Sexual Trauma Defined

Sexual trauma is a complex concept that describes the lasting impact of a sexual boundary violation. It is defined by its origin and the typical symptoms that survivors can experience later on.

Where Does Sexual Trauma Come from?
Violations of sexual boundaries can often result in sexual trauma. When a boundary gets crossed, it is defined as harassment, assault, or rape; the severity of the boundary violation is a factor in whether the event could be experienced as traumatic. The survivor’s tolerance and resilience for such violations can also play a role and are largely based on environmental and genetic influences.

Sexual Harassment can be “Non-Sexual”
Historically, sexual harassment and assault have been defined by men; women, as well as gender and sexual minorities have helped us understand that sexual harassment involves attempts to gain power through policing others’ genders. This means any form of derogation of another person based on their gender – including insults, jokes, exoticizing, or even questioning their legitimacy – could be experienced as a sexual boundary violation.

What Are Some of the Symptoms of Sexual Trauma?
Survivors of sexual trauma will likely struggle with feeling powerless to hold both sexual and nonsexual boundaries in the future. Symptoms can typically fall into three categories: (1) re-experiencing, (2) hyperarousal, and (3) avoidance.

(1) Re-experiencing includes reliving the experience through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts, and can even have physical symptoms such as pain during sex.
(2) Hyperarousal describes feeling on edge, anxiety, prone to outbursts, and difficulty sleeping.
(3) Avoidance describes changing one’s behavior to avoid triggers, which could either manifest as having lots of sex in an attempt to numb uncomfortable feelings, or losing interest in having any sex at all.

Hope for Recovery
Recovering from such a wound requires courage and hope. The recovery process often begins with telling your story to someone you trust and who will have hope for your recovery. Going to therapy is vital, and involving your partner can accelerate the healing process. If you are not ready to tell your story, there are therapies that can help prepare you, such as EMDR or a Seeking Safety group. The goal would be for you to find healthy ways of feeling powerful during sex and other sexual activity, to learn to listen to and trust your gut, to take it slowly and at your pace, and to do your best to be kind and patient with yourself.