Navigating PTSD and the sexual self
By: Alyssa Kitt Hanley
Content warning: this article discusses sexual assault and trauma.
Flat on my back in a dark, unfamiliar room. The door is shut but a crack of light seeps in from the corridor. A hand reaches to unzip my jeans. My pussy’s wet, my nipples hard. A heavy breath heaves and a deep voice whispers my into my ear, “I’m gonna fuck you hard.”
A cold flush of terror crashes over my body like a bucket of ice water. All the blood drains from my cheeks and pin pricks stab into my forehead. I can’t move, I can’t breathe. My legs lock and clamp down.
“Stop.” I say softly into the lobe of a new lover. He kisses my neck.
“It’s ok. Relax.”
“Stop. Stop. STOP!”
I yell as I clamber to pull up the strap hanging limp off my shoulder, one breast bared, one erect nipple peeking out. I jump up and launch myself toward the wall, clawing for a lightswitch, but I don’t know which wall it’s on.
“Woah! Are you ok? What’s up?” his romantic tone abruptly lifts.
I grab the doorknob, rush into the corridor and hurl myself towards the floor atop my discarded mohair cardigan in the middle of the living room. Hyperventilating, gasping for breath I grasp the soft fibres to my chest covering my one bared breast, soothing my skin that is prickled with sharp hair follicles standing on razor edge. I pull up the straps and reclip the bra clasps. Tears sting my eyes and a wave of adrenaline makes me want to throw up all over the dirty share house rug.
“I’m sorry – I can’t. I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I say on repeat to this near stranger, while simultaneously hating myself for apologising. They know nothing of what happened to me – I shouldn’t be the one apologising.
“Hey. It’s cool. Another night.” He responds in a calm and understanding tone.
I’m so far out of my comfort zone, so far away from any feeling of safety. My eyes glaze over and I stare back into the dark bedroom. Flash backs to a blackened room when I was screaming internally with no sound coming from my mouth – just pure fear as my body was non-consensually violated. I remember the light cracking under the door and being powerless to move.
Violent sexual assault has lasting effects on the body, but the event itself can become an ongoing feedback loop, a nightmare played on repeat. Scenarios become chronic slow-motion vignettes bubbling in dreams, stalking monsters that lurk in the back of our minds and wait until we think we are safe – but inside our memories, we will never be safe again. Triggers come from dark rooms, creaking floorboards, a hand over a throat during sex, or even someone loving sweeping their hand softly over your cheek.
This is coming from someone who has been openly slutty for most of their adult life – a sexual deviant into heavy masochism, edge play, bondage. For my birthday one year a lover arranged a kidnapping scene where I was taken to a warehouse and doused with a pressure hose – you know, what else does one do when they turn 23? I’ve taken my sexual comfort zone well onto the edge of consensual non-consent with partners with whom I trusted to respect my boundaries, my safe words, the limits of my mind.
But rape changes everything.
Rape changes the composition of your mind – it savages not only your body, but robs you of your sexual identity. I suffer severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from rape. PTSD alters your brain chemistry and triggers your fight or flight response mechanism.
Danger signals bombard my body with sensory onslaught, my brain freezes and memories swim in front of my eyes as though they are happening in real-time. Even someone dropping a glass in the kitchen, or hearing a siren blare past my bedroom window can cause me to collapse into a shivering bundle and weep like a child.
PTSD is an affliction of the memory where traumatic events become burnt onto the brain. There are three key indicators that those suffering from this disorder will be all too intimate with:
- Re-experience, lived through re-occurring nightmares, daydreams, or real-world prompts;
- Avoidance, those suffering actively avoiding situations, people or things that could trigger this onslaught of memory;
- Arousal, which occurs in a heightened state of emotional stimulation over long periods of time.
Recovering from PTSD is possible but it’s a long road. You don’t get better without acknowledging what happened and talking about it with professionals. Recovery requires patience, and understanding from those around you. Some days I can’t even be hugged or have a hand placed on my shoulder – as touch itself can become a trigger.
Recovery requires respect not only from those you’re in a sexual relationship with, but also with yourself. You have to go through a process of learning to listen to your body, to look for signals that you are on the verge of meltdown, to know what you can get through situations with five deep inhales and five long exhales to holt the nervous system from going into meltdown. You have to learn trust your body once again and not try to escape from sensation.
PTSD can erode the relationships around you and it can erode yourself.
For me, the safest way to reconnect with my body has been through my own touch. I’m relearning that I can trust my body to feel pleasure once again. Pleasure without feeling guilty. Pleasure can only come when you can relax and feel safe. In my case, this has to be on my own terms. I have to be in a room that I’m familiar with, on my own or with someone who isn’t going to freak out if I start having a panic attack when my legs are wrapped around them.
I have to have as much control as possible over my surroundings. As someone who has always identified as sexually submissive and turned on by giving over control, this is a real sexual conundrum. Things that used to be firm favourites on top of my sexual menu can now be viciously triggering and cause me to become an over-wrought, quivering mess. A slap to the face, a choking hold, the words, “Cum for me slut!” have to be re-navigated, renegotiated.
After the icy wave of pulsing adrenaline passed, I picked myself off the dirty share house rug, dressed, apologised and had the gent in question walk me down the unfamiliar staircase to my parked car. I explained that as much as my rational brain wanted this, as much as my body wanted this, my lizard brain wasn’t ready.
I went home, lit a candle, took off my mohair cardigan, climbed into my soft sheets and ran my own hands over my body, allowing my eyes to close, my breath to quicken and my fingers draw down my belly to my still wet pussy.
Touching myself on my own terms I rocked my hips back and forth to a soft and gentle climax.
Fierce. Formidable. The Feminist Fatale. Alyssa Kitt Hanley is an artistic and intellectual chameleon dancing across the lines of a dual identity. She is a powerhouse of burlesque, a world-renowned performer, producer and Australian burlesque industry mentor. She is a feminist, writer, journalist and purveyor of the naked arts who writes on the public presentation of the body, BDSM, sexuality and identity politics. Follow her on Instagram: @missalyssakitt @alyssahanleywrites
For 24/7 support, contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. Alternatively, see QLife for early intervention and counselling support specific to LGBTI people.