Sexual assault is one of the most terrifying experiences anyone can endure. For those who have experienced sexual assault, it is a life-altering experience, a burden that doesn’t just disappear after the assailant is gone or in jail; it leaves an indelible mark on the survivor in a profoundly personal way.
To heal from such trauma means to face the pain, anger, sadness and depravity on a day-to-day basis while simultaneously seeking to remember and rediscover joy.
I had the pleasure to speak with Julie Peters, rape survivor and author of WANT: 8 Steps to Recovering Desire, Passion, and Pleasure After Sexual Assault about her experience of recovery and the ways in which she not only reclaimed desire, sexuality, trust, and pleasure but also herself.
BJB: “We have to know in our bones that it matters whether we say “yes” or “no” on various levels of our lives, not just in the bedroom.” Please explain what you mean by “colonized”.
JP: Sexual violence often intersects with racial and colonial realities. Sexual violence has been used historically in many situations in order to control and take over populations — the ol’ rape and pillage trick.
I’m Canadian, and the white settlers here stole the land of the indigenous people and then forced them into residential schools in an attempt to “civilize” them to white settler ways. Not surprisingly, the residential schools were rampant with physical and sexual abuse, mostly of children. It’s a wound — a major cultural trauma — that a lot of people in Canada are still really struggling with how to heal.
Colonization means that the land was stolen from people who are forced to live in a way that they never chose for themselves.
That’s how sexual violation often feels — the body was stolen, used for something the survivor never consented to, and then life is forever changed.
A lot of survivors feel their perpetrator left a trace in them, some energetic slime that now lives inside. Imagine if someone came into your home, peed all over the floor, and then left you to clean it up. A lot of survivors resist the healing process because it’s not our goddamn mess to clean up!
Still, though — there’s pee on the floor. No one else can clean it up. We all have to take responsibility for our own healing, but that process shouldn’t — in fact can’t — be done alone.
Our “yes” and “no” has to matter within ourselves, of course, but we must also feel that they matter in community and relationships, especially when the wound is related to injustice.
BJB: In Want, you candidly write the following: “My perpetrator assaulted me after months of asking me for sex, begging me for sex, shaming me for the sex I’d had with other people. It was the sort of nonsense that made me feel that I owed him sex whether I desired it or not — messages that, by the way, are prevalent in the culture I live in. Being sexually assaulted by my best friend was, to put it mildly, confusing. I denied it for a long time because I didn’t want to face the scary realities it brought up. If my best friend had assaulted me, then how could I ever trust my instincts with men again? How could I trust anyone anymore? If my “no” didn’t matter, then how could I ever stop anyone from doing whatever they wanted to my body? How do you walk around in the world without an intact “no”? The experience broke several core beliefs I didn’t even know I had. In order to heal, I had to look at what had been broken, see if I could glue any of the pieces back together, throw some of them out, and start building a whole new worldview from scratch. This was not easy. I survived the assault, of course, but first, the sky had to fall.” How did you begin to build a new worldview that helped you feel connected again?
JP: Before the assault, I would spend a lot of time in sexual situations saying “yes” when I didn’t really want to. I did it to be cool, probably, to be seen as valuable, to please partners, or because I just didn’t really know what I wanted.
I always thought my “no” would be respected — until it wasn’t.
I also held a few beliefs that I picked up from practicing yoga most of my life: for example, that you attract what you put out there — that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That implies that I deserved what happened to me, that it was my fault in some way. So many survivors already blame themselves, so we end up in shame and silence instead of in healing and recovery. It took a fair amount of therapy for me to get around that one.
Things started to really change for me when I found the Nityas, a set of Tantric moon goddesses that I wrote about in my last book, Secrets of the Eternal Moon Phase Goddesses: Meditations on Desire, Relationships, and the Art of Being Broken.
In Tantra — at least the way I learned it — the central energy of the universe is the goddess, who is imagined as a beautiful woman, but she’s not separate from us in any way. We are all — every gender, every animal, every weather pattern, every inanimate thing — already manifestations of her energy.
Energy isn’t inherently moral, it’s just energy. There’s no all-powerful being punishing us for doing bad things or rewarding us for doing good things.
These beautiful, fascinating, and evocative goddesses gave me a new narrative in which to understand what happened, what it meant, and what it didn’t mean.
BJB: Can you talk about ‘tend and befriend’ as a way to avoid more explicit sexual violence by pretending it’s okay with us.
JP: Tend and befriend is a stress response that Dr. Shelley Taylor and others discovered in mostly female animals starting in 2000. Most stress studies up until that point had only been done on male animals, so Taylor wanted to know if females had a different way of coping with stress.
It turns out they do.
Female mammals will tend to be smaller and weaker than their male counterparts, and may also be pregnant or have helpless young to defend, so the classic fight-or-flight strategy might not work so well for them.
Taylor found that females will sometimes tend and befriend under stress instead of fighting or running, which means they first tend to their young (ensuring we don’t leave our babes abandoned in the woods every time we get scared) and then try to seek allies to help protect them. Essentially, instead of a hit of adrenaline and cortisol, (the fight or flight hormones) females sometimes get a hit of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) instead.
Overwhelmingly, sexualized violence happens with someone the survivor already knows and trusts — someone they already see as an ally. So when they are being attacked, rather than fight or flee, they might try to calm down their perpetrator, placate him, and give him whatever he wants so the violence doesn’t escalate.
In cases of repeated abuse, the victim may stay in the relationship partly because she is trying to tend to her abuser, to take care of them. For some of us, stress brings up the need to bond — even to the very person who is attacking us. This is not a sign of weakness or stupidity; it’s a survival strategy. More often than not, it works.
So many survivors feel shame about how they handled their experiences — usually no matter how they handled it. Many of us (myself included) have wondered why we didn’t scream or struggle more when it was happening. We think that, because we “let” it happen, we somehow deserved the attack.
Tend and befriend helps us understand that because we stopped struggling, participated, and/or checked out so that we could get it over with, we survived.
Whatever we did to get through it, we survived. That’s not shameful, it’s powerful.
BJB: “It’s an alarming fact that an overwhelming amount of rape and non-consensual sex happens with the men we know and trust. We never want to consciously believe our loved ones would hurt us, but the truth is, they do — a lot.” Can you talk about what you discovered while doing research for the book about why violence is most often at the hand of someone we know?
JP: Disturbingly, sexualized violence happens with a partner, ex-partner, classmate, superior, family member and so on 80–90 percent of the time. Stranger rape does happen, but it is relatively quite rare in the scheme of things.
I talk about this more extensively in my book, but I think there are two major reasons violence against women, in particular, is so common (though there are many ways assault can happen across any gender):
One reason is what I call the patriarchal lie: the promise that our culture makes to men that, essentially, if they shut down the vulnerable and compassionate parts of themselves, they will be rewarded with access to women’s bodies. Further, if they don’t get access to women’s bodies, they are somehow failing as men. When this happens, men can become (usually subconsciously) furious. It breeds this hatred of women and a desire to punish and humiliate us, or at the very least steal what’s not being freely given.
The second reason I think intimate sexualized violence is so common is the roles we assign to girls and boys. Men are assumed to have this violent, insatiable sexual desire and that, if it’s not satisfied, they will explode or something. Men’s sexual desire is already weaponized, and there is no room for a man to have any sexual boundaries, really.
It’s much more common than most of us think, for example, for men to have low sexual desire, difficulty orgasming, or to feel anxiety around having sex. Anytime you see a man not wanting sex in movies or TV, he’s usually the butt of the joke.
On the other hand, girls are taught that their desire is shameful and unladylike. We’re not supposed to want anything, let alone ask for what we want.
We’re just supposed to be saintly virgins, then doting wives, then long-suffering mothers, never participating in our own desire or speaking up when something is happening that we don’t want. These poor teen boys are taught to be voracious animals while the girls are taught to have zero relationship with their own sexuality.
That is a recipe for unwanted sexual contact, if not full-on rape.
BJB: In Want you write, “Trauma is not always big and dramatic; sometimes it’s small and subtle…a spiritual wound. This can make trauma a little hard to spot and a lot more common than most of us think.” What are the most common yet subtle signs of sexual trauma?
JP: Trauma is, essentially, a stress problem. It means something happened that we have been unable to integrate into our bodies or our psyches.
It’s with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not. Even if it doesn’t cause full-on PTSD symptoms like mood swings, rages, or night terrors, it can still cause exhaustion, low mood, low sexual desire, a sensitive startle response, a and a compromised immune system, which can manifest as illness, food sensitivities, or allergies.
There’s also the phenomenon I like to call the fog of trauma. Survivors stop fully engaging in our lives, making decisions for ourselves.
We subconsciously feel that, because our power was taken away from us, it’s no longer ours. We stop feeling creative and kind of lose our color. Our sex lives can go dead or go haywire — I believe infidelity is actually an incredibly common undiscussed effect of trauma.
Bad romance is another common effect: survivors can repeat patterns of abuse or end up with someone who fulfills an illusion of safety (whether or not the person is actually safe). There can be no true love under constant stress.
BJB: Can you talk about the loss of (sexual) desire when we don’t feel safe?
JP: Literally, physically, fight-or-flight mode directs blood and energy to the limbs and away from digestive and reproductive organs. The opposite of fight-or-flight is often called rest-and-digest, or, more pointedly, feed-and-breed.
The body can’t manage peril and procreation at the same time, and survival will always be the number one priority. In order to make stress hormones, the brain essentially steals from our sex hormones.
Part of the reason I believe our sexual energy is so sacred is because it has an intimate relationship with our sense of safety and empowerment. When we’re tuned into it, we know what lights us up, not just sexually but also in all other realms of our lives.
When we don’t feel safe or in control of our lives, those metaphorical butterflies freeze up. Not only do we stop wanting to have sex, we stop feeling able to fully engage with our work, our non-sexual relationships, and whatever brings meaning to our lives. We stop caring about growth or change because we’re stuck trying to survive.
To access the wisdom of our bodies and the power of our sexuality, we have to feel safe.
Connecting with our sexual desire necessarily means connecting with our needs, our feelings, our boundaries, our sense of personal power, and our willingness to change ourselves, if not the world.
In that sense, reclaiming our sexuality and pleasure isn’t just a nice idea. It’s a political act.
BJB: What are “the complications of consent”?
JP: There are a lot of reasons consent is complicated. Consent requires that the people involved actually know what they want, which isn’t always easy.
Knowing what we want requires that we feel our bodies and correctly interpret their signals.
We have sex for a lot of reasons other than pleasure: to manipulate, to please, to perform, to prove something, to get back at an ex, to gain social capital, because we’re drunk or high, to punish ourselves, or because there’s a power dynamic — and there’s almost always a power dynamic. Sometimes this is obvious, like if you’re sleeping with your boss, but it can be very subtle, too, like when one partner is financially or emotionally dependent on the other. That doesn’t make these encounters non-consensual, necessarily, but it does make them complicated.
Right now the gold standard for consent is verbal: well-meaning men have learned that they need to ask the women they date before they do anything, and the women are supposed to either say yes or no. Maybe this is the best we’ve got right now, but it’s not great.