When one hears the term “posttraumatic stress disorder,” an image of a wounded veteran often comes to mind. While this can be an accurate depiction, it’s important to recognize this as one of many faces of PTSD. In fact, a lot of us can find another by merely looking in the mirror. That’s right, many of us have confronted the illness or at least gotten a brief taste of what PTSD sufferers experience. What exactly am I talking about? The effects of what Cyndi Darnell calls “living in a sexually traumatized society.”
The Relationship Between PTSD and Our Sexuality
Cyndi Darnell is a sex and relationship therapist who has observed the results of everyday abuses that many experience in one capacity or another—whether it be in their own relationships, or something they watch on TV or read about in the paper: “I see a lot of trauma in my clients in areas of sex and relationships. Sometimes subtle and sometimes chronic, the relationship between PTSD and sexuality/relationships is vast. Often associated with violence, sexual trauma can be a result of sexual assault, but more commonly in response to everyday abuses that happen in non-consenting sexual relationships—even between married/loving partners.
She goes on to explain how this exposure to sexual trauma, as well as our discomfort or fear in talking about our sexuality, is affecting society for the worst: “Living in a society that is as deeply uncomfortable about sex, as we are, means that many of us struggle to talk about sexuality in useful and meaningful ways. This lack of ability to discuss sex in a context that centers around pleasure and wellbeing means that the accumulative effects mimic that of PTSD clients including dissociation from sensation, pleasure, and the ability to connect with loved ones. It’s manifestation can be intermittent or persistent. The thing about trauma in sexuality is that many of us experience the effects of living in a sexually traumatized society, without realizing things could be any different. The normalization of sexual abuse and non-consensual sex practices in mainstream movies, cultural practices, and social mores means that most of us are responding to sexual trauma on a daily basis, but lack the skills and knowledge to adequately manage and process it. Left to its own devices, it leaks out and manifests in unhappy relationships and manipulative abusive relationships.”
Understanding and Correcting Our Sexually Traumatized Culture
Darnell says that we don’t have to—in fact, we shouldn’t—sit back and allow this to continue. Instead, we should take action to better understand our sexuality and address our sexually-traumatized culture. “One of the greatest tools we have in combatting the effects of living in a sexually traumatized culture is making knowledge of sex and relationships a priority,” she explains. “Just like we cannot expect to manage our health without reliable information about a healthy diet and exercise, we cannot expect our sex/relationships education to come solely from Hollywood movies and here say. We must invest time and energy into understanding it.” And here are two major keys to doing so:
1) Challenge cultural narratives. First, Darnell says we need to take it upon ourselves to question cultural narratives surrounding sexuality. Instead, we often accept them as reality and suffer subsequently: “One of the ways we transform sexual trauma is to look at how it takes hold of our cultural narratives. For example: sex for women is painful, that’s normal. When we are taught this as a truth, there is little to no incentive to think, ‘Why might this be?’ or, ‘What could be done differently to make this less of a problem?’ When such narratives are held as truths, there is little wiggle room and all of us suffer as a result.”
2) Invite reflection. The second key, according to Darnell, is to admit that we lack substantial knowledge and open ourselves to important discussions about sexuality. “We can invite reflection on what’s missing in our knowledge of consent and pleasure and address the real reasons people engage in sex, which are far more robust than simply procreation,” she explains. “We can do so in our daily lives by making consent-based conversations about sex a priority. Instead of tolerating discomfort in sex and intimacy—be it physical or emotional—we can get comfortable with discussing our needs, wants, and desires.”