What is a sexual trauma?
Trauma and sexual violence
Trauma is a Greek word for ‘wound’. A psychological trauma literally means a ‘wound on your soul’. That wound can occur when you have experienced a traumatising event. This could be a one-off event, a repetition or a lot of events, long or short. Sex against your will is always a distressing event that can lead to trauma.
Every situation in which sexual acts are carried out by force or coercion is called sexual violence. This can be forced by physical strength but also by emotional strength. Acts directed against a person's sexuality are also covered. The perpetrator could be a stranger or someone you know. Rape is a form of sex that is not voluntary and that perpetrators use to degrade people.
Sexual trauma can also cause ‘wounds in your body’. If you have physical symptoms caused by sexual violence, please contact your GP or a gynaecologist.
Reactions of your body
Everyone reacts differently to a traumatising event. It often turns your life upside down. You tend to have trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, you may be irritable and have nightmares. In addition, you may suffer from depression and anxiety. And (working) relationships may deteriorate. This shows you how vulnerable you are and you may lose a sense of safety and control. The world no longer feels safe and predictable. After rape, women often feel unclean, it's as if they can't wash themselves enough. These are normal reactions to traumatising events. Usually, these stress reactions diminish after a few weeks. But if they don't, it's important to get help. You may have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sleep has a significant influence on how you feel. So, a good night's sleep is essential! What can you do to improve sleep?
Tip: create a ‘Safe Sleep Box’. In the box, put things that help bring you back to the here and now when you wake up from a bad dream, for example a special stone, a photo of someone dear to you, ideas for soothing music you could listen to, positive phrases that are special to you. And a pen and paper. This allows you to write down the horrible things you dreamed of and put them in the box. You can throw the pieces of paper away later. After a bad dream, get out of bed, turn on the light so you can see and know that you are now in a safe place! Do something that will relax you and calms your mind (don't watch TV). Now go back to sleep.
Fight, flight and freeze
Fight, flight and freeze are natural, automatic reactions to experiencing trauma. Your brain makes a very quick decision: flight, if possible, or fight, and if the other person is stronger there is only one other option, freeze. Freezing leads to paralysis of the muscles in some, and stiffness in others. Often people are unable to call for help when they freeze because their muscles - including the muscles around the vocal cords - are paralysed. When you experience sexual violence, you can feel alienated from your own body, as if you see yourself from the outside, as if the world around you is not real, as if in a dream, distant or distorted.
In the film below, Lindsay talks how she froze when she was raped. She talks about what that is like.
Dissociation is part of the paralysis reaction. You no longer feel anything, you don't even feel any pain. It also means that at that moment you feel you are no longer able to decide how to react. Dissociation
is also seen as the best way to survive, to stop feeling pain and fear. You ‘escape’ your consciousness, as it were. For example, you may no longer feel any physical pain. Thoughts, feelings, perceptions or memories can be detached from experience. Your experience is like having lost ‘time’, you no longer know exactly what happened or where you've been. As a result, you often can't remember everything properly, or you don't remember the sequence of events. The disconnected feelings and perceptions can come back later in the form of flashbacks. Dissociations are common in post-traumatic stress disorder.
Breathe in and exhale in short, firm puffs. This makes your blood flow faster through your body and you will be able to feel your body better.
Before you start this exercise, try to remember a recent situation where you felt good, comfortable, or happy. You can use this situation later in the exercise.
Sit straight up. Place your feet side by side on the ground, and place your arms on the armrests or on your thighs. Start this exercise with your non-dominant hand. This is the left hand for right-handed people, and the right hand for left-handed people.
Clench the fist of your non-dominant hand so that you can feel the tension, but no pain. Allow all the tension and unpleasant feelings to come together in this fist. Watch your knuckles turn white and feel the pressure of your fingers in your palm. Imagine your fist is a magnet that draws all the tension to it. All tension goes to the fist, through the shoulder and the arm.
If the tension in your fist becomes too great, release your fist for a moment and shake out the tension. Then you can continue to allow the tension to flow to your fist. Continue until enough tension has been released and flowed away and you feel relaxed. When you are sufficiently relaxed, shake out your hand one more time and relax your hand.
Now clench the fist of your dominant hand. Imagine that all positive feelings are gathered here. Think back to the recent situation in which you felt good, comfortable or confident. Send all the positive force from your dominant hand to the rest of your body. Feel the strength, warmth and energy spreading throughout your body.
When you have finished the exercise, stop squeezing and keep your fist loosely closed. If you want to feel this strength again, all you have to do is clench your dominant hand into a fist. And you will experience the positive feelings again.
Walking barefoot, on the grass, in the sand, on tiles. Bring your attention to your feet and feel how the surface feels as you walk slowly. Go slowly, step by step.
Install a mindfulness app on your phone, for example the free mindfulness app from health insurer VGZ.
You'll do anything to survive a rape, and your body does too!
“If I have a positive physical reaction, is it really that bad? Was I asking for it? Did I provoke it?” The 'see, you know you want it' accusation makes victims wonder whether they provoked the violence and whether the perpetrator was right. Such accusations can easily lead to self-hatred and play a major role in this taboo.
During non-consensual sex, your body is focused on survival! Even if you were completely paralysed by fear, your body can still react. Even if there is so much violence, your body can react, for instance by becoming moist, and you can even orgasm. This seems incomprehensible because you couldn't do anything at all, but your body did react. This has to do with the chance of survival: getting moist can prevent injuries. So the body protects you from physical injuries by 'complying' with sexual violence. This is awful, because it feels like your own body is betraying you. You can also start to doubt whether you truly did not want it to happen. But just because your body was protecting you, it doesn't mean you actually wanted it! The purpose of your body is to survive!
Are you experiencing physical discomfort through sexual violence? Please contact your GP or a gynaecologist.