a helpful resource for finding additional resources to get your healing journey started: Call 1-800-656-4673