When I was 15 years old I was raped. Here’s what I’ve learned about why childhood spanking left me vulnerable to repeat sexual violations and what I’m now doing about it (part 2)
If you haven’t yet read part 1 read it here
Recap: I’m 36 and starting to spot a pattern in my nervous system in response to repeated experiences of sexual violation, including a full blown rape at age 15, which I had almost completely repressed.
I have distilled down what happens in the majority of the violations into 5 phases:
- Phase 1: Connection.
- Phase 2: Move to action.
- Phase 3: Unwanted Physical Touch.
- Phase 4: Seduction.
- Phase 5: Splitting.
And I have promised in this part that i will share with you:
- What’s happening in my nervous system and body in each of the 5 phases to allow the violation to happen.
- How I believe that childhood spanking established the pattern in my nervous system and adult behaviours that set me up to be vulnerable to sexual violation.
Let’s see how we go
Please note, in my experiences the context here is normally that it is with someone I, to some degree, know and trust, not a stranger, as is true in the majority of instances of sexual violation. It’s less common to get attacked by a stranger, and very common by someone we consider safe. That’s how they get close. This is will not be everyone’s experience, and also this pattern below is a generalisation. Depending on my level of maturing and the level of threat the nuances of each situation are slightly different.
Phase 1: Connection
My experience: I am enjoying an experience together with someone and having some level of connection, intellectual or even physical contact.
I feel: Safe. Open and hopeful, alive and energised, confident and attractive.
In my body: I can maintain eye contact and speech, have good posture, a calm heart rate and am fully fluid and mobile.
I think: “This is great. What a lovely person. I’m really enjoying hanging out with them”, and possibly “I’m quite attracted to this person”.
What’s happening: We’re connecting. Our bodies are starting to mirror; our hearts are perhaps starting to beat together a little, mirror neurons are firing. We are energetically, intellectually or even physically stimulated. There is a current starting to flow. Desire could be present on one or more sides.
Phase 2: Move to action
My experience: Something changes energetically. Perhaps the other person gets a read that I might be available sexually. They move closer, into my energetic field, inside my boundaries. The sexual charge in the field becomes palpable.
I feel: Confused, scared, early stages of overwhelm. I no longer feel my connection to them as I did.
In my body: I freeze. My vocal chords shut down. My heart starts to race. I clench my jaw, my pelvis and maybe later my fists. I hold my breath.
I think: “I’m confused. What’s happening? Something is wrong. I feel scared”. Then: “Don’t be silly. Nothing is wrong. This is a nice person. They are not going to hurt you. Everything is ok.”
What’s really happening: There is an energetic disconnection from one another at the point the person makes a decision to move in towards me that is not met by my desire energetically. They say nothing verbally and may be looking for a verbal or non verbal response from me to confirm or deny if this is ok. At the point the boundary gets breached (by too close proximity) my body goes into Sympathetic arousal, my Amygdala fires off warning signals and my body prepares for flight, fight or freeze. In this case it opts for freeze due to my wiring and because this is person is bigger and stronger than me and already very close.
Note: The issue here could be intent, and could also just be pace. There is a lack of discussion, checking-in, consent to progress. At this point if there was a slowing down and a chance for verbalisation I could keep my social engagement system on line and let the other person know I don’t want to proceed. The pace of movement has prevented my front cortex and speech capacities staying online.
Phase 3: Unwanted Physical Touch
My experience: The person, having not received or heard any easily discernable signs of my distress, and not being well trained in nervous system physiology or empathy (our culture doesn’t support that, especially in our male acculturation process), or simply ignoring my lack of complaint or active enthusiasm, proceeds to make a physical move and touch some part of my body that is arousing to them.
I feel: Shock, angry, powerless, terrified, confused.
In my body: I’m not in my body at this point. I dissociate and I’m gone. I’m probably barely breathing and my pulse is weak.
I think: “I can’t believe this is happening.......” then nothing as I’m gone”
What’s happening: By not being consulted, given choice and kept an equal in the move to sexual interaction I experience an intense loss of power and agency. My body goes into panic and, unable to deal with the intensity of fear in my system, I lose a degree of consciousness and dissociate. In less extreme cases I might just go into mental detachment and start thinking about something...anything to distract myself from what’s happening to my body.
So far so good?
So this is where it gets really interesting. In many of these instances, including my rape, there is a phase 4. Phase 4 happens when the system is desperately trying to regain a sense of control. I noticed it became more likely, or more strongly felt, later in life as I got older, physically stronger and actually more resilient and able to defend myself more.
Phase 4 : Seduction.
My experience: I suddenly feel a surge of power and beginning to initiate sexual activity with my “attacker”. I might kiss them back or begin kissing them if kissing isn’t happening. I make moves towards them. Touching them, grabbing them and become feisty or seemingly playful. At this point they are now confident we are in consent. We are still not in consent.
I feel: Highly aroused, powerful, dominant, joyful, excited, still underlying terrified, although I’m no longer consistently in touch with that feeling.
In my body: I feel a strong surge of energy, my heart is now racing, blood comes to my genitals and face, I have strength in my muscles and my hands. I might now be able to manage a sort of detached eye contact, just sufficient to keep their attention and let them know how powerful I am, and I still don’t have much access to my speech. I’m starting to breathe again and it’s shallow.
I think: “This is so hot, just go with it, this might not be someone you’re attracted to and you are in this moment so just enjoy it”. Or “I’m so attractive. Look how turned on they are by me. I feel powerful”.
What’s happening: A strong protective aspect of me has taken over my system. I am at this point not able to consciously control my body or my speech, except in moments of lucidity, where the terrified part of me I have overridden might be able to pipe up with “get off me” or “I don’t want this”, which is often met with laughter, the other thinking I’m playing because it’s not the consistent message they are receiving from my body at this point. There is an internal vying for control of my nervous system by different protective parts of my psyche. Anger energy discharges itself silently in the physical wrestling motions I am making with the other.
You might at this point be feeling some uncomfortable feelings as you’re reading. If you are, please stop for a moment and take a few minutes to breath, shake off your body and come back to yourself. Come back later if that’s what your system needs right now. It’s complex and Icky stuff.
So once I’m safely out the energy of this person, using some suite of skills to end the encounter and eventually make a break for freedom (this can include supporting the person to orgasm to they feel complete, some distraction or diversion technique or an eventual opportunity to fight or flee) we move onto phase 5.
Phase 5: Splitting
My experience: I’m trying to make sense of what happened. My brain does whatever it needs to do to tell itself/me a story that I can handle, where those terrifying feelings are kept at bay. I tell one or a few people a shallow version of the story, where I leave out the details I feel shameful about, toy with reporting the person and usually don’t follow it through, cry a little, maybe get professional support for a bit if I’m unable to function at work after the incident, and then box it away forever.
I might go through a period of feeling very self-protective and non sexual, followed by a period of hyper-sexualisation where I try to regain some internal feelings of being powerful, which may or may not actually get acted out.
I feel: Shame. Confusion. Lonely. Angry. Scared. Vulnerable.
In my body: I’m rigid. My breath is shallow. I’m very cognitive, with looping thoughts and unanswered questions. I might start overeating or over-thinking as a coping mechanism. Later down the line I might feel arousal energy, and it’s not so much from my genitals as from my power centre.
I think: “Who should I tell? Should I report this person? People need to know what they are capable of”, then “No, I asked for this, I confused them, I don’t want any more trouble for me or anyone else. Let’s just forget about it”, “something is wrong with me that this happens to me” or “I’m just a fucked up highly sexual person” or “maybe I wanted this with this person”?
What’s happening: I am exiling the part of me that was scared. I am building/allowing in a suite of protective personality aspects that can stop me from ever again feeling those feelings of being totally overpowered. I am giving them permission to take over my body and run my life for me whenever this vulnerable part of me feels activated as it has lost trust in me to take care of it. I am ensuring that I stay now a little bit less in my body, where my truth lies. I’m cutting myself off from my pain.
Each violation I experience, unless I break my response pattern to what’s happening, strengthens the capacity of my protective parts to take over my system. They just get better and better at their job of taking my out my body.
Still with me?
What would be healthiest after such a trauma would be to go to a friend, parent, partner or professional who works with trauma and the body, feel fully all the feelings, shake, complete the thwarted defence response and disperse the stuck energy from the system in real time. Seeking help is such a critical step, as is giving the terrified part of oneself space to be seen and heard. It’s so important to rebuild trust in your own system after a violation.
For me I often managed to tell one or a few people something and never fully allowed myself to collapse, be held, and supported back to my wholeness.
Due to the overwhelming shame and the actual physical limitations of my body to handle the full strength of the energetic charge of the emotions of terror and rage, only as I have aged have I been able to step back objectively from the situation and really feel and speak from my truth
So this is the pattern. What’s interesting is understanding where it got set.
Where in my personal history did I learn to Flirt, Freeze, Dissociate, Seduce, Lie to myself and lock away the memory?
For the last few years I’ve trawled my experiences during my healing journey and sexual healing journey with an eye open for early childhood sexual violation and I haven’t found it.
I’ve found and felt waves of extreme fear and violation, senses of impending danger, intense triggers arising in inexplicable situations. I’ve grilled my mother, had an energy healer tell me something happened with my dad when I was 4 (which I discounted because I know, love and trust my father), and spent hours in my body just listening to all the untold stories it wants to tell me.
I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find a trace of having been sexually violated as a young child.
Of course it’s possible I was and that I’m just not ready to handle knowing it yet and the memory is still repressed.
Sadly many people have experienced childhood sexual violation. It’s very common; especially by family members, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, family friends. It’s often the people we most trust.
And for me I don’t think that was the cause.
I now believe aggressive and heart-disconnected episodes of Spanking wired me to be vulnerable for sexual violation.
Yep. That’s it. Spanking.
In my childhood my mother had low emotional range of resiliency, which, being a young mother of 3 kids raised in an emotionally neglectful family is no surprise, and an adhoc tendency for becoming overwhelmed and displaying violent outbursts, coupled with a heavy dissociation that wipes them from her memory and prevents acknowledgement of the situation or an apology.
My dad was reasonably emotionally stable (or just not really very emotional, except in extreme moments of repression over-spilling into rage) and would occasionally come home and be asked to enforce less rage-induced discipline on those “naughty” (normal) children who had been too loud, playful or quarrelsome for my mother during the day. My mother often didn’t have the energy (or heart) to hit us once her overwhelm had passed if she hadn’t done so at the time, later perhaps feeling loving and connected to us again and yet holding a belief about the importance of physical punishment as an integral part of good parenting . So sometimes I would find myself being hit by my loving dad as he got home from work, hours after some trigger from my mother that had scared me.
When I really needed at that time was my dad to help calm and regulate my nervous system from the hyper vigilant and activated state I was left in after my mum’s outburst, and instead, without asking me what happened, or giving me any agency over what was coming, he would dutifully hit me.
I’m fairly sure any sentient human needs to leave their heart to hit a defenceless child stood in front of them as they return home from work. I imagine there was a powerful story running about showing a united front as parents. Sadly childhood isn’t meant to be a battlefield.
This pattern of parenting, having hands laid on me by dissociated, disconnected or raging parents, showered my childhood with moments of unpredictable and inescapable confusion, fear, distress and emotional isolation.
So how does that contribute to my propensity to get sexually violated as an adult?
It’s actually pretty simple, and although this specific set of circumstances is unique to me, we all have our own traumas and our own patterning as a result, so there might be something that speaks to your experience.
So imagine that every child is born pretty perfect and totally unique, mostly functional, totally dependent and a bit of blank canvas. They are then immediately thrown into an environment that then serves to shape and build on their personality. Our personality is essentially the external manifestation of behaviours our nervous system learned in response to different stimuli, and is designed, with amazing efficiency, for survival in the unique social and physical environment in which we grew up. This formation and pattern setting happens especially over the first 5 to 8 years of life and extends a little further through adolescence and early sexual experiences at second puberty when our key teenage reproductive hormones kick in.
Note: first puberty happens at around 5 years old when the first Eros energy and aliveness start to come online and flood the body, (cue rubbing a teddy bear on the parts that feel nice between your legs or flirting with mum or dad for practise.)
So as a child of 4 or 5 years old I learned all the ways to avoid getting physically hurt when my mum lost her capacity to ground herself and I learned the hard way to stop crying very quickly or else things got worse and that running and hiding only got me so far; I quickly learned the best approach was to freeze and dissociate. One of my sisters learned to fight and run. Another became phenomenal at “tending and befriending” a soon-to-blow mum and pacifying her back to sanity. We each had different experiences in our development and we each found our way through.
I learned not to speak up, fight back or try and run away when I’m attacked. I learned to cope by freezing and dissociation.
With my dad the dynamic was different. He rarely hit me in rage and what he did was to emotionally disconnect from me in order to carry out the punishment. My “good girl” behaviour and clever talk got me no-where with my loving dad. I think this was more painful and confusing for me than the erractic nature of my mother’s behaviour. My dad was my safe place. Until he wasn’t.
Being pinned down, having my pants pulled down and being repeatedly hit and hurt, whilst being told I was “bad” by the people I loved the most, with no apology, taught me something was wrong with me and that my feelings don’t matter, wired me with feelings of shame, set me up to tolerate acts of cruelty from loved ones, and ensure I knew that there was no support available so not to bother asking for it.
I imagine, that had always understood why I was in trouble, I might have felt differently. If I had had time to speak my truth I might have felt more empowered. The time my dad hit me on demand without so much as asking why, after my mum had had a bad day, raged around the house over nothing and already scared me and my sister half to death, broke my heart. I lot a piece of myself that day. I was 4 years old.
And what about the seduction and splitting?
Well the seduction came later and is actually more advanced form of self protection; a higher cognitive functioning behaviour than the flight or fight response, and part of the same system. It utilises the social engagement system to make a threatening situation feel safer by tending to the other person to stop them from going into escalating levels of attack, plus it placates the powerless feeling in the body by regaining a sense of personal power and allowing some energy to mobilse. I suspect it might be an instinctual response for women, for whom physical strength is normally not their primary asset and who can more easily turn to forms of manipulation to exert power.
Splitting/Exiling occurs when the what you’ve just learned or experienced teaches you that some part of you is not wanted or safe in the world and the associated fear of the implications of that underlying truth is too intense for the body to handle, so it’s suppressed.
It would have been impossible as a child to hold as true the reality of the memory of how abandoned by and terrified of my parents I was. So I hid it in my psyche.
And I made up some other story. In this case I made my dad into my hero who couldn’t do wrong and my mum as the villain who I needed to escape from to be safe. It felt like a game. At least that way I didn’t feel completely alone. And the anger I sometimes felt towards my mum helped me stay feeling powerful rather than terrified and vulnerable.
That part of me that believed I inflicted this punishment on myself because I was wrong in some ways relished the chance to jump up and share it’s beliefs with me every time I got violated in the future. I would be flooded with shame until I found a way to stuff it back down again by going into my old patterns of internalising, justifying and then splitting off the memory.
There is much more depth and complexity to this psychological analysis and it’s enough of an overview for this article to put the message across.
Thanks for reading this far.
There is one more piece to follow in part 3.
In part 3 you will learn:
- How these protective mechanisms I developed in my nervous system and personality show up in my day to day sexual behaviour and how I can use that as a trailhead to healing.
- What can be done to break the pattern and free oneself from a life of sexual violation and even bad sex, once and for all.
If you are suffering from sexual, relational, or emotional challenges as a result of early childhood or adult trauma, or simply looking for more support in developing your sexual expression and allowing your sexuality in as a healthy, integrated part of your life, please find me at www.emmakharper.com
Or if you live in the South East, or London, Join me this June for the trauma informed 2019 Women’s Sexual Expression Programme: An intimate circle of up to 10 women journeying with their sexuality to reclaim the type of sex they want to be having, with the people they want to have it with, when they want it.
And if reading this brings up painful personal material for you, please remember to speak with a friend or loved one or reach out for professional help. You are not alone. Bad things happen to good people and we’re all just doing our best in a very complicated and challenging world.
Emma K Harper
Psychosexual Somatics® Therapist, Speaker, Teacher, Writer, Dancer, Musician.
Discover Your Sexuality, Integrity, Freedom @ www.emmakharper.com