Content Warning: This article contains accounts of sexual and emotional abuse.
I have been unfortunately common in that I have experienced plenty of sexual trauma. Many, many (I cannot stress this enough, MANY) women have experienced sexual abuse in some form. In fact, I have yet to meet an adult woman who has not. Many people of all genders have experienced sexual trauma. It is, unfortunately, incredibly common.
I have also been fortunate enough to have been able to use sexual experiences to help heal from that trauma. There was a time when I believed I would never enjoy sex again. Correction, there have been many times I have believed I would never enjoy sex again. It’s been a long journey, and there is still a long way to go, but I am healing. I can see the progress and I would like to share with you where I have been, what I have learned and how I have healed. I hope that this will help.
A History of Abuse
Sexual violence has a long history. You’d think that at some point greater efforts would have been made to prevent it from happening, but it was a great tool to keep women subordinate, colonize native lands and justify slavery so I guess they weren’t *too* motivated to change that. Not to say that only women experience sexual violence, plenty of men do as children and some into adulthood. However, abuse of women was socially sanctioned in a lot of ways throughout history.
In the 19th century, it was accepted that women would never consent to sex without “some force” and so the definition of rape was vague and wouldn’t be deemed rape unless it was sufficiently violent. Until the 1980s, there was no law against marital rape. Your wife was considered your property and rape only occurred if another man was taking your property. It wasn’t until the 90s that statutory rape existed and even then, in my lifetime, I remember people saying “Oh, but it was statutory rape…not like, rape rape…”
This is not ancient history. This is woven into the fabric of society and it is everywhere. The #MeToo movement has brought more attention to this massive problem, but solutions have still fallen short. We need to do better so we can be better.
My History of Abuse
I started dating when I was 15 years old. My first boyfriend was someone I connected with over trauma and depression. I was struggling, he was struggling and we both knew how deep hurt feels. The relationship made a lot of sense at the time and for a while, it was just what we both needed.
Abuse is a tricky monster. Once you’ve experienced it, you are changed. If you experienced it young enough, it creates emotional handicaps that can be very difficult to work through. The scary part is that sometimes the ways you are affected can cause you to abuse others without your knowledge or awareness. That’s not fair to anyone, but that’s abuse for you.
His abuse leads him to become extra possessive to a smothering degree and I wanted out. He wanted the love I had been giving him to continue endlessly and to be enough love that he wouldn’t have to do the work to find his own self-love. My well ran dry. Being an inexperienced young person, he made a very grave error in judgment and created a trap for me. He, in an act of post-breakup goodwill, invited me to his birthday party which he assured me would be an all-night rager with lots of people and lots of debauchery. Of course, I was interested and went with the expectation that there would be more than enough party to keep me up until the next day when my mom would be able to pick me up and take me home.
I lived in the woods about 15 minutes’ drive outside of town. He lived in a smaller community about the same distance in the opposite direction and I didn’t drive. Going home was not an option and everyone else (all 4 or so of them) left early.
His dad was in and out of prison and his brothers were in and out of juvie. One of them had recently pulled a knife on someone at school. I did not feel safe sleeping on the couch and the only other option was to share my ex-boyfriend’s bed. I grudgingly took this option telling myself “it’ll be fine” and willfully ignoring my gut that was screaming GET OUT! What followed was a series of boundary-pushing actions that I consistently told myself was “fine” until he began undressing me. I tried to come up with the right words. I wanted to say no but feared his reaction. Our breakup had been VERY intense and the most painful experience I had had up until that point. All I could bring myself to do is shake my head and cry. He kept going.
All I remember is floating above my body and not looking down. I couldn’t consciously be a part of it and magically, my spirit had found a way to escape. That escape caused a separation that for many years to follow, felt irreparable.
These were some of the early experiences and there were plenty left to come. Again and again throughout my life, men have deeply hurt me.
My next boyfriend seemed better. We connected on a spiritual level and had similar passions in life. We were in plays together and when I moved into town and all my friends had been scared off by the possessiveness of my last relationship, he was a fellow townie I could hang out with. Friends first, I hoped this relationship would be better and in many ways, it was.
He knew when I wanted to end the relationship and accepted it with grace. Our breakup was very easy. Shortly after the breakup, however, I had troubles at home and stormed out of the house with the intent to move out, at least for a while. He was still a safe person to me so I asked to stay with him. A similar set of denial-based decisions lead to him molesting me every day that I stayed with him. It took a week to break me.
These were some of the early experiences and there was plenty left to come. Again and again, throughout my life, men have deeply hurt me. For a long time, I thought I could box it up and move on. Never look at it and never let it happen again. That worked for a few years but ultimately, it did happen again and it got worse and harder to deal with. The sort of change that had to happen was much more difficult than I had anticipated and it took many years, and lots of self-work and self-empowerment to reach a place where I could begin to deal with it.
The Power of Love
Sex can be incredibly powerful. It can be used in many ways, some good, some bad. You can feel vulnerable, powerful, playful, serious, sensual or anything else really. It’s a very unique experience and should be treated with respect. There’s a lot that we know about sex, but also a lot that we don’t know.
During sex, our brains are doing all sorts of wild stuff! Orgasms light up lots of parts of our brains, but importantly, it lights up the parts necessary for emotional processing. This makes it a particularly powerful form of therapy. People explore this opportunity for healing in many ways, through kink and role play, increased intimacy, and other forms I probably haven’t even thought of. Like other breakthrough therapy methods, set and setting makes a huge difference and each therapeutic experience is unique. My sexual healing experiences have happened at key times when I felt safe, protected and loved.
The First Healing Tears
In my final year of high school, I met a quirky intellectual who later would become my husband. He had his flaws, but he never abused me and I knew he never would. That was more than I had believed I would ever get in this life and I held on to it. One day, when we had been dating for the majority of the year, we were having sex and I looked into his eyes. Eye contact during sex can be an incredibly powerful experience. In that moment, in that look, you can see and feel who someone is, what they are willing to share with you and what sort of connection you are able to share. In an instant, I knew that this was true love.
Humans tend to be REALLY good at recognizing things they’ve seen before. Not quite as good at knowing what something looks like if they’ve never had it, though. I had thought that maybe my past relationships were love. I deluded myself into believing they truly loved me. Maybe they loved me as much as they could in their own way, but it certainly wasn’t true love. But how could I have ever known that unless I HAD seen true love? When I looked into the eyes of the man I would marry, I knew it was true love and it was both ways. I began to cry.
This crying wasn’t at all the same as the crying I had done during sex before. This crying was healing, grateful, appreciative. This crying felt SO GOOD. This crying made me want to live that moment forever. This crying was because those eyes told me not to worry. The struggle was over and I cried as a child cries into its parent’s chest. I was finally safe and I stayed there for years and things were good.
The Second Healing Tears
A couple of years after my divorce, after I had been living in Montreal for a while, I received a message on OkCupid. It was from a man visiting the city for a week who was looking for someone to show him around while he was there. I had been dating a bit, but nothing serious. A week seemed like a great timeline for me.
We didn’t hit it off right away, but after a couple dates, I had gotten to know him well enough. Our values seemed pretty well-matched and I wanted to see how a hook-up would go. Going into it, I was expecting to treat this very casually, to not get attached and to not be vulnerable with him. I had been drugged and assaulted a couple of years before and harassed a few times that year. I didn’t feel ready to trust anyone, so I kept my eyes closed.
I can’t remember what exactly he said, but probably something fairly safe like “You’re very pretty,” and I just lost it. I started crying. He urged me to open my eyes and look at him and when I did, I was overwhelmed with love and a look that seemed to really see me. He wasn’t looking at a fantasy built up around me. I wasn’t just another woman. He was looking at me, snot, tears and all, and he was smiling sweetly. I cried it out and he held me.
From then on until he left, we spent our time having sex, talking about anything and everything, serenading each other — in other words, being courageously intimate. I felt as if he had unlocked something inside me and I was able to really heal through our sex. It was pure magic.
The Third Healing Tears
I have recently been supporting a friend through her own trauma. This is not new. As a woman who has many women as friends, it’s pretty much omni-present in our circle of friends in one way or another. Usually, these traumas are from the past, but every now and again a new one pops up. Supporting this friend brought up some of my own experiences and we bonded over a song I had written about my experiences with sexual abuse.
Digging all of these things up brought on an echo of the symptoms I had dealt with in the past. Last month, I had a particularly salient and disturbing PTSD dream where both my life and my bodily autonomy was at stake. I awoke as my dream attacker grabbed me, which was actually my partner cuddling me a little extra close. It took me a minute to realize it was only a dream and I cried harder than I’d cried in quite some time. It took a little while before I could let him touch me and before I could do anything but cry.
Once I collected myself a bit, I told him about the dream, what it brought up and why it was happening. He held me and listened and let me release it all. That closeness and intimacy brought us closer together in a quiet sort of way. Normally, our sex tends to be high-energy, fun and playful. This time it took on a whole new tone. It felt like a therapeutic massage, working out all the deep pains hidden in my body.
Partway through, I started to cry again but I didn’t want to stop. It was a good cry, like the others I’ve mentioned. In a way, I felt like I was reliving my traumatic past, but I was doing it with the consent, acceptance, and support of a loving partner. We were doing this together and it was healing me.
Cycles of Abuse
Abuse is never the victim’s fault. Yes, sometimes people put themselves in situations where they will be taken advantage of, even knowingly, but it’s more complicated than that. Violence takes over everywhere it goes and it spreads like a virus according to Dr. Gary Slutkin.
Gary Slutkin: Let's treat violence like a contagious disease
Once you’ve been the victim of abuse, you are more likely to experience it again and again, often getting worse and worse. Eventually, being a victim of abuse will lead you to abuse others if you’re not able to do some real work in healing yourself. It is not your fault nor is it fair, but it is your responsibility.
Your parents likely experienced considerable abuse and also likely passed a decent amount of that to you before you were old enough to question things. Because of this, there’s a good chance that you are more affected by abuse than you know.
Breaking The Cycle
The first step to breaking the cycle is knowing that you’re in it. The world we’ve been given is pretty messed up and I have yet to meet someone completely untouched by some form of abuse. Something that really helped me notice my own abusive patterns was taking note of any time that I gave myself a pass on bad behaviour because “I had it worse”.
At some point, you have to change the conversation from How The World Is to How The World Should Be. Hold yourself to the same standards you wish your abusers had been held to and hold everyone around you to those standards, too. When you see someone behave abusively, talk with them about it. Remember their humanity and remind them of the humanity of those they abuse.
It’s not just about rape or molestation. It’s about the underlying beliefs that lead you there. Emotional abuse can be every bit as harmful as physical or sexual abuse. The sneaky part is that it’s much easier to deny and therefore much easier to gaslight the victims into believing there is something wrong with themselves than with the abuser.
Healing From The Past
Know that you are worthy of healing. Too often we prioritize everyone and everything above ourselves. Your own healing is perhaps the most important pursuit of your life. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and plenty of tears but it is worth it! YOU are worth it!
Healing comes in many forms and I encourage you to pursue a lot of them. For many, BDSM, role play and other kinks play a huge role in releasing past traumas and regaining personal power. Whatever form your healing takes, embrace it! And when you find yourself crying in the throes of passion, don’t stifle it. Let it out. Release. And let your partners do the same with you.