sexology

The Therapists Helping Sexual-Trauma Survivors Relearn to Love Sex

A silver lining to the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein story, and the seemingly countless others like it: We’ve seen (some) increasing social awareness of the emotional, interpersonal, and often career-ending damage of sexual abuse in Hollywood and countless other fields. And yet there’s one aspect of the aftermath for survivors of this type of trauma that is still too likely to be overlooked. Sexual abuse also causes sexual side effects, in that many of us struggle to relearn how to experience pleasure with a partner, even if we desperately want to be able to do so. Will sex ever be pleasurable again? Will sex ever be hot again?

When I was fresh out of college, the older man I was seeing raped me, although it took nearly a year of therapy before I understood that. Everything was so confusing back then, including my own physical and emotional feelings: I still wanted sex after that, and badly — but I was too afraid to even let anyone brush my arm or hold my hand, let alone have sex with me. I didn’t know what to do. My therapist suggested self-help books, but none of them had any useful advice for completely relearning how to enjoy sex after being assaulted. I tried reading the sex blogs I used to enjoy, but they suddenly seemed so shallow; I tried watching porn, but I couldn’t without crying. I still fantasized about sex a lot, but I wasn’t sure if it would ever happen for me again.

And then one night, it did. It was an evening of fun, unexpected, weird, drunk, giggly sex with … myself.

As it turns out, I was onto something. The therapeutic use of masturbation for trauma survivors and others experiencing sexual dysfunction has been well documented since the 1970s, said psychologist Laurie Mintz. “I can say without a doubt, clinically, the first step … is absolutely self-pleasure,” said Mintz, a professor at the University of Florida and the author of Becoming Cliterate: Why Orgasm Equality Matters and How to Get It. She goes so far as to call masturbation “a cornerstone of sex therapy.” In her own work, published earlier this year in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, Mintz suggests that self-touch — in conjunction with talk therapy, a conscious self-help practice, and mindfulness exercises — may be just as effective in helping women with sexual dysfunction achieve orgasm as a pharmacological placebo.

But there are often steps to take before a trauma survivor is able to even enjoy self-pleasure. Lori Brotto, a psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, tells me that sexual arousal itself can bring back painful memories of the traumatic incident. Due to a protective physiological response, some survivors’ bodies “may show signs of arousal” during an assault, which Brotto emphasizes “does not mean she gave consent,” but can nonetheless be “a difficult association to break.” In her private practice, Brotto helps women disturbed by their body’s physical response to sexual stimuli create a new, positive association with pleasure through the use of guided meditations and mindfulness exercises.

Once a survivor begins to feel safer in their own bodies, some sex therapists may encourage them to explore self-touch. A vibrator can help, sometimes, for some people. But even the use of non-erotic objects such as “an orange, spices, velvet cloth, a feather, [or] silk fabric” can help a survivor become reacquainted with touch of all times, writes sex therapist Wendy Maltz in New Directions in Sex Therapy: Innovations and Alternatives.

It’s these kinds of alternative approaches that the Dutch designer Neinke Heider recently became interested in. “I was really frustrated with the way we treat these kinds of issues,” Helder told the architecture and design magazine Dezeen earlier this month. “In my opinion, the treatments that I got only made it worse. It was totally taking me away from the sexual context; it became really clinical. It was so focused on this end goal of penetration that I totally lost all fun in my sexuality.”

At this year’s Dutch Design Week, Heider displayed the therapeutic objects she designed, including a specially designed ergonomically shaped light-up mirror, horsehair brush, and biofeedback devices, each of which allows users to reconnect with their bodies gradually and comfortably, creating opportunities for sensual and sexual exploration — with a partner or alone. “If you have a trauma, it can be really difficult to talk about it,” she told Dezeen. “But by giving someone an object and making them part of the therapy, it opens a lot of doors for conversation.”

Or, as Maltz phrased it during our conversation, self-pleasure can be a “wonderful bridge” to feeling pleasure with a partner again. For me, therapy and self-touch helped sex with other people to become fun again — and weird and gross and all the other things I used to like about it. Relearning my own body has helped me feel safer within it, because it made me feel like who I was before I was assaulted.

Learning to Love Sex Again After Sexual Trauma