I could use this space to write about the various types of sexual violence that I have experienced throughout my life, including ‘shocking’ details that in reality are - depending on your own experience - too mundane, too experienced, too relatable or too alien to truly shock. There is of course nothing wrong, and many things very right, about sharing one’s own experience if it is what the author wants for any number of reasons, from catharsis to activism. But I want to contribute to a discussion on a related but often overlooked conversation and instead of reliving some of my most painful experiences for potentially little gain, to consider what comes after, particularly in relation to sexuality and pleasure.
There is no redemption arc here; it is not a linear, easy story to tell. But after sexual violence there is (or there can be) recovery, there is enjoyment - and there are backwards steps and in-betweens. What would have helped me so much, both as a lost teenager and more recently as a quasi-lost twenty-something, would have been greater conversations about the opportunity to continue pleasure after trauma.
I know too many women who have been assaulted and gone on to thrive, survive or some combination thereof to truly doubt that life goes on afterwards. But what about sex? What about intimacy? What about masturbation? What about things that are often taken for granted like simple physical proximity of another body close to your own? How do you exist in a body where desire can make it feel like a battleground once again, between the want and the drive to protect, when stimulation is confused?
No-one spoke about pleasure and intimacy - especially for girls - much anyway when I was growing up, let alone after something as stigmatising as sexual violence. Because, despite all the talk of support for survivors, there is still shame, there is still embarrassment - some of it internalised - and there are still narrow boxes for us to fit into in the public gaze, and consequently in our own bodies and minds.
Pain is an easier narrative for women to fit into than pleasure, and this is especially true for those who experience sexual violence. Our discomfort, silence, forced smiles and exhaustion facilitate comfort and ease for others whilst we minimise ourselves. There is an established path for speaking about pain following sexual violence but it is not a wide one and is inaccessible for some - usually marginalised women, like women of colour, whose pain garners less sympathy.
Even for those who can go down this path, it has the potential to be stifling as mainstream discourse tends to focus on sexual violence as an individual experience rather than a systemic problem and hones in on graphic details. Discussing pleasure and sex after sexual violence is a way to widen this conversation beyond these confines to allow messiness, rawness and the radical potential for the kind of knowledge-sharing that allows us to accept the scale of the problem - and of our resilience. Is there a way to talk about orgasms during rape? After rape? How do we discuss not wanting or being able to have sex after sexual violence? Or being able to have sex with no problems and enjoy it? How do we talk about our (misplaced) shame or the shame we feel we should experience if we don’t feel any?
Feminine pleasure is under-funded, under-researched, poorly understood and only recently discussed - I had already been sexually assaulted by the time I had any meaningful understand of the clitoris. Extending the conversation about trauma and pleasure needs to start early and urgently; leaving out consent from our education and our society leads not only to moral and emotional bankruptcy but bodies denied their capacity for pleasure too.
Now, even in therapy I find that I don’t even have the language to start articulating what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained; the interstices where pleasure develops only to be whisked away by an instinct a moment later. Sometimes it feels like my body is fighting against itself, in a constant civil war with the aim to protect. I will want to do something, whether sexual or not, and despite the genuine desire to do so my body - with the best of intentions - will thwart me with instinctive fear.
I want to explain all the places trauma feels trapped and all the places there is freedom, liberation. Yet the language is not only unspeakable, but non-existent; I feel I don’t even know where to start in a patriarchal discourse. Even the very act of naming is a struggle; a friend and I recently had a long conversation about whether the term ‘vulva’ is too clinical and what part(s) most people would understand it to refer to.
Hey! I'm Elspeth, a researcher, writer and survivor of sexual violence who is passionate about sexual and reproductive health and justice. I'm currently thinking about pleasure after trauma and looking at creative ways to explore this under-researched issue. You'll find me on Twitter @ellijwilson - please do reach out and say hi! Always open to collabs, discussing research and meeting like-minded people.
Still, there are gains and opportunities to reshape things in ways more to my liking; to widen definitions. One of the things that has made a big difference in the search for some enjoyment in my body is comfort.
It is notable that I haven’t only changed inwardly over the various incidents of sexual violence but also outwardly; my main aim in clothing and underwear is now how comfortable it is whereas it used to be appearance. Grounding techniques are often used by people post-trauma and I find it easier to ground myself in comfort. I initially felt depleted by change, feeling like it was a shrinkage and denial of one of the key pillars of myself; a defeat by someone who hated me making me hate myself. What I didn’t understand was that just as beauty doesn’t have to be pain, attractiveness - to oneself and others - doesn’t have to be uncomfortable in all senses of the word. Finding some bodily comfort, in softness, in fabric, in not squeezing myself into shapes that will never fit, has helped me to find some mental comfort also - an important reminder of the need to listen to one’s body even when what it’s saying might be hard to hear or tune.
Justice looks different for everyone but part of justice for anyone who has experienced sexual violence is the opportunity and the hope to feel pleasure and enjoyment in all its different shades in your own body; your own home.