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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Sexual Healing: Reclaiming Sexuality After Violence

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This Saturday (Oct. 15) at 8 p.m., the Tool Shed is hosting a free workshop called “Sex for Survivors”. This event is meant to provide a safe space for survivors of sexual violence to discuss how their experiences have impacted their sexuality. Rebecca Steinmetz, a therapist from Chicago who is facilitating the workshop, answered a couple of questions for me in advance of the event.

How does sexual violence impact the sexuality of those who survive it?


[Sexual violence] affects each survivor differently, but one common thread is that the weapon of violence used against them was sex. We're human beings, and we're sexual beings. If you have a negative experience with something that should be pleasurable, it can complicate your relationship with your own sexuality.

One of the most common things that happens to survivors is the development of some kind of trigger or multiple triggers. Triggers are any type of sensory things—sight, sound, taste, touch—that bring back a feeling or memory from the sexual assault. You're minding your own business, and then these intrusive memories come into your life because of a trigger in your environment. This can happen when you're walking down the street, or you can be in your bedroom masturbating and hear a sound that reminds you of the sexual assault, and it causes a negative reaction.

What are some of the things that you recommend to survivors in order to help them reclaim their sexuality?


The biggest focus of the workshop is talking about triggers. We look through the lens of somatics at the mind-body connection. What happens in our brain affects our physical self, and what happens in our body affects our brains.

There are different techniques to address triggers, which are usually the biggest barrier with getting back in touch with healthy sexuality. Survivors can use a variety of tactics in their personal lives, whether they're in a relationship with someone else or a relationship with their own sexual selves.

If you have a negative trigger [during a sexual experience], then you want to avoid it. I discuss techniques to not avoid it, but to work through it, so that you don't have a very narrow sexual life based on avoidance.

Yes, you have to develop some kind of coping technique.


Well, coping techniques can be healthy and beneficial, or they can be self-destructive. One coping technique could be drinking heavily when you get really stressed because something reminds you of the assault, but this is a pretty self-destructive way to cope. An example of a healthier coping technique might be, if memories of the assault come up and cause anxiety, you could play with your dog and pet your animal for an hour. [This is] not likely to be destructive and can help you to cope, but neither [drinking alcohol nor petting your dog] is going to change the fundamental response.

As soon as you notice a trigger, you should identify it—what just happened and how does it cause you to feel? If you recognize your triggers, the next time this happens, [you can] try one of the techniques that is appealing to you. For example, continue to be sexual, but take a “step to the side”—don't abruptly stop sexual activity, but switch activities, perhaps to something different but still sensual, like massage.

If you are unable to attend the workshop, Rebecca recommends the work of Staci Haines as a great resource. Staci has produced a book and a DVD, both called Healing Sex, which discuss the topic of sexual violence and sexuality.


Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.


Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.
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