Your body doesn’t lie – covert sexual trauma

Take your time reading this. It might be too difficult for you; I understand that. We do need to talk about it, though. We cannot keep denying what is or isn’t sexual trauma just because we do not have a memory of it.

Somatically your body remembers everything. Memories of good and bad will sit in your nervous system until it needs to speak to you, or wants your attention. This happens even if you have no memories of the events. As the book title suggests “The body keeps score”.

Covert sexual trauma is rarely spoken about. These are the events that you debate with friends over for if what happened to you was sexual assault or not. I have read many posts in women’s Facebook groups asking precisely – “was what happened to me assault? Can I do anything about this?” The answers are often a mixed bag of reactions from “yes, it was” to “no, it wasn’t, and you could’ve done something to prevent it”. The victim blaming that occurs in those groups at times is beyond imaginable. I am positive it happens in the men’s groups as well. That’s if a male is game enough to post such a scenario with the same question.

What is covert sexual trauma?

Unlike overt sexual trauma, covert is behaviours, comments, or looks which are not wanted. It’s the coercion to make you do something to get the person to lay off you or the image you were sent that you did not request. Covert sexual trauma can be tricky, I understand that. Think of it this way – if you feel uncomfortable about it, it is.

Overt sexual assault is outright violent behaviour. No one questions overt; it’s clear and undeniable.

As a society, we do not classify unwanted sex by partners as sexual trauma. However, if you are being talked into or you give in to make them stop, that is covert sexual assault. I understand there are often unspoken rules that occur within relationships. That is okay if they are negotiated and spoken about beforehand.

Other examples of covert sexual trauma include:

  • unwanted photographic nudes
  • unwanted touching
  • breaching of privacy around intimacy
  • removal of sex toys from your room or possession without permission
  • body shaming
  • slut shaming
  • verbal sexual words or sounds
  • being introduced to pornography at a young age
  • sharing of your images without permission
  • reactions from partners during sex that left you feeling uncomfortable
  • sexting without permission

Quite often, covert sexual trauma occurs in childhood. The term used here is ’emotional incest’. It is described as the parent rely’s on the child to fill their emotional needs. I am talking about extreme emotional reliance. Imagine a child replacing a partner or best friend regarding emotional support. The child’s needs are ignored. In effect, the child has become the parent.

Some parents may extend their behaviours to being sexual in nature. They will take their children on dates and talk about their sexual needs and adventures with them. It’s important to note here, this then falls out of emotional and into physical abuse.

Parents do not often see an issue in how they interact with their children. They fail to see how the crossing of boundaries is harming their child. There are many reasons why the lines are crossed. The parent may have experienced the same behaviours growing up, and they are seen as ‘normal’, lacking in parenting skills for what is appropriate and what isn’t, or they may be struggling with a mental illness or addiction. Single-parent families are at a higher risk, or if the partners in the marriage/partnership are unhappy.

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Signs of covert sexual trauma

Often the symptoms or signs of covert trauma are unnoticed or not understood. You may find yourself doing one of the following unconsciously:

  • Struggling with arousal – you want to be aroused, yet struggle to get or stay aroused.
  • Pain during penetration – your body is speaking to you. Our emotional states are often felt as pain, covert sexual trauma may be stored in your nervous system and are released as a painful experience during penetrative sex.
  • Flashbacks – a particular touch, sound, or smell may produce a memory or flashback of an event.
  • Avoidance – you may find yourself avoiding any sexual advances, touch, or relationship.
  • Relationship issues and difficulties – it is not uncommon to distrust others or yourself. You may struggle with communication and vulnerability.
  • Hypervigilance – you may find yourself always looking for danger or feeling unsafe.
  • Self-blame – it is not unusual to blame yourself for what happened. It is common for women to go along with a sexual event as they need to protect themselves. You may experience shame, guilt, and low self-esteem.
  • Difficulty with emotions – you may find yourself wondering why your emotions seem a little out of control or intense. It is common to struggle with anger, sadness, or fear and have little understanding to why you feel this way.

Even though the list is fairly extensive, you may or may not experience any of them, as everyone is different. Some people have no signs or symptoms, others have many, and some show up months or years later. There is no hard and fast rule for how you will feel or cope after your experience.

How to heal

You recognise something is holding you back, or the symptoms you are experiencing are affecting your life. You want to heal. But how?

Firstly, recognising and acknowledging your experience is important. Give yourself compassion. Remind yourself it wasn’t your fault.

Self-care is important. Be kind to your body, heart and soul. Have long showers or baths, rest a lot, and read. Do the things you enjoy doing and what makes you feel good. Spend time with friends and family.

Find a support group. You may like to stay online, and that is okay. You may wish to have live human connection, which is okay too. Whatever feels right at this time. Finding yourself a community that understands what you are saying and feeling can help normalise how you feel. Not feeling alone is important.

Speak to a professional. Talk therapy can help you understand how and why you feel the way you do. You may be questioning yourself, and talking to a therapist can help clarify things for you. You do NOT need to go into full details about what happened if you do not wish to.

EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) can help you move forward. Often, with sexual trauma, survivors blame themself or don’t feel safe anymore. EMDR can help remove those beliefs and the emotional reactions that come with flashbacks or intrusive thoughts.

The important thing to remember is you are not alone. There is help and support out there for you. You do not have to go through this by yourself. It is time we stopped feeling ashamed of covert sexual traumas and start to share the stories we hold so close. The #metoo movement started the ball rolling, it’s up to you and I to keep it going.

If you or someone you know has experienced unwanted sexual behaviours, know that help is available. As a therapist, I am here to support you on your healing journey. Whether you need someone to listen, provide guidance, or help you navigate the legal and medical systems, I am here for you. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out to me today to learn more about how therapy can help you move forward and reclaim your life. Let’s work together towards healing and recovery.

Kellie Payne Psychotherapist and Counsellor, Midland, Perth

About the author

Kellie Sheldon is the owner and operator of Kellie Sheldon Trauma and Sex Counselling in Midland, Western Australia. She holds a Master of Counselling Practice from Tabor College in Perth. Specialising in trauma and sexual therapy, she focuses on aiding adults in forming secure connections. With a particular interest in kink, BDSM and trauma, she is adept in techniques like EMDR to assist clients in processing negative and traumatic memories. Kellie is a firm advocate for therapy's potential to alleviate symptoms stemming from childhood or relationship trauma. Her primary goal is to accompany her clients on their journey toward healing, recognising that healing involves not just addressing past events but also acknowledging what hasn't occurred.

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