I lay down to sleep last night and immediately noticed that my nervous system was on high alert. Everything was upregulated. My pulse, my breath. I felt like a little animal hiding in long grass. After a day of reading, re-reading and reflecting on my own sexual assault and harassment stories my nervous system was pretty sure that it was not safe to let my guard down. In fact, I am writing this piece now at 6am after being startled awake finally after a night of dreaming that I was running away from men who were trying to rape me or assault me. Only in the dream there was nowhere to hide. None of the buildings had roofs and all of the men were huge and could look right over the wall and find me no matter where I hid. It was an exhausting night. And I can tell you that this is just one of many dreams like this.
I am writing about this because I imagine I am not the only person who has stumbled upon some post traumatic stress after such an intense wave of sharing and vulnerability with the #metoo campaign. Post traumatic stress is not just when you feel uncomfortable talking about something but when the body actually feels like it is stuck in a loop trying desperately to complete the cycle of unsequenced trauma. And it is. Our growing understanding of trauma is informing us that trauma is not actually so much about what has happened to the body (though it certainly is relevant) but how the body responds to it (or doesn’t because it is not allowed to.) When an animal experiences trauma it shakes and twitches until all of the adrenaline that was coursing through its bloodstream is spent and then it sleeps to return to its normal and regulated state. Look up Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE) which is based completely on this.
When we experience trauma of any sort the nervous system responds in a number of ways. We have all heard of the fight or flight response. This is the part where our intelligent body quickly assesses whether the threat can be fought off or, if it is much bigger and stronger than we are, to run. If neither fighting nor fleeing will work we freeze which is an animal’s last ditch attempt to save itself by playing dead or going limp so that death is less painful. After the immediate danger has passed (if we didn’t die) we need a way to finish the sequence and allow our nervous system to re-regulate itself. In a culture that does not allow screaming, crying and definitely not twitching and shaking we remain stuck and frozen waiting for the bear to finally finish us already. Post traumatic stress is when we become our own bear over and over again.
One thing that prevented me from telling my own story for so long was that one of the ways that my nervous system had been able to cope with the trauma was to rewrite the story. For years,I was pretty sure that what had happened was not rape because it did not fit neatly into the image of being cornered and forced to the ground in an ally. To top off the confusion, during said incident, my body had responded in ways that looked and felt like, for all intents and purposes, pleasure or enjoyment. Until it turned into excruciating pain. This experience has left a patterning and imprint on my body that has affected every single one of my sexual encounters since. As pleasure builds, my body starts to prepare for excruciating pain and freezes. Rinse. Repeat. I am just starting to find awareness around this that I can use as a little wedge in this relentless cycle to give myself more space and begin to change it.
For a long time I felt betrayed by my body. Why would my body respond to what was essentially sexual assault in this way? An elevated heart beat, lubrication and blood flowing to my genitals means arousal and that I wanted it right? Recently I have just learned about this thing called “arousal non-concordance” and it explained everything. In case you don’t know about it I want to share with you because maybe it will give you the reframe that you need to better understand one of your own experiences and then begin the healing process.
I am reading this wonderful book by Emily Nagoski called Come as You Are. She touches on a vast well of knowledge about the neuroscience of sex for women but one thing that she touched on that really stuck with me was this idea of arousal non-concordance. The idea that our brain’s response to sexually relevant stimuli and our body’s response to sexually relevant stimuli do not always sync up. In fact, only 10% of people with vulvas experience physical response (blood flow to vulva, lubrication) concordant with being actually turned on and interested in sex whereas 50% of people with penises have physical symptoms (a hard on) that match their desire for sex.Think Pavlov’s Dogs. So only 10% of the time our brains and bodies are wanting the same thing!
I think that this fact has the capacity to give survivors of sexual abuse a sacred and well-deserved gift of self-forgiveness and relief. Take a deep breath right now and just feel that. For the woman who climaxed while being raped. It was still rape. For the woman who convinced herself that she was actually into what was happening to her because her body was responding in a sexually relevant way even though her mind was screaming no. It was still rape. For the woman who felt strangely turned on by unwanted attention and then gross and confused afterwards. It was still harassment.
And just to give you a little extra space and breathing room in the reconciling of the “You said no but your body said yes” myth, it is not your fault but has been perpetuated by our culture in sneaky and totally overt ways. Here is a quote from Emily Nagoski:
“This myth has its own degree of traction, showing up in the public discourse as recently as the 2012 Senate race in Missouri, when Republican candidate Todd Akin said, ‘If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down,’ which even Mormon presidential candidate Mitt Romney described as ‘insulting, inexcusable, and, frankly, wrong.’
Sex researcher Meredith Chivers often says ‘Genital response in not consent.’ Let’s add to that, ‘And neither is pregnancy.’
Genital response is no more an expression of pleasure, desire or consent than the fertilization of an egg is. I hope that is totally obvious to you by now.”
For me, recognizing non-concordance has clarified a lot for me about my experiences and has afforded me space for re-framing and, finally, healing. I hope it might help to clear some of the confusion for you. Healing sexual trauma is no small thing, but can be done. Our bodies are already doing it but we have to allow them to finish the process.