No amount of me trying to explain myself was doing any good. I didn’t even know what was going on inside of me, so how could I have explained it to them? ~Sierra D. Waters, Debbie
Over the last few years the term “complex trauma” has been used to describe the difference between the trauma experienced and lived with when it is chronic and typically happens during childhood, compared to “regular trauma” which refers to singular events which typically occur in adulthood. The corresponding diagnosis terms are “c-PTSD” or “CPTSD” and “PTSD”, where the “c” or “C” stands for complex and the PTSD is post traumatic stress disorder.
The DSM V ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) does not list C-PTSD as an official disorder, however within the trauma community we have adopted this diagnosis and term and have been working to better define the difference of impact between chronic and singular traumatic events as well as the difference of the impact as to when in a person’s life the event(s) occur.
This work is tied to the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences study) criteria for chronic stress, and in our work of defining these impacts we must acknowledge and be grateful for the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, in bringing the ACEs to the forefront of the medical community and truly starting the conversation about being “trauma informed” outside the mental health community.
In our sussing out the differences between CPTSD and PTSD, we (the trauma community) have lumped all childhood traumatic experiences together – be they physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse, neglect, poverty, domestic or intimate partner violence, etc. And while all of the items (as well as others, like experiencing racism, homophobia, etc) on the ACEs can and often do have traumatic impacts, I also believe it is important for us to begin to look at the ways each type of trauma has its own unique impacts.
As many of you know over the last couple of years I have begun to move my own professional focus to sexual trauma, and the majority of my clients have experienced chronic childhood sexual trauma. Exploring the unique and life changing impacts this type of trauma brings with it is part of my life’s work and helping us all have a better understand of these impacts for ourselves as survivors as well as for our friends, partners and loved ones, I believe is vital for our individual and collective growth and healing.
Complex trauma of any kind affects our abilities to have deep, emotionally intimate relationships. Sexual complex trauma can also affect our ability to have sexually intimate relationships. With many types of complex trauma we tend to be dissociated from our bodies and the present moment. This means that often when being sexually intimate we aren’t really “there,” and can only feel the (presumably) pleasurable sensations of physical intimacy as if through a “thick gauze”. It is also true for those who have experienced sexual trauma that the act of sex itself can be triggering, regardless of how consensual the present act is, and can send us into a state of fight, flight, or freeze.
There have also been studies where cancers of the female reproductive system (i.e. cervical, uterine, ovarian, etc cancers) seem to correlate with women who have experienced sexual trauma, as in there is a higher percentage of these cancers in women who have experienced sexual trauma, than those who have not.
An additional impact of sexual trauma that isn’t often talked about is the idea of feeling or being “tainted” in some way. Socially speaking there is more stigma associated with sexual trauma as well as victim blaming, even when the trauma occurs in childhood. This added social attitude only works to exacerbate the shame of those who have experienced sexual trauma, which then reverberates through and adds to the other emotional, psychological, and physical impacts of childhood trauma.
This social attitude, and its impacts, can be a particularly daunting thing for survivors to face and attempt to overcome. This attitude is tied directly to our misogynist culture which holds a woman’s sexuality and sexual experiences in a balance of what is “acceptable” and what is “not”.
I do not want to give the impression that I am somehow creating a “hierarchy” of types of complex trauma. And I feel it is important that we do acknowledge and discuss the differences in experiences of the different types of trauma and how the impacts vary. In doing this we are able to help those who experienced complex sexual trauma see how they are not alone in how they experience these impacts and can aid in our individual trauma processing journeys.
Registration for the next cohort of Trauma Informed Embodiment™ for Sexual Trauma Survivors is now open. This six month program is for women (CIS and Trans) and those AFAB who experienced childhood sexual trauma. It is part support group, part practical coping and embodiment skills, and part psycho-education. There is a sliding scale fee, and alternate payment plans are also available. To learn more go to http://gwynnraimondi.com/tieforsexualtrauma