CW: sexual abuse/assult, rape, trauma
My body has never felt like it totally belonged to me. As a kid, I was remarkably tall, reaching my full adult height by fifth grade. On top of that, my adult body appeared early. Like, bleeding-in-third-grade early. Everyone around me, from strangers to friends to family, frequently commented on these things. My body was constantly a site of curiosity or disgust, and I quickly learned that it could be met with judgment or violence at any time. It was painful and isolating. I didn’t look like the child I still was. At 9 or 10, I could easily pass for 14.
This means I was seen as a sex object long before I understood what sex even was. I have very few memories of life before constant catcalling began. The first time I was directly propositioned for sex, I was eleven, at a water park with a friend. Those boys followed us around for hours. Shortly before that, I was the victim of a gang assault by teenage boys at a family party. When these things happen to you before your mind can even begin to comprehend what they mean, before the adults around you have even bothered with The Talk, the only conclusion you can really draw is, “my body is not a safe place.” Unfortunately, there was nowhere else to go.
These early traumas, coupled with the countless others that are inevitable when you grow up at the intersection of racism and misogyny, were what primarily shaped my relationship with my body and my sexuality. By my teens, I was completely obsessed with my weight and body shape. I had an unhealthy relationship with food. I self-injured regularly, beginning after the childhood assault. My body was a constant source of pain and I wanted to punish it. I had all kinds of awkward, painful, semi-consensual sex with anyone who offered because my self-esteem began and ended with how desirable I was to the boys and men around me.
The intensity of this self-loathing waned somewhat as I got older, but it remained the foundation of my self-image. When I entered college, my habit of accepting any and all offers of sex continued, but drugs and alcohol got thrown in. I would wake up where I didn’t belong, bruised and confused, agonizing over the endless, awful possibilities. I despised these blackouts. Losing whole hours of my life to strange, opportunistic men scared me to death. But I didn’t stop.
As the year went on, I finally began to process the emotional toll of a lifetime spent disrespecting my body, and allowing others to do the same. I started seeing it as a real problem, and one unlikely to solve itself, but I had no idea what to do about it. I figured the first step would be addressing the substance abuse that had quickly taken over my life, and I started attending a twelve-step program near my hometown that summer. Then, I was raped by a group leader I completely trusted. I was 19.
The years that followed were pretty dark. My substance abuse and self-harming kicked into overdrive, my depression and anxiety were the worst they’d been since middle school, and I didn’t sleep for five entire years. I became well-acquainted with psych hospitals and rehabs, but they usually made the problem worse. I stopped begging the Universe for sleep and started begging for death, to the point that I actually stopped looking before I crossed the street. To be sure, there were bright spots during this period: I was in a relationship with a wonderful person, I graduated from college, and I landed my first job in the sexuality industry. I was pretty high functioning, but my post-traumatic stress disorder was always running the show. Its most paralyzing effect was the way it severed the connection between my mind and my body.
Living in a Nightmare
Trauma isn’t just a bad memory. In fact, sometimes your brain actually tries to help you by deleting part or all of the mental memories. But that’s not really so helpful, because your body doesn’t forget. When triggers arise, your body doesn’t think the trauma is a memory at all: for a moment, it’s reality again. Over and over and over. A person can only deal with so much of this. My mind had deemed my body unsafe long before, so it learned to escape the horror via compulsive and mind-altering behaviors. This is very common for trauma survivors like myself, but it means we can lose the ability to feel good things too. It used to confuse me when people talked about feeling butterflies in their stomach before a promising date or job interview. I understood that I was happy when the server arrived at the table with dinner, but I didn’t experience that happiness. I used to completely dissociate during hugs, even from people I trusted. All perceptions of emotion and bodily sensation were toned down or turned off, and sex was no exception.
I had very little sex in the first several years after being raped. I didn’t trust myself to avoid dangerous people. Physical and emotional intimacy were very challenging, even with my adoring partner at the time, for which I felt tremendous guilt. I had never known mutually pleasurable sex where I felt safe to articulate my needs and desires, and could expect to have them honored. At one point, I gave up looking for it and figured, why bother? Clearly I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s safer this way. So what did I do next? Start working at a sex shop, of course.
For the record, surviving sexual violence and being a sex educator are not mutually exclusive. In fact, there are lots of survivors in my profession, and many of us do this work in hopes of reducing the alarming frequency with which this violence occurs. But believe me, the irony of helping people have better sex when I couldn’t help myself was not lost on me. Working at a sex-positive, education-oriented sex shop changed my life in more ways than I can count, but most significantly, it helped me begin to rebuild my relationship with my body.
About a year into the job, I hit a wall with my mental health. I’d been seeing doctors and therapists, been on psych meds, and been institutionalized off and on for fourteen years, and my PTSD had only gotten worse. For my entire life, I had white-knuckled it to get through my education, but now my illness was preventing me from becoming a self-sufficient adult, and I couldn’t accept that. I began to educate myself about trauma and PTSD, and discovered that these issues were much more complex than I had thought, existing in the body just as much as the mind. Then I learned that that holistic treatments were frequently more effective than talk therapy and pharmaceutical drugs. It was all I needed to hear.
I was newly determined to exorcise my demons once and for all. I learned to meditate, took yoga classes, and received bodywork like acupuncture and massage. I worked with a therapist on somatic experiencing to relearn to process bodily sensations. I studied astrology and tarot, which quickly became invaluable cognitive and spiritual tools. I worked with crystals and began a solo tantra practice. By then, thanks to my job, I’d amassed a small arsenal of sex toys and oodles of info on the healing benefits of touch and sexual release. Finally, I was ready to use my expertise to improve my own life, and introduce my body to pleasurable touch.
It made a lot of sense for me to connect my sexuality to my growing spiritual practice. I view both as methods of accessing the body’s innate ability to mend itself, and lifting one’s consciousness to higher heights. At the same time, both have a grounding effect on me. They help reconnect my mind and body, and aid me in identifying and expressing painful, complex emotions. Tantra is rooted in this link between the earthly and the divine, and as such it became a cornerstone of my efforts to rid my body of the trauma it had endured throughout my life. Suddenly, I had an inspired curiosity about the gemstone pleasure wands and yoni eggs we sold at the sex shop.
My first crystal wand was the Indian jade (or green aventurine) Chakrub. I thought it was so beautiful: earthy, verdant, freckled. At first, I just kept it under my pillow at night and meditated with it against my heart chakra every morning. I would visualize a life lived in harmony with my emotions, with enough strength to heal the hurt that paralyzed me so. After awhile, I really did begin to feel the wand emanating a loving energy in the most comforting way. One day, I was meditating with it when I suddenly felt the energy leave my heart and travel downward. My body was finally ready to connect with the wand more intimately. I placed it between my thighs, and continued to meditate on releasing the pain and fear trapped bone-deep. The wand’s own energy pulsed so strongly against me that it felt like vibration. I visualized a warm, green glow connecting my heart to my yoni, forcing out any energies that didn’t align with my recovery. I exhaled my last bit of fear and slid the wand inside of me.
It was the most striking sensation I’d ever known. Warm, pulsing, electric. My body completely surrendered to it, accepting the wand’s radiant energy like it was from a person. I synced my breath with my motions, focusing all of my attention on the pleasure I was receiving. This pleasure built like a wave, climbing higher and higher, before finally cresting and crashing over me with unparalleled intensity. The wave burst through my heart chakra, filling it with the bliss and peace that had eluded me for so long. I left the wand in place for a few moments, letting its energy continue to flow into me. Finally, I withdrew it and placed it over my heart, where it rested as I silently wept with gratitude. At long last, my body felt like mine again.
Something totally shifted that day. I felt like I’d been born and raised in a haunted house, and had only just discovered there was a door leading outside. The horrors of living in there would always be with me, but now that I was out, I could turn my full attention to seeking joy instead of merely surviving. It was the first time I felt truly hopeful about my life since childhood.
As you’ve read, I’ve spent most of my life caught in a perpetual war with my body. Abusing it with toxic food and drugs, thinking of it as an obstacle between me and my best life, blaming it for everything that’s ever happened to me. The moment I realized that not only could I have peace, but that I deserved it and could create it for myself, I felt unstoppable. It was the most profound shift in worldview that I’ve ever experienced, before or since. Working with my crystal pleasure tools, alongside the various other holistic healing methods I employ, has been an absolutely essential part of my recovery process. It’s not that these tools create change on their own: it’s how they can help you discover your own innate magic so you can create the change you need.
I wish this story ended in “happily ever after,” but my journey continues. While my practice of solo tantra and self-love continues to thrive, I definitely still struggle to stay quite as open and present during sex with a partner. This is how my trauma still affects me most. Fear is stubborn that way. But I can say that for the first time in my life, I have far more joy than fear. I’m working hard on clearing the blocks that remain, and along the way I’m offering myself all of the patience and compassion that I can muster. I finally feel worthy of it. It’s kind of miraculous.