This article appeared in the Natural Medicine of June 2011.
It is remarkable how many people have had some traumatic experience around their sexuality. Typically such experiences leave the deepest imprint when they happened in childhood, but even more recent events can be so traumatic that they get suppressed into the subconscious. For us humans, this is most often what happens with our traumatic experiences: At the moment when the incident occurs, it feels like too much to process, and so we block or suppress the emotions and sensations felt. Very often, we even suppress the memory that such an event occurred, or lose our conscious memory of what the event meant for us.
What causes sexual trauma?
Our nervous systems can register sexual trauma from a wide range of experiences. Here are some:
- Direct sexual invasions
- This happens when a person’s genitals or anus get penetrated without his or her conscious consent. Such incidents can occur with strangers, such as a man luring a girl to him in a park. They can also occur with familiars such as family members or friends of family.
- Sexual touch
- Sexual touch, such as feeling the breasts of a woman, can be very traumatic if unwanted.
- Non-sexual invasive touch
At any age, the body can register invasive experiences such as enemas or gynecological examinations as a sexual invasion and remember it as such.
Sexual suggestions and associations can have a profound impact on a person’s psyche. An example is where a parent projects his unfulfilled sexual desires on to the child, and the child unconsciously takes responsibility for these feelings.
When emotional relationships become inappropriately entangled, this can register in the body as sexual invasion. In energetic language, we talk about an invasion of the etheric or emotional body. Since this experience is so intimate, the body can remember it as sexual intimacy.
Response to sexual experience
Very often, the trauma is caused by someone else’s response to the person’s sexual experience. An example is when parents severely reprimand children for sexual exploration that happened quite innocently.
Signs of sexual wounding or trauma
As stated before, the memory of sexual trauma often goes unconscious in us; we forget that the event ever happened. What signs are there in our lives that may hint at a suppressed sexual memory? Here are some patterns associated with unconscious sexual trauma memory (please bear in mind though that these patterns are not definite indications of sexual trauma):
- Premature ejaculation for men
- Tight or dry vagina for women
- Extreme sensitivity or nervousness about intimacy (emotional, physical or sexual)
- Withdrawal from life
- Extreme shyness
- Compulsion to please, impress and perform
- Over-achievement, perfectionism and drivenness
- No sexual boundaries
- Intense projection on to partners
How unconscious experience becomes conscious
Our body-mind has ingenious ways to remind us of experiences that have been suppressed in us, or put away for later.
Body/ cellular memory
Whatever we have not fully experienced or integrated remains in our bodies as cellular memory. The body will remind us of what has not been properly felt. This can happen through body symptoms such as a tightening or over sensitivity of sexual organs. The body can also hold traumatic memory is through freezing, numbness, lack of sensitivity and coldness.
Associations in sexual life
Much of our sexual experience in relationship is associative. We come to associate one experience with another. For instance, many women experience any tenderness from their partners as a potential sexual approach, and so they freeze up immediately. Associations run deep and can be very primal.
Fantasies and taboos
Consciously working with erotic fantasies, especially those that involve taboos, can offer a gateway to releasing what is in the unconscious.
The wise body: trusting the nervous system
Our nervous system, as that of any animal, is structured in such a way that it can release trauma rapidly. When an animal runs away from danger or gets caught, the sympathetic nervous system get activated. This is our body’s “fight and flight” mechanism; it brings the organism to maximum alertness and focus. It the buck escapes, the animal will involuntarily start shaking. This is the parasympathetic nervous system taking over – the body’s system for relaxation and release.
We humans are the same as animals, except that we have conscious reasoning faculties. In a moment of crisis, our reasoning faculties will try to control, solve, change or suppress the experience rather than letting it pass through us. Consequently, we stay stuck in the “fight and flight” mode of contraction, tightening, freeze, over activity and over alertness. Especially “civilized” humans will hardly allow their bodies just to shake. Indigenous cultures like the San have shaking as a ritualized part of their dancing, since they intuitively sense how it frees the body-mind from its constrictions.
In a healthy nervous system, energy moves in a figure of eight from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system. The body is continuously moving between focus and relaxation, attention and release. It is possible to release sexual trauma from the body by supporting this natural flow in the body. This method has been developed in great refinement by Peter Levine, and is called Somatic Experiencing.
When trauma surfaces in a client’s body during a session, I support and guide the person to fully allow both the contraction and the shaking-release phase of the nervous system response. It is remarkable how rapidly the trauma memory releases from the body in this way. What it takes from the client is a deep commitment to awareness and willingness for energetic transformation.
Feeling your emotions
When trauma memories come up, either consciously or through the movements of the nervous system, this may open a flood of emotions. It is very necessary and healing to let yourself feel any emotions that surface.
Finding your NO
It is very important to find your “no” – to learn when something doesn’t feel good to you, and to say “no” to it. Practice saying “no” in a way that can be felt by others, and that sends out a clear signal. Be clear on where your “no” lies.
Finding your YES: Becoming embodied
People who have experienced sexual trauma often resist being fully embodied. Staying unaware of your body is a way of remaining in the “fight and flight”/freeze mode. It may feel familiar and therefore comfortable, but it doesn’t help you in the long run. Notice what happens if you start to move – stretch your body – dance – feel. Take time to gently explore new realms of experience for the body. The psychologist Wilhelm Reich said that we try to protect ourselves from the outside world by creating body armoring. This armoring is a tactile and movement defensiveness that keeps us rigid and separate. Through gentle, loving, conscious movement you can move through these stuck energetic patterns and start to enjoy the bliss of being in a body again.
When you say yes to your body, you may find that unnecessary protection in the form of fat drops off. If you are too skinny, you are likely to gain weight and feel more vitality.
 Levine, Peter and Frederick, Anne. 1997. Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma : The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA
 Reich, Wilhelm. 1986. The function of the orgasm. Macmillan