Recap: I’m 36 and starting to spot a pattern in my nervous system playing out in repeated experiences of unwanted sexual touch, including a full blown rape at age 15, which I had almost completely repressed.
I have distilled down what happens in the majority of the instances into 5 phases, tracking my nervous system:
- Phase 1: Connection.
- Phase 2: Move to action.
- Phase 3: Unwanted Physical Touch.
- Phase 4: Seduction.
- Phase 5: Splitting.
I have tracked back the patterns in my nervous system to being spanked as a child of under 5 and hypothesized how that taught my body to freeze and dissociate when someone I have nice feelings towards gets too close and comes out of heart resonance with me, leaving me open to unwanted touch and unable to stay fully conscious and change the situation as it occurs.
And I have promised in this part that i will share with you:
- How these protective mechanisms I developed in my nervous system and personality show up in my day to day sexual behaviour and how I can use that as a trailhead to healing.
- What can be done to break the pattern and free oneself from a life of sexual violation, unwanted touch and even bad sex, once and for all.
Thank goodness, despite being vulnerable to sexual violation, with the tendency to freeze at the first sign of someone’s sexual interest, rather than move away, say something or prepare to fight, it’s not a daily occurrence to be in the line of unwanted sexual attention.
There is one place in normal life that my reaction pattern can cause a problem: Sex.
Imagine the set up...I’m in bed with a loved one and we’re fooling around with one another. Everything is good, until that moment where they disconnect. Perhaps they misread my body signals and start doing something I’m not enjoying, perhaps they start thinking about something sexual they’ve always wanted to try and whether I’d be up for it and move from our connected body intelligences to their head, perhaps they make a new move too quickly without checking in with me.
All of these can trigger a startle response in my system. My nervous system goes into sympathetic arousal and then boom, my pattern kicks in: freeze, loose vocal chords, mentally detach (go into thought), or dissociate.
They then continue to do whatever it is they’ve decided they want to do, without asking me, and potentially without any idea anything is wrong. Meanwhile...
My body is in panic, only I don’t know it because my protective mechanisms are distracting me, so I probably just stop feeling pleasure and maybe get stuck in mental loops.
What do I not do? Say something, ask for a pause, gently orient them away from me, negotiate an alternative. No, I go into tolerating whatever is happening. Gritting my teeth, thinking hard about what I want to be different and if it’s really a long way off what I’m wanting I’m totally out my body and soon enough my Seductress is back on line trying to take back control for me.
This is not helpful during Sex.
I have, what could be described as “poor vagal tone”. The Vagus nerve; the 10th cranial nerve that runs pretty much the full length of the body, through many of the vital organs including heart, lungs and vagina, and controls many of the muscles of the face and hearing, is responsible for a whole host of system regulation and homeostasis functions, and also has a critical role in the function of social engagement.
At a very crude level, it has a number of different branches, intended to serve different roles in self-regulation. The main branch (the Ventral Vagus) is highly sophisticated and elegant, with tonnes of myelinated nerve fibres passing information from the body up to the brain and back to manage system regulation. The rear branch (the Dorsal Vagus), is more primal, and kicks in like an emergency switch when things get scary. It can have you play dead in the mouth of a tiger quicker than you can say “shit I’m in a Tigers mouth, how the heck did that happen?”. (Thanks to Stephen Porges for Polyvagal theory, which is much more elegant than I’ve described here, and to Peter Levine for his excellent work on the body’s survival systems and responses).
My ventral vagus function trips out pretty quickly as a result of my childhood programming. I’ve become an expert at getting stressed quickly and playing dead.
Instead of keeping my frontal cortex online and engaging in rational adult negotiation about things I become mute and resigned to unpleasant or even painful experiences from my frozen state .
Then from time to time I overlay all my deeply unconscious panic and terror with feelings of being super powerful and sexually adventurous/dominant as my Seductress comes back on line and puts me back in the driving seat (gotta love her).
Love = Occasional Pain. That’s my normal.
And my capacity to not take care of myself during sex with this patterning extends into all sorts of other unhelpful and sometimes dangerous behaviours. I struggle to vocalise my “no” when a man puts his penis inside me before putting on a condom, If things are moving too fast for me I’ll actively support a man to enter me before my body is ready in order to feel in control of the point to entry, I will kiss or make a move on someone I’m not really that into just because they got too close and my seductress got activated.
Pretty much anything that is happening without my consent, towards or near my body, and I’m frozen like a rusted up robot, terrified of being badly hurt or abandoned, or doing my best to get a man to orgasm fast so the whole thing can be over.
My seductress aspect is confusing to me and to others and sometimes I can’t even tell if I’m in consent to what’s happening or not until afterwards.
The other day, the only way I could tell something was happening that I wasn’t fully on board for, despite having gone pretty slowly, was that I had no desire to make eye contact with my partner. I also didn’t have feelings of wanting to touch him back. My desire for touching is usually a sign that my heart is open and I want to channel my love for the person through my hands or mouth, although please note that giving can also come from a panic place that tries to avoid abandonment so that’s a more complex subject.
I was only open to receiving his sexual touch with my eyes closed, from my disconnected internal trance state. If I came into actual eye contact or attempted heart connection I realised I felt too vulnerable and didn’t want to be there.
Although I liked this person and wanted him to like me back, my body didn’t really want to be sexual with him and, as normal, my protective mechanisms had kicked in, I had frozen, then seduced him and now here I was allowing him to suck on my nipples whilst I pretended he wasn’t there and tried to stay focused on the pleasure in my body (a step forward from my normal mental looping and dissociation, and a representation of the good work I’ve been doing on my unhelpful sexual behaviours these last years).
I’ve learned that even going really slowly, my old protective patterns are so strong that they can take me over.
So how do I break out of these patterns?
For me it’s a little bit of a complicated process that I’m still trying to distill down into something repeatable and potent. I’m now using a combination of what I’ve learned through Sex Coaching, Psychosexual Somatics Therapy and then couple with Dick Schwartz’s work in Internal Family systems.
The early steps are taken largely from Internal Family Systems therapy, and require much more time and space to investigate fully. For those of you not familiar with the modality please get familiar. It is a ground-breaking therapy that one can do on oneself (in time) and incorporates shamanic soul retrieval into a recognised and clinically tested western psychotherapeutic approach. It has changed my life.
[What you need to know for this is that our personalities are made up of multiples “parts”, some of which got hurt and split off in the past and are no longer visible to us, called “exiles” (these are vulnerable, highly emotionally charged and totally unconscious) and then many parts take on the role of “protectors”, designed to control our environments or our behaviours so we don’t feel the unbearable pain our exiles are carrying ever again.]
The first step to healing is to start to consciously engage with the parts of us that come up to protect us in live sexual situations today.
I’ll summarise my approach below:
Step 1: Notice the problem or pattern or protection. What’s the issue? What behaviour today is causing a challenge in current time? Get clear what wants to change. (e.g. Why do I lie for hours during bad oral sex and not ask for it to be different?)
Step 2: Investigate and get to know that behaviour as a protector. Treat is as a unique personality aspect, ask any parts of you that are judging it or scared of it to step aside and ask questions to get to know it and what it’s protecting you from. Thank it. Understand what it would rather be doing. (e.g. What is this part of me that remains speechless trying to stop from happening? What’s the worst it thinks would happen if I spoke?)
Step 3: With permission of this protection, go and rescue the exiled part of yourself that it protects. Get to know that. Sit with it. Let it tell you it’s story and feel it’s pain. Again, ask any other feelings to step aside for this process. Take care of it in the way it wasn’t taken care of at the time. Bring it back with you to the present. Support it to unburden extreme thoughts, beliefs and emotions it has been carrying since the incident that caused it to go into hiding. Allow it to remember who is really is and integrate it’s unique qualities back into your body. (E.g. I have a part that is scared that if I speak the person might get angry, and then beneath that is a part that thinks if I make someone angry they will hit me or abandon me)
Step 4: Take extreme care of the recently re-integrated part. Tune into it every day and just listen until it begins to trust you. Get clear what it needs to feel safe. (Ask how it is feeling today. Sit with it as you imagine a future sexual scenario. What comes up for it? What is it afraid of? What does it need you to do?)
Step 5: Find your boundary and hold it. From your daily conversations with this part understand when it gets triggered and what it needs. Negotiate on its behalf with other personality aspects. Get clear what is fine and what is too much for it sexual situations and honour its edges with the protective power of a ferocious mother bear. (Imagine doing or saying the thing the part needs you to do or say, then see what comes up? Do other parts disagree? Hold an internal negotiation until there is an agreed boundary).
Step 6: Role Play upholding the boundary. It may be too much to hold the boundary that is needed for this part to fully integrate during sex or during a live life situation if it’s not a sexual boundary. Sexual charge floods the system, and for me, my Seductress can come on line really fast and hard when she feels she needs to (more work to be done there), so it’s good to practise speaking and holding your boundary with friends, or a mentor, in a role play where there is no actual chance of sexual engagement or of being caught in the energy of the old pattern before you have time to intervene consciously. (Literally practise speaking your boundary to a friend and then track your internal reaction. Get feedback from them on how they receive you and then go again until you can do it without a charge in your body, with a calm heart rate and even breath).
Step 7: Speak your boundary to the person you need to uphold it and ask for their support before sex. This is easy to do once the exiled part has a little faith in you. Then watch how the other person responds in that moment and then during sex. A good partner or friend or person will respect and support you. If they laugh at you, judge you, question you or break the boundary, I suggest you consider leaving. This is likely not a safe, healthy, integrated person with whom you can heal your most fragile parts. (It’s good to speak about what you’re discovering and needing with a partner firstly outside the bedroom, over a cup of tea and then again before sexual engagement. Save any debriefs until you’ve had time to settle and are back out the sexual situation and with some time having passed, even days).
Step 8: Rinse and repeat. Keep honouring the boundary or finding the new one and honouring that until more trust is built. It’s best to set boundaries a little tighter than what you think is an “edge” and then creep towards them over time with space between experiments for you to review and integrate what’s happening in your body. Accept that you won’t be perfect first time, or second, or third and very quickly you will incorporate new behaviours rapidly. (Once you start holding the boundary with sexual charge present in a live sexual situation you’ll find a rapid transformation of this new capacity in your sex and in your life and that it will extend much further than just in the bedroom.
Step 9: Continually recognise you progress and praise yourself for each small step
Step 10: When you notice you’ve done something automatically that is a new learned behaviour and that you’ve stayed in your body, celebrate! I mean really celebrate, that’s huge. Well done you.
Once we’ve released the parts of stuck in time in the past, we can slow down enough to rebuild new neural pathways and teach our bodies to trust our leadership again during sexual or physically intimate situations.
Again in Summary:
- Step 1: Identify Challenge
- Step 2: Understand Protector
- Step 3: Rescue Exile
- Step 4: Maintain communication
- Step 5: Find Boundary
- Step 6: Role play boundary
- Step 7: Speak boundary
- Step 8: Practise, practise, practise
- Step 9: Praise progress
- Step 10: Celebrate success
If you’ve experienced unwanted sexual touch or been a perceived victim of rape or violation I’m sorry that happened. You are not to blame. You also may or may not have been spanked, violated or otherwise knowingly traumatised as a child.
You may, however, have behaviours that aren’t best serving you when unwanted things happen, and those you have the power to change, if you want to. It’s also been really helpful for me to take myself out of the role of victim (past and current) and start to understand how my behaviours play a part in the unfolding of the events that I experience.
From curiosity comes wisdom and with wisdom comes the agency to do things differently.
It’s also critical at this point for me to say that there are times during scary incidents where nothing you can do will make a difference and freezing, dissociation, seducing, playing dead, fighting, whatever your strategy is, it’s all perfect. Use it. Just get through and then get support on the other side of it. As I said before, sometimes bad things happen to good people.
Thanks for taking the time to read about my story and my learnings. I hope these series of articles find their way into the hands of people who can benefit from my experience and find some peace amongst some challenging memories or feelings.
Emma K Harper
Psychosexual Somatics® Therapist, Speaker, Teacher, Writer, Dancer, Musician.
Discover Your Sexuality, Integrity, Freedom @ www.emmakharper.com
"The wound is the place where the light enters you". Rumi
If you are suffering from sexual, relational, or emotional challenges as a result of early childhood or adult trauma, or simply looking for more support in developing your sexual expression and allowing your sexuality in as a healthy, integrated part of your life, please find me at www.emmakharper.com
Or if you live in the South East, or London, Join me this June for the trauma informed 2019 Women’s Sexual Expression Programme: An intimate circle of up to 10 women journeying with their sexuality to reclaim the type of sex they want to be having, with the people they want to have it with, when they want it.
And if reading this brings up painful personal material for you, please remember to speak with a friend or loved one or reach out for professional help. You are not alone. Bad things happen to good people and we’re all just doing our best in a very complicated and challenging world.