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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.

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"There are men who think that women who are on their own belong to them. This means the life of a single woman is not safe.

My story is that I got pregnant. I asked for help at the church because I didn't want the pregnancy. I was thinking about having an abortion myself. I was advised not to. Now I have a seven-year-old daughter who keeps asking about her father. She is very defiant. I think she would be easier if she had a father, she'd listen to him."

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).

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.

www.LINDAmeiden.nl. (2020, 2 November). Lindsay (27) was raped on a Tinder date
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"Several times I said I don't want this, I want you to stop! That was ignored. At one point, I had two hands around my neck, and at that point I knew that it was really bad and I probably shouldn't say anything. I froze in the hope that it would be over as soon as possible.” The consequences were enormous. She had depressive symptoms and PTSD.

Lindsay mainly blamed herself for this happening to her. "It felt like I was letting this happen to me. Why didn't I scream? Maybe the neighbours would have heard. By talking about it to a therapist, I now know that I couldn't have done anything, that freezing was a reaction to survive!"

Dissociation

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.

Triggers

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.

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