Julie Peters: ‘Sexual Assault is Not the End of My Story’

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

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.