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Thirst Trap

The myth of the perfect victim: The many ways trauma can affect sexual functioning

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Surely it’s above a CVS cashier’s pay grade to advise professional help, but when you see a girl buying Splat hair color in her work polo, someone should intervene. 

Sometime after I managed to scrub out all the patchy pink hair dye with the abrasive power of anti-dandruff shampoo, I started going to therapy. We should have seen it coming. Blonde hair and natural order restored, I began a program to address the underlying cause of my anxiety: untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Anyone who knows me knows I am an oversharer. I’ll gladly show you my emo Tumblr from middle school and explain the dynamics of my immediate family, and I’ll be sure to let you know that menstrual cups changed my life. But when it came to my therapist, I could hardly make eye contact during the pre-session small talk. 

Every week she would check in on my sex life, and every week I would twiddle my thumbs and tell expensive lies. I knew I was experiencing sexual difficulties, but they didn’t feel like the “right” sexual difficulties. For whatever reason (probably the patriarchy), I had bought into the idea of the “perfect victim” — someone who fights back, who calls the police, and whose trauma is so profound, they avoid sex going forward. I was not the “perfect victim,” so I kept quiet. 

“Reactions to trauma vary from person to person,” recent graduate of the UW’s clinical psychology Ph.D. program Elizabeth Bird said in an email. “There are no ‘rules’ for how different types of trauma have an impact.” 

It’s important to note that sexual trauma does not always negatively impact your sex life. Bird says that trauma is not defined by its impact, but by the event itself. To define trauma by its symptoms puts us in a position to invalidate our experience based on our reactions. Or at least, that’s what happened for me. 

Bird broke down the three major categories of sexual difficulties.

Sexual dysfunction is what Bird calls the “‘nuts and bolts’ of the sexual response cycle” and refers to interest in sexual activity. 

Sexual satisfaction and dissatisfaction refer to how content someone is with their sex life. 

Sexual distress is how comfortable someone is with sexual activity. 

All of these difficulties can arise without sexual trauma. Sexual trauma is no less sexual trauma whether or not it is followed by these difficulties. All of these difficulties can be experienced simultaneously, to various degrees, and change over time. 

Notice how none of these difficulties refer explicitly to frequency. You can be uninterested, unsatisfied, and uncomfortable, and still have sex. 

“Some patients have told me that during their sexual trauma, they felt their bodies responding [to sexual activity] even though they were uncomfortable or even scared,” Bird said. “They sometimes describe that as a betrayal by their bodies.” 

For me, the pervasive narrative was that someone who is truly traumatized must be uninterested, unsatisfied, and uncomfortable with sex. While this is a reasonable response, and even one I had initially, the idea of a “perfect victim” further disempowers people who have been assaulted. 

The core harm of sexual violence is objectification, the loss of human agency. Imagine you’ve survived a trauma where you all but lost free will, and then you are once again restricted by society’s expectations of how a survivor should react. 

I did not feel like a “good” survivor. My relationship with dating, sex, and men was too complicated to fit under the narrow halo with which we tend to crown survivors. But I will write this until you believe it: There is no one way to respond to trauma, and the way you respond has no bearing on your moral character or the validity of your experience.

“One person might increase their sexual behavior after a trauma, another one might decrease it, and someone else might do both: increase their sexual behavior in one context and decrease it in another,” Bird said. 

I felt helpless for a very long time, and my body tried different things to regain control. No sex, too much sex; feelings, no feelings; poking fun at my pain, sobbing through a late-night walk of shame down Roosevelt. No matter how I coped and subsequently overcorrected to cope some more, I wasn’t making any progress in developing a healthy sex life. So I stopped twiddling my thumbs and telling expensive lies. I told my therapist about my unhealthy relationship with sex. 

“For many people, this distress is temporary, and their symptoms will decrease naturally,” Bird said. “You should consider seeking professional help if you feel like you would benefit from it, or if you feel like you’re acting in ways that you don’t want to.”

When I told my therapist, she didn’t even flinch. Though I anticipated my particular brand of sexual difficulty as cause to question the legitimacy of my experience, my therapist simply scribbled a note and asked, “And how does that make you feel?”

I was not the first, the only, or the last person who would not fit the role of “perfect victim.” 

Reach Engagement Editor Hannah Krieg at Twitter: @Hannahkrieg

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