TW:// sexual violence and trauma
Some days go by and you don’t think about it at all. It doesn’t cross your mind, and no one would know any wiser. Then, while you’re doing mundane tasks, it hits you. You put on the same shoes you wore the night it happened. You eat the same breakfast you had the morning after it happened. You walk down the street and think that you saw someone that looked just like them – but no. It’s just your mind playing that cruel trick again, reminding you of that night when you were sexually assaulted.
In our post-#MeToo climate, things are starting to change. People have far more awareness and a far better collective vocabulary in discussing sexual harassment and assault. There are still significant problems though – the mainstream adoption of the conversation has inevitably led to a lack of nuance that fails to recognise the individual experiences involved. The likelihood is that you know, and probably deeply care for, someone who has survived sexual harassment/assault. Rape culture isn’t just the top news stories on an app, it’s the lived experience of the people around you.
This leads to not acknowledging how unique someone’s trauma can be. I once knew someone who couldn’t eat fried eggs without having an anxiety attack. It reminded them too much of their attacker cooking fried eggs the morning after the incident. Such a mundane, everyday object, yet it had the power to completely disarm them.
That’s the nuance to it. I was attacked in my first term of university and my trauma manifests in such unpredictable ways. Talk about sex with me or go to the place where I first met my attacker and I won’t flinch. But if you were to show me the socks that I wore that night, or pour me a drink in a mason jar, I’ll start feeling intense nausea and begin to struggle to find my words. It frustrates me that trivial things can have such a profound effect on me physically and emotionally, but that’s how my body responds, and I struggle to keep control of it.
In the days following my attack, I exhibited unpredictable behaviours, something common to survivors but hugely variant in the details. I attended seminars as normal and went out clubbing. I cracked jokes and helped cook dinner for my flat. I also burst out into spontaneous bouts of sobbing and suffered extreme disassociation. I laughed with my flatmates and snapped at them. I did all my washing up and avoided laundry cyclically. This erratic and irregular behaviour forced me into a deep state of denial that led to fractures in my friendships and familial relationships. I tried to convince myself and reframe the attack as “just bad sex” and related this to the people around me, instead of calling it for what it was: rape. A term I’ve only started to use very recently when talking about the attack, thanks to a friend helping me to confront my trauma.
Many people around me did not notice the signs of my response to trauma. Avoiding laundry? Lazy flatmate. Hanging out by herself in her room? Just likes some alone time. Continuous consumption of caffeinated drinks? Quirky character trait. And why would they know any different – I wasn’t stuck in my bed all-day missing lectures in a caricature of what trauma should look like.
My trauma either manifested itself in subtle ways, or in private. One of the ways it appeared in private was when I would masturbate. I’d been masturbating for years and exercised a very sex-positive mentality, but after my rape, things were different. I couldn’t touch myself for weeks and then when I did, memories from my attack would unexpectedly flash in my brain. Every time I tried to pleasure myself, my trauma replayed in my head. If my attack permeated when I was sexually by myself, how would I ever be able to have a sexual experience with someone else again? I avoided romantic and sexual endeavours as a result and became increasingly disinterested in self-pleasure.
A breakthrough happened first term of second year though. On the anniversary of my attack, I went into an intense episode. For the entire week I was on the verge of tears, locking myself in my room, and avoiding my friends. I couldn’t hug my friends for fear of touch or cook proper meals without risking an anxiety attack. For the first time, my trauma deepened so that it affected my daily routine significantly, all because of an attack I still referred to as “just bad sex”. I couldn’t articulate what I was feeling, and my friends didn’t have the context to know how to help me. The people closest to me were shut out of my life as an expression of the trauma I wasn’t addressing.
After surviving the week through the unconditional love and support of the people around me, a friend made an unrelated remark about how I should buy a vibrator. It came about from joking with them about sex toys, and then turned into a mission to find my perfect vibrator. My friend helped me research what was the best value for money and what would personally stimulate me, and I made the purchase.
Using that vibrator was the first time I didn’t replay the trauma in my head while masturbating. I managed to climax without having the fear that my rapist’s face would unexpectedly pop into my mind. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think that just the premise of exploring my body in unprecedented ways and taking an exciting, positive step forwards sexually, meant that I could battle my trauma through new avenues that didn’t require abstinence and avoidance. After that, my relationship with my body became much healthier. Physically I delighted in exploring it sexually, but my relationship with my mind became healthier too. I pursued professional help resulting in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, opened up to more friends about my trauma, and started toying with the prospect of romantic endeavours. A jokey purchase of a vibrator had led to an investment in seeking the start to recovery.
I still have a long way to go. I’ve only just started changing the language I use when referring to my attack and working on the behaviours I have accumulated as a result of my denial. I still want to be more honest with the people I love and discover more forms of therapy. I know I will never be cured of my trauma fully and that it will manifest in ugly ways and that I can’t control my trauma, but I can control my recovery. I can work on myself to make sure that the sexual trauma does not control me. I will also make sure to buy another vibrator – I deserve a good wank.