Societal Disembodiment and Healing, My Thoughts On Reading “Healing Sex” by Staci Haines
April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment
I found a book called Healing Sex by Staci Haines when I was working on healing my own sexuality. I wish a wider audience could be drawn to this book. It is written specifically for women who were victims of childhood sexual abuse. I had to keep from getting bogged down with the fact that it wasn’t “for me” and that I didn’t identify as a victim of childhood sex abuse. But I think the same experiences of dissociation and the same healing process are applicable to anyone who has experienced more psychological culturally inflicted sexual trauma, and I think that’s all of us to more or less of an extent.
A lot of people would like to be more present during sex. A lot of people would like their partners to be more present and for greater connection to be possible. There is a lot of body negativity and sex negativity being ingrained into children in our society, and you get a double dose if you are raised in a conservative religious environment. As a result, many of us wind up alienated from our sexual selves, worried we may be wrong, we may be harmful, we may be sinful, we may be perverse. These worries are usually not conscious; they exist in the body as sensations of pain in experiencing desire where there should be pleasure. The dynamics of healing laid out in this book are relevant to anyone’s experience of getting back in their body, back in their consent, back in their sexuality after past experiences that left them fearful of or alienated from their sexual selves. I think most people will relate to some elements of what is described.
The book begins with an explanation of the experience of dissociation, or the experience of checking out and shutting down mentally as a safety mechanism to avoid experiencing trauma in the moment. It’s a sort of cognitive flight response when fighting isn’t an option and physical flight isn’t either. While this protects the victim in the moment, the trauma remains unprocessed in the body to be addressed in a safe place. Unfortunately, this often does not occur and the trauma remains, occupying a space in the body and psyche. The mind and body need to be reintegrated and the trauma released and experienced for healing to take place.
Disconnect between the mind and body is more pervasive than in just the lives of survivors. It’s a widespread Western cultural phenomenon. We live in a culture of rampant body hatred and abuse, whether it veers towards neglect manifested in a sedentary life of overconsumption or in brutal diet and fitness culture rooted in dominating the body into submission and perfection. We rarely find our bodies a comfortable place to be and fail to even begin to know how to make it so.
I believe sexist gender oppression is also one of the primary forces at fault in creating widespread dissociation. I had a unique experience as a child in that all of my genuine love bonds were with males in my family, while the females in my family were mostly shut off and consistently abusive. As such, I took on a lot of male social conditioning and got to understand it better than I would have. My experience is that men are collectively taught and required to dissociate. Part of sexist masculinity is to be shut off from emotions, shut off from the body, able to commit violence, which requires a disconnect from empathy and therefore from one’s own body to be tolerable. I learned to dissociate to avoid being targeted for abuse and in order to fit in with the people I was bonded with, all males, who were generally well practiced at dissociation and at times would literally become frightened and paralyzed by strong expressions of emotions, excepting anger, which of course was what all negative emotions were translated into since it is one of the few emotions “appropriate” to men. Anger or numbness – that was the choice. I think that’s the choice we put before males in this society.
Women are taught to dissociate in equally distressing and covert ways. Self-sacrifice and longsuffering are still seen as Christian feminine virtues in our culture. Physically, women are not supposed to even take up space or take risks or be strong and active, though this has improved a great deal after Second Wave feminism. When one of my best friends almost died because she had been living with a burst appendix, and by living with I mean walking to school and going to class, her male doctor saw her CAT scan and went on an impassioned feminist rant about how only women die from ruptured appendixes because they are taught to ignore pain and not complain or take up too much attention.
My strongest response to this book came in the preface, when Staci Haines names collective dissociation as the root of the eradication of empathy in the modern world. I see empathy as a form of genius at the heart of all great artistic creation and every great movement for change and love. The social immune system of a species that thrives only in groups is empathy, the capacity to feel what another animal experiences in your own body. If you dissociate, you don’t feel even your own experiences in your body. This leaves no room for empathy. You shut off this species survival mechanism. From this place, it is easy to oppress and abuse, to neglect and ignore without an experience of empathic suffering to check you. And you get what we have now, a species killing itself and being conscious of this without any significant response or feeling.
The process of somatic (meaning mind-body reintegration) healing Staci Haines outlines involves working with triggers, the action or event that sets off an experience of dissociation. Tracking what causes you to check out, where you feel the experience in your body, what causes you to get fully into your body, where it is in your body you feel strong and safe is the heart of the work in this book. From here, you can begin to make choices and enact change in your dissociative response. This is the process of somatic healing, tracking and embracing triggers to heal dissociation rather than navigating them and losing a part of yourself and your experience. I can’t do it justice in this short space, since specific exercises and very well described methods of increasing self-awareness and emotional awareness are the heart of how this book not only diagnoses but offers solutions to the experience of dissociating during sex.
It occurred to me how focused solely on the mind the spiritual practices I learned in Christian culture were. Somatic spiritual practices were completely foreign to me. With an emphasis on right belief over right action, dogma over a lived love ethic, and a strong assumption of the goodness of the mind over the baseness of the body, my Christian spiritual practices got me in my head, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing. I learned a lot about my own beliefs and gained self-awareness and wisdom. But it was imbalanced. I never got in my body and found the wisdom there. The idea that I could access the divine in my body, not just my mind, was completely foreign to me. The idea of the body as simply good was completely foreign to me. It was a difficult shift to make.
Then I thought about dogs – how much we love our dogs as physical beings, noticing the features of their bodies with love and giving them care and affection through touch and physical sensation and how each dog can seem beautiful despite the incredible spectrum of their appearances. If I could believe a canine body was inherently good and worthy of all good things, how did it correlate that I had trouble thinking a human body was inherently good and worthy of all good things? In short, I found that I carried a lot of my despair and fear of the human race in my body, repressed there in an attempt to gain “hope” and through it access to loving practice. It didn’t work, of course, but left me disconnected. Somatic healing took place as I began incorporating my body into my spiritual disciplines, newfangled ideas to supplement Bible study, reading, introspection and prayer like meditation focusing on sensations in the body, mindfulness and practicing being present, and somatic exercise, and, I’ll say it, somatic sex. I’m still working to find strong physical spiritual disciplines in my life now.
One thing I loved about this book is that it encourages you to go into your trigger while equipping you to make the experience tolerable and productive to your healing. I think a lot of us avoid having any kind of difficult or unpleasant emotions during sex. We think that anything that isn’t totally pleasant and predictable isn’t an appropriate part of sex. We’re too freaked out and think our partners will be freaked out. We try to hide any negative or confused emotions from ourselves and anyone we’re with. But most of us have more shaming, damaging, harmful formative sexual experiences in our pasts than positive, happy, healthy ones. Complex feelings will come up, and not addressing them will not send them away, but keep them operating in our sex lives and blocking us from creating the sexual connections we want. Lack of recognition of this fact and lack of knowledge about what to do with negative emotions leaves us hiding and disconnected from ourselves and our partners.
Understanding the dynamic of the healing process and being equipped with the skills to make choices and to help our partners make choices for themselves enables us to experience and facilitate sexual healing. My sex life got way better after I read this book. I did a lot of work on my own to simply become capable of experiencing desire and pleasure while staying present, sorting through more fear and grief than I would have guessed I had stored in my body from my past experiences. I was able to witness complex dynamics partners were experiencing and hear about experiences of friends without panicking or ignoring or simply being confused about what was going on and to help them feel less threatened by their experiences by sharing my own.
I think we’d be a lot better off if we started from the assumption that we have all histories of sexual trauma. Not only does refusing to believe this create a silent culture of extreme and taboo shame for the many people who experienced physical sexual abuse as children (estimated 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men when last I heard a statistic) and mark them as unduly damaged and beyond our skill to heal, it belittles experiences of trauma sustained by people who have experienced psychological abuse by a coercive culture and often our own experiences of suffering. This leads us to apathy out of repressed awareness or a sense of helplessness.
I think one of the most important foundations of a love ethic is that of taking responsibility. Trauma does not just go away. Even if we don’t think about it. Even if we throw money at it without thought, effort, care and personal transformation. We are not helpless to heal trauma, even on a grand scale. But to do so we have to first face and name it, to take responsibility for it despite the discomfort and despite our doubt that we might simply see it, find that we are helpless to heal it, or fail.
People like Staci Haines and work like Healing Sex and generationFIVE show how much power we do have when we choose to address suffering in the world and commit ourselves to healing it. And I think hope and loving action are best served by a foundation of personal transformation, the experiential knowledge that if we can heal and grow and change, then those things must be possible on a larger scale.