Good Sex with Emily Jamea: Healing After Sexual Assault

Emily Jamea, Ph.D., is a sex therapist, author and podcast host. You can find her here each month to share her latest thoughts about sex.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

My 2 o’clock client, Nicola, sat across from me on the sofa, her legs tucked under her. She glanced out the window at the storm clouds moving in, a single tear rolling down her cheek as if she herself was starting the rain.

“It happened 20 years ago, but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday.”

I stayed quiet, giving her the space to tell me more on her own time.

“I was 10 years old, and I was having a sleepover at a friend’s house. I went to the hall bathroom to get some water after everyone was asleep. My friend’s older brother was still awake, and he walked in. I think he was 17 or 18, something like that.” She choked back a sob. “He wasn’t aggressive or violent, even. He didn’t have to be because I totally froze. And now I feel like I freeze every time I’m with my husband. It’s tearing our marriage apart. I’m so ashamed.”

The office darkened as the last bit of sunlight disappeared behind the clouds, casting away any remaining shadows, awash now only with her story, a version of a story I’d heard too many times to count.

I see a high volume of sexual assault survivors because I’m not only a certified sex therapist, but I’m also trained in trauma interventions, specifically Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

April is sexual assault month, and thanks to the #metoo movement, we can’t deny the fact that sexual assault, which comes in many forms, is something that countless women have experienced. As much as I love to write about the light, fun components of sex, we can’t ignore the darker side as well.

What comes up for you when you hear the words “sexual assault”? Most people think of a violent rape, but sexual assault can take on different shapes. We must first break down the word “sexual.”

Our sexuality does not only inhabit our body. It’s also our thoughts, emotions and spirit as well. Any assault, violent or otherwise, on any part of our sexuality has the potential to negatively affect the way we think, feel and express ourselves sexually. Furthermore, sexuality doesn’t live in its own compartment. It’s linked to our individuality. Sexual assault, therefore, doesn’t just affect our sexuality. It profoundly affects our sense of self.

I’ve worked with women who have been violently raped. I’ve worked with women who have been sexually coerced. I’ve worked with women who have been taken advantage of when they’ve had too much to drink. I’ve worked with women who were touched inappropriately by strangers on the subway, neighbors and peers. I’ve worked with women who were raped by their spouses and women who’ve experienced sexual violence in the name of religion. You name it, I’ve probably seen it.

If I had to identify one common symptom that these women share, it would be the feeling of shame they carry with them. The other symptoms run the gamut. Some are too terrorized to even imagine having sex again while others experience only fleeting inhibition with specific sex acts. Some develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as addiction or eating disorders, while others remain highly functional in just about every area of their lives. But, to varying degrees, most women seem to feel ashamed by what happened to them, so this is usually where I begin treatment.

I start by explaining one simple fact: The shame is not theirs. It belongs to the perpetrator. They’ve internalized it, but it isn’t their emotion to carry.

That’s where I began with Nicola.

“Nicola,” I said gently. “You said you’re ashamed. We all have a way to pick up on emotions around us. Right now, I feel my own chest tighten as you share your story. This ability — to take on what another person is feeling — is part of what makes us human. But sometimes, people put feelings on us that don’t belong. Your friend’s brother was acting shamelessly. And you, young and vulnerable, absorbed his shame. But you don’t have to carry it around. It’s not your burden to bear.

“All of our emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant — words I prefer to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ — are there to tell us something. Anxiety, for instance, tells us we need to be aware of our surroundings. Anger tells us we need to speak up for ourselves. Guilt tells us when we’ve done something wrong. But shame … shame is slippery. It’s slimy. It tells us that we’ve stepped way outside our moral zone and that we should never repeat what we did.

“But you didn’t do anything wrong; you were trying to enjoy a sleepover with your friend. Her brother was the one who acted shamelessly. And when we listen to our feelings — in this case, shame — the message you internalized from it was sex is wrong.

“But sex isn’t wrong. He was wrong. Assault is wrong. Violation is wrong. Crossing boundaries is wrong. Ignoring ‘no’ is wrong. Taking advantage of someone in a vulnerable position is wrong. Sex is beautiful. It’s an act of connection and love. What he did was not sex. It was assault.”

This transition — releasing shame and redefining what happened as assault and not sex — is one of the most powerful first steps any survivor can take toward reclaiming sexuality for themself.

Beyond that, women need to take care in selecting future partners. A partner who is anything less than patient, kind and empathic simply will not do. I’ve worked with too many women who ended up with partners who didn’t try to understand the impact that assault had on their partner. Seeing it as something they should just “get over” ends up making their partners feel alone, which puts off healing. Survivors need to be very clear with new partners about limits and boundaries. There may be some sex acts that are simply too triggering and that’s OK. Pairing up with someone who understands and respects your limits tremendously facilitates recovery. A healthy relationship with someone you love is one of the best remedies.

Working with a qualified therapist can also go a long way. We have incredible, effective trauma interventions available nowadays. I think a lot of people imagine therapists passively taking notes while clients relay their stories, maybe assigning a journal entry for homework. Not these days. We are active: EMDR, EFT, somatic therapy, mindfulness and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy are all wonderful interventions.

I worked with Nicola for several weeks. Once we processed the pain and trauma of her experience, I gradually helped her rediscover pleasure.

I wrote here about the variety of assault situations I’ve treated, and I want to end with all the healing I’ve seen. I’ve helped women consummate marriages, experience their first orgasms, stop having nightmares, confidently welcome children to the world and get off medications used to treat the anxiety related to their trauma.

Never give up hope and trust that healing is possible.

If you or someone you know is or has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or the National Domestic Violence Hotlineat 800-799-SAFE (7233).

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