Call it denial, call it pandora’s box, call it brushing it under the carpet, call it whatever you want, but the truth is you know what I’m talking about.
Being able to start unpacking what happened to me took me years. It’s funny because I knew I had been subjected to sexual violence, and I knew that I struggled with some parts of sex as a result but what I didn’t know was all the other ways unresolved sexual violence trauma was still impacting me.
Maybe you don’t either. And that’s okay, how/why would you know? It’s not as if they teach this kind of thing in school or our parents sit us down to include this in “their talks”. As I type that sentence, I can hear myself audibly rolling my eyes. Us not being taught the truth of sexual violence is yet another stone in the fountain that is rape culture because when we don’t know why we are a certain way, we automatically blame ourselves.
If you don’t know, the three foundational pillars of rape culture are:
Normalising sexual violence and the trauma caused by it.
Placing the responsibility on the victim/survivor.
Excusing the behaviour of perpetrators.
So when you’re ready, let’s gently walk through the ways the trauma caused by sexual violence impacts a person. And when I say gently, I mean it. If I were there with you, we would be doing this with at least three different drinks, something to fidget with, warm feet and the rest of the day as headspace to process what you’ve learnt.
Self-worth and Self Esteem
I feel like low self-worth, and sexual violence goes hand in hand. When a person is subjected to sexual violence, they will often turn shame and blame inwards. This can look like hating oneself, negative inner commentary, feeling like you don’t deserve good things or being happy. Society has demonstrated to victims and survivors that they shouldn’t have "worn those clothes", "gotten drunk", "walked in that place". Our families have told us not to make a big deal out of it or that uncle so and so “didn’t mean it like that”, that we should stay away from grandpa and that our brothers are "just being inquisitive". The police tell us that “it will be hard to prove” and take no further action. The result is we try to take some control back, and we blame ourselves. Because if we are to blame, that means we have control over it not happening again.
Although this coping strategy works short term, used long term it can really damaging. Blaming yourself, and the resulting low self-worth doesn’t allow you to build a life based on your strengths and achievements, doesn’t allow you to build healthy boundaries or allow you to recognise the responsibility of perpetrators, rape culture and the institutions that support it. If you want help recognising and processing the truths of sexual violence then please enrol in Reluctant Heroines Healing School or come and work with me 1:1.
Nightmares and Insomnia
I hate this one, it’s one of my least favourite and something that I suffered with (and still do sometimes). What happens with trauma is that our unconscious and subconscious minds try to work through it at night. Almost like unpacking boxes after moving house and needing and wanting to put what's in them away where it’s supposed to be. Our minds are trying to work out where these particularly nasty memories should be stored. The thing is these memories are so nasty that they even scare us when we are asleep, so we wake up.
I don’t know about you but I particularly hate those nightmares that follow me around for days after. The thing is the more nightmares you have the less you sleep. The less you sleep the harder and harder it is to function even on a normal Tuesday afternoon level, let alone a person who is trying to process complex trauma levels. Some people have such bad nightmares that it can make them fearful of going to sleep in the first place. Some people find that their brains are so wired that sleep isn’t something that they are blessed with. Sleep is such a vital part of healing. There’s a reason why babies and people healing from major illnesses sleep so much. It’s because they're healing and growing, which is exactly what you need my love. Sleep is one of the most underrated and undervalued natural medicines out there.
The amount of women who have an eating disorder due to sexual violence is HUGE, but it’s one of those things that isn’t spoken about. Eating disorders look like anorexia, bulimia, avoidant/restrictive food intake, orthorexia, pica and rumination disorder. I recently delivered training on Inclusivity in the Workplace and female victims and survivors of sexual violence, and when we spoke to eating disorders, one of the members asked victims and survivors saw eating disorders as a way of having control. She wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t entirely correct either. For some victims and survivors, overeating can be a way of making themselves unattractive and invisible in a world where thin is desirable. For others, it’s about not feeling worthy of the life and nutrition that eating brings and then some see food as a coping tool. When faced with uncomfortable emotions eating is equivalent to stuffing down the problem. You also have to remember that certain foods release chemicals into our bodies that act as a release to any uncomfortable feelings (read that as trauma) a person might be holding in their body. Crunchy salty foods serve as a sensory distraction, and sweet foods give you that feel good (yet short-lived) sugar rush.
For more information on eating disorders, the following links can help. I have worked with Eat Breath Thrive personally and I can wholeheartedly recommend them.
Burnout and Overwhelm
Are you feeling tired all the time, sleeping more, crying more, feeling on edge more, not wanting to leave the house, not wanting to communicate with anyone personally or digitally? Are little everyday things like needing to put more air in your tyres, running out of soy sauce just when you need it for your stir fry or having to contact the gas company about a bigger than the typical gas bill, filling you full of freezing dread which leaves you feeling wiped out for days and weeks at a time?.
In my experience when it comes to rape and sexual abuse victims and survivors, the signs of burning out and overwhelm are usually the cause of untreated CPTSD and PTSD.
By not acknowledging, honouring and treating PTSD/CPTSD you are unconsciously saying to yourself that your life will always be really hard, that you are broken and that there is something wrong with you as a person. That you are beyond help and that these feelings of overwhelm are your fault. If you can’t even cope with day to day life without burning out, how are you going to find the strength to open the box labelled “rape” and deal with the monster that comes charging out, right? Wrong! My advice as someone who's been there personally and sees's this symptom in other women all the time, Do Not Ignore This Symptom. You are not meant to live in this dysregulated state. This isn't you, this is a symptom of complex trauma. It can get better, but it means you will have to face up to what happened. If you want help facing what happened, please know that I am here for it. You can book a free call with me and we can talk about what support is best for you.
Are the voices in your head full of trepidation and negativity? Do you feel like everything might just be hopeless despite your best efforts and that your best efforts are pathetically inadequate compared to everyone else’s?
Do you have frequent thoughts about hurting others, fighting, wanting to run away and or hide? Do you find yourself trying to appease and please people even though there’s a big (huge) part of you that wants to tell them to oh one, two one, do one? Are there things that remind you of that person, what they did, and when it happened? Can you sometimes hear their voice in your head telling you that you are rubbish, a piece of sh!t or that you have to do something even though every fibre of your body is screaming NO?
Those, my love is what we call in the trade as flashbacks. I like to call them emotional flashbacks because for me “flashbacks” was what I saw in movies or on the TV. And while what I and many others experience are similar to the TV variety, there’s something much different when you experience them yourself. What’s happening, my love, is that something (usually a sensation) reminds you of a time when you felt out of control and/or scared, and your mind and body are taking you back to that place when those horrible things happened. What triggers you can be very mundane and boring; for example, the ends of tomatoes still trigger me. It sounds ridiculous, but when I see the end of sliced tomato, I remember a person who failed and hurt me in unimaginable ways. It might be that you are triggered by burning your toast, seeing the particular shape of a person, a season, smell or temperature.
Lower Sex Drive
I love this one, I do and, it’s something that when you speak about with someone who has/is working through their trauma and has got to a better place, it makes so much sense. Experiencing sexual violence can impact how much a person wants to have sex. It’s obvious right. What isn’t apparent is the stick that people get from society about not wanting sex. I like to think of it this way. If you’d been in a major car accident and had life-altering injuries, it would be okay if you didn’t want sex because you were scared of how much it would hurt, or you felt different about your body! If you had been in a house fire and received major burns, it would be alright if you didn’t want to have sex or if having sex was scary again because you were scared of how much it would hurt or you felt different about your body! That would be understandable as well. Even if you were to pull your shoulder out, you wouldn’t be expected to be playing tennis. It’s the same with sexual violence. Of course, you don’t want to have sex, and it’s completely understandable and normal under the circumstances. Something that I teach in both Healing School and with my 1:1 clients is that entering into physical intimacy after facing sexual violence trauma comes much, much, much, MUCH later. What should come first is daily pleasure and joy in your own right. For me, pleasure looks like clean sheets, warm sun on my face, blue skies, emeralds and sapphires. Joy is smiling at dogs in the park, laughing at silly tick-tocks, reading a fantastic book and connecting with trusted friends. Learning to enjoy pleasure and joy without guilt and without feeling like you’re not worthy comes first. Sex and intimacy after sexual violence comes so much later.
Like eating disorders, I feel like not a lot of people know about this one. Risky behaviours as a result of complex trauma can look like alcoholism, drug addiction, illegal activities, gambling addictions and hypersexuality. According to the Collins English Dictionary, hypersexuality means extreme or excessive sexual activity.
Hyper-sexuality might take the guise of having sex with people we regret (friends, friends partners, strangers), unprotected sex leading to increased cases of unwanted pregnancies and greater risks of sexually transmitted infections. It can also disguise itself as sex without connection or emotional vulnerability. Hypersexuality might come with a feeling of obligation to please a partner, feeling like a relationship will end if you weren’t having sex but not being able to voice this and feeling like you do not have the control to stop having sex. It might feel like dissociation and as if you are someone else when you're having sex and not having a concept of appropriate and inappropriate touch. Little to no sexual boundaries, putting ourselves in sexually dangerous situations with no thought about our safety. Victims and survivors who experience hypersexuality after sexual violence are often emotionally disengaged during sex without any feelings of connection, sharing, joy or happiness.
It’s sh!t and to make it worse, it’s not talked about. So here I am pulling away the veil.
So many victims/survivors don’t understand that this behaviour is a result of sexual violence, why? because we’ve learnt to dissociate ourselves from sex because we have this gaping chasm where protection, guidance and fairness should be and because to us, sex naturally feels neglectful and unsafe. That's our baseline, that’s our “normal”.
It takes A LOT of courage and emotional energy to unpack and examine unhealthy long-held sexual beliefs. It’s not impossible and it's hard work however I would recommend to everyone who wants to fully heal the open wounds of sexual violence that it is ESSENTIAL.
What I have written here are just some of the ways untreated sexual violence trauma may be unconsciously impacting you. It's only by doing the work that you can release yourself from this insidious trauma. Both Reluctant Heroines Healing School and my 1:1 coaching and mentoring are set up to help you through this. I’ve been there, I know what it takes to unpack and put it back together in a healthy and empowering way. It can get better, I promise.
Take care my love, I'm here if you need me x