Contrary to what one may believe, sexual assault is more about power than it is about sex. Rather than stemming from an innate need to satisfy sexual desires, sexual assault arises from a perpetrator’s desire to control or dominate another person. Across culture, race, sexuality and gender, sexual assault occurs out of power imbalances in which sex is used to gain control over another individual. This often leaves the survivor with effects that last far beyond the incident itself. The sexual trauma healing journey is a gradual, ongoing process. Yet despite the initial loss of control one experiences during an assault, there are ways to recover and reclaim your power. You may have experienced a loss of control, but you have control over your healing, and there are steps you can take to cope with the residual effects.
Take Control of Your Healing
The first step in reclaiming your power, is to take control of your healing. No one is ever responsible for being assaulted, but you can take responsibility for your own healing. One way to do this is to open up about what happened to someone you trust. It can be extremely difficult to speak out about sexual assault, and there are many reasons why people choose not to speak out, but though it may seem easier to minimize the assault or keep it a secret, when you deny yourself a voice, you deny part of your healing.
It’s best to choose someone whom you can trust, who is understanding, supportive, and calm. If you don’t have someone you trust, you can talk to a therapist or call a rape crisis hotline. It may also be helpful to consider joining a support group of other survivors with whom you can learn from and develop a community of support. Support groups can help you feel less isolated and alone in what you’ve experienced. They also provide information on how to cope with symptoms and work towards recovery. If you can’t find a support group in your area, you can look for an online group.
Whether seeking professional help through a trained therapist or group, you are exercising control over your healing process. Though you can’t control triggers that may bring up painful memories, you can regulate how you react to them by learning the tools to manage triggers and difficult emotions.
Take Ownership of Your Body
Talking to a therapist or a trusted friend can help to gain power over your mind and heart, but what about your body? Oftentimes, survivors of sexual assault experience a disconnect between their mind and body, and though there are specific therapies to assist in rebuilding this mind-body connection. There are other ways to take ownership over your body after living
through sexual trauma. You can do this by taking care of yourself physically, like eating well, getting some rest, and exercising regularly. Another way to connect to your body is to engage in some form of rhythmic movement, such as dancing, drumming, walking, or running. You can also engage in yoga, Tai Chi, or another activity that focuses on concentrated movements and body awareness. Mindfulness is also a great tool for connecting to your body after sexual assault. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 2009). Mindfulness and meditation are well-researched practices to get you to notice the mind-body connection, and the best part is, you have the power to engage in them anywhere and at any time! Each of these exercises helps us relax and regain a sense of control over our bodies, and can help relieve symptoms of PTSD and sexual trauma.
Harness the Power of Your Pleasure
A final step in reclaiming your power after sexual assault is to harness the power of your pleasure. Though sexual assault is more about power than it is about sex, there is a sexual component. Experiencing pleasure in sexual intimacy can often be a struggle for survivors, but there are ways to take control. One way to explore this is through self-pleasure. In self-pleasure, you have authority over how to touch and explore your own body, of how much pressure to apply, and what tools to use (or not use!) You can also go at your own pace.
After exploring your body, you may also want to engage in partnered activities, which again, is your choice! You have the power to choose who to trust and who to be sexually intimate with (or not!) And once you have become familiar with your own body and what brings you pleasure, you can learn to be more assertive in communicating what you need to feel safe, supported, and pleasured in a partnered sexual experience. Though it may seem overwhelming to think about future partnered encounters, a trained sex therapist can help you with this too!
In the end, the only reason a person is sexually assaulted, is because they were in the presence of a perpetrator. Though this experience implies an immense loss of control and possible long-term effects, recovery is possible! The most important step is to remember that even after you’ve endured a significant loss of power, you have the power to recover.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Hachette Books. National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org)
About the Author:
Holly Wood is a Dana Point based Sex Therapist, EMDR trained Trauma Specialist, and Clinical Sexologist specializing in trauma, sex, and intimacy concerns. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Human Sexuality from the California Institute of Integral Studies, focusing on sexual trauma and social justice. Holly is committed to sexual wellness by working with clients to get past their past and develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change for a more pleasurable and connected life.
“I am passionate about helping people achieve their goals and live happy, healthy, rewarding lives. I truly believe that trauma is the source of pathology, and that everyone has within them the capacity to heal. I work with couples and individuals to sort things out, let go of what does not serve them, and develop the necessary skills to achieve lifelong change to improve their quality of life. I believe that people deserve to create the life they truly want. Peaceful. Connected. Powerful. And Pleasurable.”