People often ask me why I focused the majority of my early experience in the field of psychotherapy to working with survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Then they’ll usually say something like, “That’s a rough job. I could never do it.” For me, working with survivors is never “rough,” and I think more people could do it if they understood the job. It can be challenging, heart-breaking and anger-producing, but at the end of the day it is always hopeful. These strong individuals are in my office–they are looking for help and support. I feel lucky to be sitting across from them, which for me, isn’t rough at all. I love what I do.
Before I went back to graduate school, I was teaching creative writing at a maximum security girls’ correctional facility in southern California. The stories the girls wrote often included descriptions of rape, gang rape, sexual abuse and incest. They wrote about these horrible acts just like they wrote about going to the corner market or going out partying with their friends. The normalcy of rape in their world was a huge eye-opener for me. Somehow it became my mission to help teach them that this wasn’t normal for adolescent girls and it wasn’t right. There were things they could do, namely reaching out to people who could offer support and help get them out of dangerous situations. Of course, being incarcerated kept them out of danger temporarily, but I wanted it to stay that way when they were released back to their communities and families.
That experience lead me to pursue a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, an internship at the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, then a doctorate in Somatic Psychology with a focus on sex therapy. Over the years, not only did it become important for me to try to help survivors heal emotionally, I also wanted to help them heal physically. A huge component of that healing incorporates their sexuality. Thus, the idea for my dissertation was born and I committed three years of my life to researching the recovery of sexual health after sexual assault.
Survivors of sexual assault experience physiologically and psychologically distressing symptoms. Sexual health, in particular, can be impaired as a result of sexual assault. Although substantive research exists concerning treatment modalities and outcomes of survivors’ aggregate recovery, little is available in regard to sexual assault survivors’ experiences of healing, particularly the embodied process of regaining sexual health. Toward the goal of better understanding this process, a grounded theory design and analysis was used to determine emergent themes and theories concerning the interplay of sexual assault, sexual health, and embodiment. The embodied experience of sexual health recovery was observed with 12 female participants over the age of 18 who are survivors of sexual assault. The research was unique in that it did not focus on specific therapeutic treatment outcomes, but rather the experience of each participant as they moved through their respective processes of recovery from survival to embodiment and finally to empowerment. The collective data revealed themes and concepts that contextualize sexual health recovery and its corresponding psychosomatic presentations in survivors of sexual assault. Providing insight into survivors’ embodied processes of recovery of sexual health will contribute to professional literature and inform future directions for research in the fields of somatic psychology, trauma therapy, and human sexuality.