What is Sexual Trauma?
A note from Michelle Kelly
sex therapist | trauma therapist
Hello wonderful human! If you're reading this, you may be seeking knowledge, guidance or support for yourself or a loved one. As you read, I invite you to remember any and all information that arises within you matters (thoughts, emotions, body sensations, images). If you can tolerate what arises, take note of it (mentally or in a journal) as it will likely be important information to process. If you notice you’re becoming triggered beyond your comfort level, allow yourself to step away and practice a grounding exercise that works for you. You can always come back to this when you feel better prepared. Sexual healing involves practices in self-awareness and learning to be with the difficult information that arises. Refining these skills can allow you to mindfully acknowledge, move through and transform your pain to a place of deep understanding and powerful healing. I applaud your courage and support your journey.
what is sexual trauma?
Sexual trauma encompasses a wide spectrum of human experiences that result in distress related to your sexuality. Certain experiences, such as sexual assault, are obvious forms of sexual trauma. But keep in mind, subtle forms of sexual trauma, such as body shaming, miscarriage, pain during sex or sexuality related discimination can also result in profoundly painful distress.
Everybody's experience matters.
No two humans will have the same response to sexual trauma. Although there are common symptoms such as shame, fear, isolation, avoidance, anger, confusion, blaming oneself (it’s never the victim's fault), physical illness, relational difficulties, the manifestation of depression, anxiety, PTSD or other mental health concerns, each human will have a unique response based on their lived experiences and the quality and availability of their internal and external resources for healing. This means, what works for one person to heal their sexual trauma may be ineffective for another. POW Therapy is committed to helping you heal from your unique sexual trauma experience.
Examples of sexual trauma.
Although this isn't an exhaustive list, here are some examples of experiences that can lead sexual trauma (in alphabetical order):
Arousal nonconcordance: This occurs when your genital response doesn’t match your mental/emotional response. Although this is a common phenomenon, many people haven’t learned about it. Arousal nonconcordance doesn’t always lead to trauma. However, if you aren’t educated about it, it’s more likely to lead to shame or trauma. One example of when this could lead to intense sexual shame is if you’re sexually assaulted and your body responds with pleasure. The Younique Foundation has an article about this.
Being raised in a sex-negative family/culture: “Sex negativity refers to a mind-set that sex is inherently dirty, dangerous, risky, pathological or deviant. Certain kinds of sex are seen as normal and thus acceptable within the bounds of heterosexual procreative monogamy. Meanwhile, those types of sexual identities, expressions and acts that fall outside the bounds are considered deviant.” (1)
Child sexual abuse: “Child sexual abuse is when another person (adult, sibling, peer, etc.) forces or coerces a child or teen into sexual activity—physically or non-physically. Physical sexual activity may include fondling genitals, masturbation, oral-genital contact, digital penetration, vaginal intercourse, or anal intercourse. Non-physical sexual activities are considered sexual abuse because they exploit innocent children and can lead to the same long-term trauma as physical sexual abuse. Non-physical sexual activities may include unhealthy sexual exposure, voyeurism, or sexually explicit imagery (including child pornography).” (2)
Coercion: “Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that happens when you are pressured, tricked, threatened, or forced in a nonphysical way. Coercion can make you think you owe sex to someone. It might be from someone who has power over you, like a teacher, landlord, or a boss. No person is ever required to have sex with someone else.” 3 It’s important to note sexual coercion also exists in marriages and other committed relationships.
Gender, sexual orientation, and the relationally diverse: Discrimination, social marginalization and ostracism, lack of affirming experiences and inequitable access to civil and human rights create a wide variety of sexual trauma. The National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center and the book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships may be useful starting points for education and support.
Infidelity: Betrayal trauma, such as infidelity, can affect your emotional, mental, physical and sexual well-being. Although it’s possible to heal from infidelity, it’s commonly a challenging, soul-searching endeavor for all parties. The guidance of a sex and relationship therapist or support group can help you heal this painful wound.
Illness/injury: Individuals living with life-long, unexpected or chronic illness/injury may experience sexual trauma. It’s common for these circumstances to adversely influence relationships and sexuality. Community resources related to illness/injury and sexuality may be limited, which can create marginalization. I recommend doing an online search specific to your illness/injury to find resources. For example, when I Google cancer and sexuality, cancer.gov populates a useful resource.
Pain during sex: Dyspareunia, vaginismus, vulvodynia, sexually transmitted infections, allergic reactions, pain on ejaculation, post orgasmic illness syndrome, peyronie’s, phimosis and priapism all invovle some element of painful sex. Many of these experiences can be resolved completely or treated to reduce symptoms. For improved results, it’s common for your treatment team to consist of medical doctors, a pelvic floor physical therapist and a sex therapist.
Perinatal issues: Unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, birthing trauma, miscarriage, death of a child, infertility, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and changes in relational dynamics after the birth of a child can all lead to sexual trauma. Postpartum Support International is a wonderful resource if you are experiencing these difficulties.
Religious influences: Sexual assault in a religious setting, being told your sexual, relational, or gender identity is a sin, being told you must forgive your abuser, being blamed for your abuse, being taught masturbation is a sin or using shame to teach that sexuality is a weakness are all examples of experiences that commonly lead to sexual trauma.
Sexual assault: Any unwanted sexual interaction. This includes (but is not limited to) rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, human trafficking, exhibitionism, sexualized comments or gestures, being objectified and sexual harassment.
Sexual interest/desire: Shame, frustration, anger or disgust about your own or someone else’s sexual eroticism or level of desire can lead to traumatic experiences. Beliefs about this are shaped by many variables. Culture, family, media, sex education, age, race, ethnicity, trauma, mental health, physical health, body image, self-worth and peer influences all play a role in shaping attitudes and beliefs. Exploring these influences can be useful, eye-opening and liberating.
Sexually transmitted diseases/infections: Shame, stigma and trauma are common experiences for people living with STDs/STIs. It can be frightening and confusing to know how to navigate dating, disclosing and sexuality. The STI Project: Breaking the Stigma is a phenomenal resource if you’re experiencing sexual trauma related to this topic.
Once again, it’s important to mention the list above isn’t all inclusive. There may be other situations that lead to sexual trauma. If I failed to mention them here, it doesn’t mean they’re less important. All experiences matter. Your experience matters!
You deserve to heal from sexual trauma.
Sometimes approaching your trauma feels counterintuitive or too scary. Although avoiding your wounds may temporarily ease distress, it’s well-known that suppressing trauma leads to an increase in physical and psychological problems. I recommend you begin your healing journey now. Pace your healing in a way that feels right for you and surround yourself with resources, support and self-care practices that can hold you steady as the ebb and flow of healing unfolds. Your healing journey will be unique. Refrain from comparing yourself to others throughout this process. Trust your process, even the excruciating moments. They all have meaning and they all matter. Healing is possible!
Where can I get support for sexual trauma?
In addition to the links in the article above, here are some resources that may be useful: