Pleasure for the People: Trauma and Revolution

Feel more pleasure with Emancipating Sexuality

It’s good to talk about the nuances of a pleasure revolution, in particular for those of us with sexual trauma.

It seems like pleasure should be the most effortless of human experiences, yes? After all, it’s the state or sensation we are taught to pursue relentlessly. The abatement of pain, and the enjoyment of pleasure is the promise of all marketing, no matter what the product being sold.

And yet pleasure can be complicated. Or maybe it always is.

What is pleasure? How do you know it when you feel it? What’s your capacity for staying with it? Can you bear it for hours? Do you let pleasure absorb deeply inside you, defining your embodied existence? Does pleasure validate your worthiness? Or, like most of us, do you gulp down the delicious meal, rush towards orgasm, or in other ways try to escape from feeling sustained pleasure?

I work with many folks with sexual trauma. I struggle to not let their heartbreaking stories become my normal; to allow myself to feel the impact of each and every violation of each client, without becoming swamped in despair.

The suck-ass truth is that for those of us with sexual trauma, we bear the burden of working through it. It’s not fair. It’s so not fair. And yet, without our own personal work navigating towards sexual freedom, we remain stuck in a sexuality that is not our full expression. And this is of course an okay choice, but it is not the one I nor my clients are making. We want pleasure.

For folks with sexual trauma history, pleasure isn’t always easy to feel. There may be numbness, lack of sensation, pain. Not only that, pleasure can be triggering to feel.
Pleasure can feel not good; it can be uncomfortable, unbearable, or the bodily sensations of pleasure may cause folks to disassociate away from their bodies. Sometimes it’s easily felt, but remorse, shame and guilt are lying in wait in the wings, as soon as pleasure is done. Sometimes pleasure brings up unwanted thoughts, memories or associations.
I sit with my clients through the weeks and months and sometimes years as they fight for their right to feel pleasure, and as they build their capacity to stay with it
Recently I went to hear the band Alabama Shakes at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. Brittany Howard belted out song after soul-wrenching song, no holds barred. This woman is so full-on, you just know she is born to sing, is here on Earth to bring this particular musical brilliance through her body and into the world. Holy fuck. Listen to this before you read the rest of this post, to have an embodied understanding of what I’m talking about.

While listening, it raised a question I’ve been feeling into ever since.  What is it to live in the world, completely dedicated to expressing the thing you are here to express? To give yourself completely to that thing? That even trembling with fear, flooded with overwhelm and suffering pain you just throw yourself into yourself, and pour yourself out again? To allow inspiration to have its way with you, and to focus focus focus your expression in the way that only you could ever do?

I am committed to developing my full erotic expression in this lifetime. There are moments when I am able to allow pleasure to completely ride me,  moments when my body exists inside of me!

But more often are the complicated pleasure moments. The times I’m using my strategies to stay present, to explore what’s possible in this body in this moment. The days where my libido caught a train to Detroit, or I’m distracted by the books I need to read for my lit review. Or I’d rather just get off quick and nap, than do the work of feeling deep pleasure.

My erotic practice is about practice. My erotic practice is about Practice. Like learning to shape a voice made for rock and roll, or hone muscles that can powerlift heavy weight, or learning the art of feeling the trauma of my clients and letting it move through me instead of getting stuck, I am devoted to my art of subtle, nuanced erotic feeling.

This is my pleasure revolution; to develop sensitivity to sensation, to develop the capacity for feeling, in the face of trauma that says ‘No, don’t feel. You don’t deserve it!’ or ‘It’s not safe to feel that!’

Through practice I’ve learned to fuck harder when shame strikes. To remain soft and open to receiving pleasurable touch when tears come. To speak hard-to-say truths in the middle of beautiful moments. To continue erotic energy when my partner is triggered. To receive erotic energy while I’m triggered. To pause, reset, and continue. To explore how to hold pleasure for a long, long time, through all the bullshit that comes up.

Almost all of my clients long for easy pleasure. Pleasure without tears at the end, or having to stop in the middle. Pleasure that doesn’t require explaining to one’s partner that the reason they can’t touch your left thigh has nothing to do with them, but could they please try and not? Pleasure that is just simple. However, that’s not the hand they are holding. Instead , erotic expression involves work and practice and willingness to experience the grief/rage/anger/sadness/numbness, again and again beyond boredom, ad nauseum. Trauma legacy.

And yet. I’m not totally convinced that complicated, hard-earned pleasure isn’t just a tiny bit more worthwhile. I’m not actually convinced that ‘easy pleasure’ and ‘deep pleasure’ ever coexist. It’s a revolution because it’s an overturning of the false dichotomy of the ‘haves’ who get pleasure and the ‘have-nots’ who don’t. Pleasure for the People!  Committing to full erotic expression after trauma is a seizing of personal power in the face of hegemony and shame.

That said, choosing full erotic expression as a trauma survivor takes the time it takes, and maybe that time is never. I’m not the pleasure police. It is a valid choice to focus self-expression in totally different arenas. There is no ‘should’ about feeling anything. Just choices about where we choose to place the limited resource of our attention. Living a life of hedonism and pleasure happens to be where I choose to rebel in the face of my trauma and upbringing.

Would I have committed my life to this personal and professional exploration of reclaiming pleasure without sexual trauma? I’ll never know, but I doubt it. My pleasure is earned, hard-won. It’s my art. It’s my practice. It’s my connection with self and partner and the Divine.

And truly, not today, but some days, pleasure really is effortless

If this speaks to you, please leave a comment below.

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My warm, safe hand, reaching out to other survivors

Yesterday in honor of National Coming Out day, I came out as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.  In response, I received a lot of love and support.  Breaking silence is an interesting thing.  Many people read that blog post, and since statistics show that 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will endure sexual abuse before the age of 18, it seems like a good idea to follow up what I wrote yesterday with some more information.  I want to be able to have conversations without shame or stigma, and bring something silenced into the clean, sweet sunlight.  I want survivors to be able to pursue the healing they need, without dehabilitating shame that impacts their relationships, self-esteem and sexuality.  I’m feeling more and more called to this work, especially for queer, fat, trans- and gender fabulous folx.

The statistics being what they are, and the number of readers being what it is, I feel certain that there were many survivors who read my blog yesterday.  This post is for them, the brave warriors who are walking into the labyrinth to reclaim what is theirs, and dealing with all the fear, terror, humiliation, shame, embarrassment, and other emotions that come once this work is begun.  It’s true, you could choose to live your entire life without naming this for yourself, without facing the demons that haunt you.

Okay, here’s some information I dug up in my research.  (Sources are at the end)

Many people have sensory/body memories of abuse.  If the abuse happened when they were very young, they may not have words around the body sensations.  Many survivors experience functional amnesia, especially if abuse occurred before age 5.  Physiological responses to particular triggers are common, and inexplicable when a survivor has no conscious memories.  The season, time of day, quality of light, certain sounds or smells and a plethora of other sensory stimuli can trigger body reactions that seem totally disconnected to the actual environment or situation.

Trauma often manifests in the body as extreme cold, numbness, lack of sensation or sensory amnesia, such as not really being aware of certain body parts, even though cognitively someone knows they have that part.  People often are so accustomed to lack of sensation, that they are unaware of it.  Think about it, if you were color blind, and no one ever caught it, would you know you were?  It’s like that.  If I have an area of my body (pelvis and hips are super common) that is not feeling a full range of sensation, how would I know? (Just sayin, there are ways to figure this stuff out, but that’s another post.)

Relationally, CSA can have a huge impact.  Many survivors find connecting sex and intimacy problematic.  They can have both, just not together.  Diassociation during sex is common.  This means that the person checks out… it can mean their awareness leaves their body, or it can pull really tightly inside.  Either way, it’s not present and engaged with the partner.  Partners tend to get pretty testy about this stuff after awhile.  And boundaries, as I wrote yesterday, become really murky; physical, emotional and energetic.  Yeah, forget about boundaries!

Maybe I’m not saying anything this morning that you don’t already know.  I think my intention is to give permission to survivors to begin to acknowledge their experiences, without taking on a whole shitload of blame, shame and self-recrimination.  The good news is that there is a way back from the trauma.  Healing is totally possible.  Hell, if I’m doing it, I bet you can too.  Bottom line is I’m not willing to give it that much power anymore.  I’m driving now, thank you very much.  Not it. 

Here’ s a list of symptoms that is pretty good: I didn’t write this, I copied it from Carol Boulware.

What Are The Affects Of Sexual Abuse?

Being in your body

  • Do you feel at home in your body?
  • Do you feel comfortable expressing yourself sexually with another?
  • Do you feel that you are a part of your body or does your body feel like a separate entity?
  • Have you ever intentionally and physically hurt yourself?
  • Do you find it difficult to listen to your body?

Emotions

  • Do you feel out of control of your feelings?
  • Do you feel you sometimes don’t understand all the feelings you are experiencing?
  • Are you overwhelmed by the wide range of feelings you have?

Relationships

  • What are your expectations of your partner in a relationship?
  • Do you find it easy to trust others?
  • Do you find difficulty in making commitments?
  • Even though you’re in a relationship, are you still lonely?
  • Is it hard for you to allow others to get close to you?
  • Do you find yourself in relationships with people who remind you of your abuser, or you know is no good for you?

Self-Confidence

  • Do you find it difficult to love yourself?
  • Do you have a hard time accepting yourself?
  • Are you ashamed of yourself?
  • Do you have expectations of yourself that aren’t realistic?

Sexuality

  • Do you enjoy sex?
  • Do you find it difficult to express yourself sexually?
  • Do you find yourself using sex to get close to someone?
  • Does sex make you feel dirty?
  • Are you “present” during sex?

What Problems are Caused by Sexual Abuse?

Major Sexual Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  1. Difficulty with becoming aroused and feeling sensations
  2. Sex feels like an obligation
  3. Sexual thoughts and images that are disturbing
  4. Inappropriate sexual behaviors or sexual compulsivity
  5. Vaginal pain
  6. Inability to achieve orgasm or other orgasmic difficulties
  7. Erections problems or ejaculatory difficulty
  8. Feeling dissociated while having sex
  9. Detachment or emotional distance while having sex
  10. Being afraid of sex or avoiding sex
  11. Guilt, fear, anger, disgust or other negative feelings when being touched

Major Long-Term Medical Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  1. Insomnia
  2. Vaginal or Pelvic Pain
  3. Eating Disorders
  4. Headaches
  5. TMJ syndrome
  6. Low back pain, chest pressure
  7. Erection problems or ejaculatory difficulty
  8. Asthma
  9. Dizziness/fainting
  10. Self harming/self-mutilation
  11. Chronic physical complaints

Major Long-Term Psychological Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

  1. Anxiety
  2. Panic Attacks
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Stress disorders – PTSD
  5. Personality disorders
  6. Substance abuse
  7. Self-abuse behaviors

If you are dealing with recovery, and want some support, try calling here:  National Sexual Assault Hotline 800 -656-HOPE

http://www.aaets.org/article120.htm

http://rainn.org/get-info/effects-of-sexual-assault/adult-survivors-of-childhood-sexual-abuse

http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/wwwfiles/ph/media/media/TPH-409.pdf