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Sexual Trauma is not a diagnosis or mental health condition, it is an experience. Just ask Shirley

A few weeks ago, Shirley Manson, singer of the popular rock band Garbage came out publicly with her story of sexual trauma at age 13. In an interview with Billboard magazine she describes the lifelong pain and feelings of low self worth and insecurity connected to a horrific event. “A boy [penetrated me digitally], then grabbed a knife and told me he was going to stick it up my vagina. I was 13 years old,” she revealed. “It frightened the s–t out of me.” Shirley was able to identify music, angry music as a method for her to cope and wail against the long lasting psychological pain she felt.

For some Sexual Trauma as a child or as an adult can cause this same low level sadness and insecurity can persist but it can also cause other mental health issues such as PTSD, depression and anxiety to name the most prevalent. Other serious direct results of sexual trauma can be development of addictions to drugs as well as borderline and other personality disorders.

As with other forms of trauma, there are a variety of reactions that a survivor can have in response to Sexual Trauma (ST). The type, severity, and duration of difficulties vary based on factors like a prior history of trauma, the responses from others he/she received at the time of the ST, and whether the ST happened once or was repeated over time. The internal reactions of men and women have to ST are similar, but cultural factors such as the way the person was raised, ethnic and social perspectives, religious pressures or support, sexual orientation or gender issues, and other variables can also affect the impact and manifestation of symptoms resulting from the ST.

Although trauma can be a life-changing event, people are often remarkably resilient after experiencing trauma. Many individuals recover without professional help; others may generally function well in their life, but continue to experience some level of difficulties or have strong reactions in certain situations. For some survivors, the experience of negatively impacting symptoms of ST may continue to affect their mental and physical health in significant ways, even many years later.

Symptoms or signs of trauma that female and male survivors of ST may have, include:

Strong emotions: feeling depressed; having intense, sudden emotional reactions to things; feeling angry or irritable all the time

Feelings of numbness: feeling emotionally ‘flat’; difficulty experiencing emotions like love or happiness

Trouble sleeping: trouble falling or staying asleep; disturbing nightmares

Difficulties with attention, concentration, and memory: trouble staying focused; frequently finding their mind wandering; having a hard time remembering things

Problems with alcohol or other drugs: drinking to excess or using drugs daily; getting intoxicated or “high” to cope with memories or emotional reactions; drinking to fall asleep

Difficulty with things that remind them of their experiences of sexual trauma: feeling on edge or ‘jumpy’ all the time; difficulty feeling safe; going out of their way to avoid reminders of their experiences

Difficulties in relationships: feeling isolated or disconnected from others; abusive relationships; trouble with employers or authority figures; difficulty trusting others

Physical health problems: sexual difficulties; chronic pain; weight or eating problems; gastrointestinal problems

Fortunately, people can recover from experiences of sexual trauma, including 1-1 talk therapy and/or couples’ therapy with an LMFT who can also be an AASECT certified sex therapist who is “sex positive” and is well versed in sexual trauma recovery. Another treatment that has great success is therapist facilitated and topic specific group therapy, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) and medications such as SSRI anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications can help cope with symptoms which are too overwhelming to be able to participate in talk therapies.

Thinking about addressing sexual traumas in therapy may never seem like a “good” idea or "the right time" since a survivor has worked hard to repress or “forget” the past for so long. However, without focused healing work, full healthy perspectives in life can stay difficult to obtain and many years can be wasted just “hoping it will go away over time”. In fact, the problems that result from unresolved sexual traumas can multiply into more problems which are difficult to solve on their own. This can manifest in relationship problems which can also result in depression. Another common result is in experience of deep seated feelings of low self-worth which sometimes result in not pursuing one’s true dreams or conversely may result in over compensating in addictive behaviors such as compulsive pursuit of money or workaholism or drug addictions. As you can imagine, each one of these problems might seem independent or separate from the original sexual trauma/s, yet if the survivor had had timely treatment, the resulting maladapted coping might have been avoided altogether.

There are so many reasons to seek treatment! For example, life is short, why waste a minute with the persistent re-occurrence of effects from this trauma? It is impossible to calculate how this unresolved trauma may be limiting you unless you get help and then look back and realize, “I would have never gotten to experience (fill in the blank), if I hadn’t gotten help finally”. My favorite encouragement for people to “give themselves the gift of therapy” is to remind them that when they do experience the freedom, feelings of accomplishment and joy in learning how to integrate all of their life journey into opportunity to grow and love themselves they will be uniquely empowered to help others. This may be one day be an intimate partner, a friend or even a family member. This ability to deeply affect others in a positive way is almost always true, as one survivor’s hand reaching out and talking to another is still the best medicine in the whole world!

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