Reclaiming Romance: Embracing sensuality after experiencing trauma

Roe V Wade Protest 06 24 22 7029

Roe vs. Wade reproductive rights protest in June 2022. // Photo by Jim Nimmo

Self-love—or lack thereof—is learned. Learning to let go of shame and embrace pleasure again after experiencing intimate partner violence—or any kind of traumatic relationship—is a process that looks different for everyone. For some, sex and other forms of intimacy can feel intimidating after having trust broken. We’re here to help you reclaim your sensuality and learn to let go of fear and shame regarding sex and romance. You deserve to feel sexual agency and—equally important—to feel sexy.         

Identify your supporters

First, it’s crucial to identify your current support system, as well as find a new system of supporters who can relate to what you’ve experienced. Start by listing your most trusted supporters—those you know have your safety and best interest in mind. These are people you know won’t turn you away if you need something and who you know would never put you in harm’s way. This might include trusted friends and family members, neighbors, or even medical or mental health professionals. 

Your first time listing your supporters, you might be too generous with who you include, so put some hard thought into who makes the cut. A spot in your circle of trusted supporters should be hard-earned. If you’re looking to expand your support system, organizations such as Rose Brooks in Kansas City can help introduce you to a support group full of people who understand what you’re experiencing.  

Touch thyself

We endorse masturbation at The Pitch. In all seriousness, though, masturbating can help you refamiliarize yourself with your body and learn what pleases you. Plus, with a clitoral-stimulating vibrator, you can orgasm away your tension within minutes, compared to fumbling around with a partner for what may feel like hours. This technology is incredible and highly recommended. 

Consider also taking sexy photos of yourself for your eyes only. Help yourself see your body as sexy again and have fun dolling yourself up—for yourself. Alternatively, hire a boudoir photographer for a session—they are professionals in showing your body in a sexy light you may have never seen it in before. Then, when you’re ready, you can share the photos with a trusting partner if you desire. It’s a fun self-esteem-building activity that can potentially give back to others down the road.   

Date yourself

Singlehood is a perfect time to rediscover your interests and discover new ones. Take this chance to get to know yourself better. Pick up old hobbies you abandoned or ones you loved as a child but never carried into adulthood for whatever reason. 

Practice a new language, volunteer, or take one of the free courses available online from Harvard. Write the memoir of your life, read books that have been on your to-read list for years, or learn how to make your favorite food. With all this being said, though, also prioritize rest and doing absolutely fucking nothing from time to time. Resting is healing. Find a healthy balance between doing things simply for the fun of doing them and doing nothing at all.     

Reflective routines

Invoking a spiritual—but not necessarily religious—practice can help you get into the habit of mindfulness and staying present with your thoughts and emotions. This routine can be as simple as daily mindful meditation, in which you reflect on your growth and goals. Try writing a list of who and what you’re grateful for in your life to keep yourself focused on what is going right. Read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Gratitude List” for inspiration. 

Practicing affirmations to build your self-esteem can also be extremely beneficial. Write self-affirmations in a journal, list things you like about yourself on Post-It notes, and hang them in high-traffic areas like the refrigerator door or the edge of your television, or practice affirmations aloud in the mirror. You might also start seeing a counselor or therapist as a weekly or bi-weekly routine to help you articulate what you’ve been through and where you want to go. Rose Brooks offers group and individual counseling at no cost to those who need it.

Recognize red flags

The most important practice as you re-enter the dating pool is actively recognizing red flags in new relationships. Set boundaries early, and do not tolerate boundary breakers, even on “small” matters. No one is entitled to your time or companionship. At the first sign of attempts to isolate or control, protect yourself.

Scott Mason, director of stewardship at Rose Brooks, says emotionally and physically abusive relationships can be confusing because they don’t always begin that way.

Mason explains, “Any sort of relationship is complex. And it can get really confusing for a victim and survivor when a relationship starts out as loving and caring. And then, at some point, that relationship turns to power and control.”

Pay attention to signs of power and control in new relationships, and distance yourself from such relationships immediately. Mason says that some key signs of emotional abuse include “controlling who you see, who you talk to, where you go, embarrassing you, or putting you down.”  

Love bombing at the beginning of a relationship is a red flag, too. Mason says that oftentimes, excessive affection is how isolation and emotional abuse begin.

Mason says, “Abusers may be quick to say ‘I love you’ to bring you into that relationship. Those kinds of things feel good, like constantly checking on you. And so, you know, when you think about some of those things, they feel confusing, you know, misleading.” 

These mixed signals can cause people to stay in unhealthy relationships for a long time.

“A lot of individuals just don’t know that they’re in an abusive relationship,” says Mason.

The conflicting emotions cause people to stay. “An abuser might say to somebody, you’re the only one that I can talk to, I love spending time with you, I want to spend more time with you, I want to be with you all the time. And so that’s how those things begin,” says Mason. 

The way your partner treats your pets is a huge indicator of how they will treat you, too. According to Mason, “Oftentimes pets are used as a way to control their [the abuser’s] partner. The abuser will use the pet as a way to control their partner. And so it’s not often safe for them to leave the pet behind. And obviously pets are also important emotional support for the victim-survivor.” If a new partner mistreats your animals, that’s a signal that they might be comfortable mistreating you, too, and shouldn’t be taken lightly. 

Around 2010, Rose Brooks began sheltering pets with their humans. Mason says one woman’s Great Dane inspired the pet shelter. Mason says the woman’s “Great Dane saved her life by laying on top of her and accepting some of the blows.” As the woman sought shelter, she refused to go anywhere that wouldn’t also shelter her Great Dane. She said, “I’m not leaving the animal that saved my life.”

In 2020, Rose Brooks was able to restructure so sheltered pets can be in individual rooms with their people, made possible by a grant from Kansas City.

Mason says, “Over 50% of victims and survivors will not leave their homes without their pets. 98% of Americans consider their pet a member of the family. Abusers will often either kill, harm or threaten a pet as a means to control their partner. It’s very common, which is another reason why families won’t leave their pets behind.” Having pets in the rooms with families is healing for both the family and the animal.

Maybe an animal companion is what you need in this season of your life. They can provide a non-interrupting listening ear, and they can accurately judge the character of your dates. 

Listen to and believe survivors

The best thing we can all do to promote healthy relationships is to listen to each other and believe each other’s experiences. If we educate ourselves on the signs of unhealthy relationships and listen without judgment to people who confide in us, we can help spread awareness of the warning signs, which can be hard to recognize when you’re caught in a bad situation.

Mason says, “If anybody ever discloses to you that they are in an abusive relationship, or they give you an example of what they’re experiencing, believe and validate them.”

The confusion and fear people experience in toxic relationships can cause them to waver over what they disclose.

“Oftentimes, victims will change their story because they will disclose something, and then they’ll either be ashamed or embarrassed or afraid,” Mason says. “And so they will recount the things that they’ve told you, or they will minimize the experience that they’ve told you as a way to protect themselves. And that is common, and it leads to people not believing the victim.”

Simply listening to people and believing what they tell you can be the first step in helping someone out of a traumatic situation.

Intimate partner violence is extraordinarily common. According to Mason, one in four women and one in seven men experience emotional or physical abuse from a partner at some point in their life. Listen with an open heart, and don’t discredit how common these experiences are.

And—maybe most importantly—listen to yourself. Don’t deny your truth about what happened—own it and affirm it. Accepting what happened and realizing your strength for living through it is a good first step in the healing process. Trust yourself and your perception. From there, you can reintroduce yourself to yourself.

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