Updated: Apr 25, 2021
Your erotic self is yearning to be explored and all you need is this simple formula.
Working in the sexuality and mental health field, and even more specifically, with survivors of sexual trauma, I noticed how similar the work between healing trauma and encouraging sexual exploration were. Intentionally centering pleasure and creating pleasurable experiences is a radical step in healing trauma as people often report feeling completely disconnected from themselves and their desires after a traumatic event. It is important to note that trauma, not specifically sexual trauma, can impact sexual functioning.
Survivors of trauma disclose a variety of undesirable experiences or symptoms, but within the context of my work, I am focusing on these four specifically:
Decreased interest in activities
Difficulty experiencing positive affect
Negative thoughts and assumptions about oneself
I found that engaging the erotic self was a great antidote for those specific symptoms. When done with purpose, it was a simple formula:
e = d + p^3
- or -
eroticism = desire + (pleasure) (play) (purpose)
Reawakening desire, enhancing and exploring pleasure, decreasing hypervigilance through play, and finding hope and defining purpose was helping to both heal trauma and explore eroticism.
A loss of interest, though usually paired with depression, is a significant experience for survivors of oppression and trauma. It goes beyond not feeling joyous about old hobbies and extends into a decreased desire to reignite that interest and passion. Sometimes this decision to disengage from desire is supported by a fear that the desire would never be responded to. However, just because desire has gone, does not mean that it cannot return – and that is when you come into play. Reawakening desire takes intention and time. One way to explore and enhance desire is to center pleasure, play, and purpose.
You deserve pleasure, every single day. In the era of self-care, we have wavered towards an action of responsiveness instead of attentiveness and desire. You have been encouraged to engage in pleasure as you near burn-out or after an argument with your lover. But, why wait? You do not have to limit your experiences of pleasure for when you feel deserving or worthy to accept or seek it. Pleasure is better prioritized as a daily pursuit. Depending on the type of pleasure you engage in, count on it boosting the “feel good” neurotransmitters – dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin, and serotonin – which have been shown to influence a sense of well-being and health.
Play can rock your world, if you are open to it! Too often do adults consider playing as a pastime activity. Many times, an “all work and no play” mindset is normalized as we change our focus to pay bills, take care of others, and run errands. Reduced play has been linked to higher instances of aggression, depression, reduced productivity, relationship issues and even criminal behavior. But it can be such a vital source of learning, relaxation, exploration, creativity, pleasure, and stimulation that it should not be left behind for kids. Play time is different for everyone so if you are enjoying yourself, you are doing it right! Go ahead and put together a model plane, pole dance, color, hook up the PlayStation, or role play with your partner!
Trauma can leave you to feel not only a loss of power but of purpose as well. You might feel “changed”, that your pre-trauma identity has become trapped in an unreachable place, and even feel robbed of your identity. Yet, an experience of trauma can also open opportunities for growth and exploration into new interests, activities, and relationships. For example, as a survivor you might decide to start a blog about your healing journey or volunteer as a local organization. You may decide to take a trip you’ve been putting off or sign up for an art class. Take time to reflect on the ways that your survivor skills have been used and create new meaning – one that helps fortify your purpose in life.
A useful skill for engaging pleasure is one that involves the senses. Doing so can help to soothe or distract from your negative emotions, give you an opportunity to explore sexual fantasies, or bring you into a more present and mindful space. Here are a few tips:
Sit in a comfortable upright position with your feet planted flat on the ground.
Notice your breath and pay attention to the inhale, exhale, and space in between.
Bring awareness to each of your senses. One at a time, for about one minute each. Focus on the present and how each sense is being activated in that moment. What are your senses experiencing?
Another way to engage your senses is to think about what you would want to experience. This pulls at your desires, imagination, and fantasies:
After these activities, reflect on the following:
Which was the easiest to engage and why?
Which was the most pleasurable to engage and why?
Which was the most challenging to engage and why?
When can I do this again?
When will I do this again?
Oppression and trauma have been skillfully woven into the fabric of the human condition and impacts our relationship to pleasure, sex, and people. This looks like the hands of oppression influencing what others determine as appropriate behavior (scripts), how people choose to intervene or not intervene in problematic behavior (continuing rape culture), who is allowed or encouraged to explore their sexuality (cis-heteronormativity), and lastly, who is seen as undesirable or worthy of pleasure (schemas). It is important to consider these limiting factors so that you are more intentional about challenging them as you resist oppressive systems and heal from trauma.
In a world that tells you that you do not deserve pleasure, that it will never be accessible to you or that accessing it will be difficult, it is time that you prioritize creating spaces to share and support a different narrative. It is time that you take pleasure into your own hands, every day.
Rafaella Smith-Fiallo is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and owns Healing Exchange LLC. She specializes in supporting healing after sexual violence, building self-esteem and confidence, and teaching healthy sexuality to individuals, those in relationships, and within supportive group settings. She also cofounded Afrosexology, a sex-positive, pleasure based sexuality education platform.