I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Gretchen Blycker, Licensed Mental Health Counselor, to learn more about her mind-body-spirit approach to sexual trauma recovery. In honor of sexual assault awareness month, we discussed ways to reclaim your inner power in the wake of a boundary violation.
MJ: People might experience a huge range of emotions and reactions after a boundary violation. What are some common responses that you see in relation to sex?
GB: After trauma, sexual choices may significantly change for the short or long term; it may not even be a fully conscious decision. For some, it may look like seeking out more partners in order not to open up oneself emotionally; one might think, “I’ve been so hurt, I’m going to make sex more recreational, and then the hurt will mean less.” Another version is a false belief of, “if I keep my emotional self from getting involved with sexual encounters, then I’ll prevent myself from being hurt again.” For others, it might mean opting out of the choice of being sexual with another person, and focusing on other parts of your life, or choosing monogamy.
I don’t look at these as right or wrong choices; I support people in making informed, conscious choices. After a trauma, it can be an important part of the healing and recovery process to update and refresh your beliefs about sex. It’s ok to make changes, or to not know–the choice might not be so clear upfront.
Trauma affects energetic boundaries that need to be healed in order for you to stay connected with your whole self. Coping strategies like disconnection and compartmentalization might be what you need in the short term to feel like you’re functioning, but when you start denying or pushing away emotions or parts of your inner experiences, it may present longer term risks to your emotional wellbeing and sexual health.
There are particular risks to using substances, such as alcohol or marijuana, as a means to override your body’s natural self-protective mechanisms, rather than process and heal the trauma. Having a drink might allow you to disarm your self-protection in order to “relax” for sex, but it can also disconnect you from your body’s subtle cues, and then you can’t communicate those cues to a partner. Disconnection in this way, can possibly lead to some kind of sexual dysfunction, or, more dangerously, can contribute to the risk of additional boundary violations in the future.
MJ: What are some of the challenges of being a survivor in hook-up culture?
GB: After a boundary violation, you might feel as if something inside you has changed. Many people seek to recover that power in an external way, be that through relationships, attention from others, or focusing on seeking validation in other domains like school or work. Getting energy and attention feels powerful, and if hook-up culture felt good in the past, it makes sense that you may try to feel better that way.
There are also challenges to being sexual with someone you don’t know as well; the sexual interactions may lack clarity, or not have a harmonious vibe. With the hook-up culture, there’s a common practice where the person who “cares less” appears to have more power in the relational dynamic. That comes with an expectation and a cost, often involving a decoupling of the emotional self from the sexual self.
In the short-term, this may feel good. Cultural depictions of sexual scripts might teach us that our sexual selves are defined by external factors. But the expression and experience of sexual desire is personal, and we are all whole sexual beings, without our sexual selves being defined by the people with whom we’re partnered.
I encourage people to focus on healing first, and that’s a personal journey. Parts of the journey can be interpersonal, and this doesn’t necessarily have to take place in a monogamous or long-term relationship. But it does need safety, honoring of boundaries, and mutual respect. And you need to have access to that information about yourself first before you can share it with others.
MJ: When survivors do choose to be intimate with a partner, what are some strategies they can use to have a more pleasurable and safe experience?
GB: First, be clear on your own interests, desires, and expectations, so that you’re able to make ongoing, whole-hearted, and informed choices.
Beyond self-care, I also encourage people to have a self-loving care plan in action, and that’s not a one-size-fits-all type of thing. I encourage people to step into the role of being the steward of their bodies. That includes physical exercise: something that is active, pleasurable, regular, and sustainable. It includes having a healthy, nourishing relationship with food and getting enough sleep. And it includes balancing online engagement with face-to-face interaction in the presence of another person, so you can experiment with sharing energy and experiences directly with a person. The goal is to take care of body, emotions, and social connection, as well as desire and pleasure.
The nature of being human is that we are wired for sexual pleasure; it’s a physical, neurochemical, energetic experience. I encourage people to build daily or weekly habits and practices of nourishing one’s own erotic self, so that we’re not driven by external factors in an indiscriminate way. We want to make an active, conscious choice for sexual enjoyment, and not have to trust another person or external sources of stimulation in order to feed a basic need.
There are Eastern models of energy, in which the sexual center is also the emotional and creative center. You can tap into that center in all kinds of ways, through breathing, attention, and moving energy through the body, as well as through creative endeavors like writing, singing, dancing, making art, and working on projects.
MJ: What are some tools people can use if they experience triggers or flashbacks during a sexual experience?
GB: I recommend that you slow down, and connect with yourself. Pause, take a break to tune into yourself to recognize your inner experience and evaluate, “Do I feel safe in this moment? Are my feelings reacting to something that others did or said? Am I being triggered by the current environment or is this recalling something that happened in the past?” You need a sense of what’s happening in order to make a decision about what to do in the next moment.
If the answer is, “Yes, I am safe right now,” the next question might be, “Do I feel pleasure? Do I want to continue?” You might talk with your partner to process what’s going on, or that might happen internally. If you’re with a trusted partner, one option is to work together to come back into the moment, and there are lots of pathways to that. For example, you could ask for something that might feel calming and safe, like affectionate hugging or cuddling, without sexual intent. Or, you could check in with your partner about bringing their hands to where you’d like more attention or to convey the kind of touch that feels good in that moment.
You may decide to do something else. You may ask to share a massage, or you may want to dress and then hug, kiss, or do something else entirely, such as watching a TV show or listening to music.
Our partners are responsible to absorb and process information that is shared. But they can’t always read our minds or bodies. First and foremost, consent always needs to be part of the ongoing communication process. In general, each person in a sexual experience is responsible for asking for feedback and being curious about how each is experiencing one another.
If you feel triggered or a have a flashback, you don’t have to explain or justify what you’re experiencing. If you’re the partner, don’t question, doubt, or try to convince the person not to acknowledge their internal experience. Be supportive. Listen with your ears, eyes, and heart.
MJ: What are some ways you can start a conversation with a new partner about previous negative experiences?
GB: As far as when to have that conversation, go at a pace where you feel like you’re respecting your own boundaries. It may seem really intense or extreme at first; you may feel like you’re revealing something deep that you would want a partner to receive with care and gentleness. And you may need to build that trust bit by bit.
Early ways to start the conversation may appear proactive. Try sharing what you’re interested in in a positive way: “I would like to do this,” or “This feels really good.” Share what you’re sure about and what you’re not interested in. Down the line, you may have a longer conversation in whatever your authentic language is: “There’s been a negative experience (boundary violation, sexual trauma, etc); I have the most positive experience when there’s open communication; This is how I take care of myself.”
MJ: If your partner discloses a past boundary violation to you, what are some helpful ways to respond?
GB: If they disclose a past violation, be that sexual trauma, abuse, or a relationship that involved manipulation or a lack of respect, here are a few good questions with which to start:
- Thank you for sharing this with me. I want to honor your boundaries about what you want to tell me and how it may be impacting you now. Please know that I am open and want to listen anytime that you want to share. How can I be attuned in understanding when you’d like my focused attention and supportive listening?
- What is important to you for me to know and understand?
- How can I support you in feeling safe?
- How do I know if there’s a time when you’re feeling uncomfortable or unsafe?
- Can we talk ahead of time about how I might respond, so I can recognize those moments better?
MJ: How can sex therapy help a survivor heal from a traumatic experience?
GB: Sex therapy that is focused on healing can create a safe place to open up and feel the wholeness of yourself. The energy of sexuality is an embodied experience. Therapy can help find the language to describe it, and find sexuality that is safe and filled with pleasure. I help clients navigate forward with the skills to practice boundaries and co-create satisfying experiences and relationships when they are ready to do so. That process requires conscious work.
If they are not ready to do so, sessions may focus on the following question: “How do you take care of yourself now, so that when you do want to seek out a relationship, there can be an integration of love, care, mutual respect, sex, and boundaries?”
With someone who does want to explore their sexuality, I help them learn to connect with and skillfully manage their erotic energy. The goal of sex therapy is to promote connection with oneself and learn how to find pleasurable experiences where you’re not dependent on external factors. When you learn how to mindfully manage the flow of energy, you learn to resource internally and practice balance to enhance your vitality and inner power.