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Party for One
5 min

How masturbation can help sexual assault survivors reclaim pleasure

Masturbation helped me reconnect with my body—and it’s been a healing tool for trauma survivors for decades

I’ll never be able to forget the evening of Oct. 4, 2014. It was my 30th birthday party, an event planned by my best friend at the time with all our nearest and dearest. But it was also the night I was raped, and my entire world changed.

Before that night, as terrible as it sounds, I believed it could never happen to me—that I could never be the victim of sexual assault. Although I had stood by numerous friends who recounted their stories to me—stories I supported—for some reason I felt untouchable. Somehow I believed, even though the stats told me that one in three women and one in six men experience sexual violence in their lifetime, that I couldn’t also be part of those stats. However, looking back on it now, I see how naive and foolish that was; the reality is, no one sits around expecting to become a victim.

But after Oct. 4, like countless sexual assault victims before me, I avoided acknowledging the truth—out of shame, out of fear and largely due to my body’s trauma response. For queer individuals who have experienced sexual assault, it’s not uncommon to experience flashbacks, feel humiliated or disempowered. My emotions were overwhelming and they hit my body in waves. A lot of the time, my body felt hard to exist in.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 46 percent of bisexual women have been raped, compared to 17 percent of straight women. After spending months ignoring what happened, my emotions and feelings were too hard to ignore and they hit me like a ton of bricks. The best way to describe it was like a delicate flower being crumpled and tossed out. My libido went from normal to nonexistent, and for periods for time I wondered, “Am I worthy enough or deserved to feel pleasure again?” I struggled to try to engage or just be intimate with my loving, caring partner. It was starting to take its toll. That’s when I knew I had to face it: I had to learn how to take back my body, my mind and my sexuality. But how exactly? Masturbation, that’s how.

Masturbation has been used as a therapeutic tool since the 1970s to help trauma survivors and those experiencing sexual dysfunction. Sex therapists—or somatic sex educators, who offer a trauma-informed, body-based form of healing can work with clients to develop a treatment plan based on their goals for attending sessions, with no hands-on interactions occurring between them. During sessions, clients can be asked to participate in various exercises including breathing, consensual touch (above clothing), body mapping and meditation. When I first started exploring this type of treatment, it was pivotal for me—as it can be and for other queer individuals navigating trauma. Not only can it help encourage self-exploration, but it can help break the negative associations that individuals may have with pleasure.

Professional sex therapist Laurie Mintz, a psychologist based out of Florida, has used these practices in her own work. She believes that masturbation can be important for clients who need to feel empowered or rediscover themselves.

“The first thing masturbation does is teach you what feels good, and that you’re in control,” Mintz says, noting that masturbation for those experiencing trauma can help put them back in the driver’s seat. “[It helps] them find what feels pleasurable but also to be able to stop when you begin to feel triggered. It can really help you reclaim your sexuality.”

In more recent years, mindful masturbation (also referred to as masturbation meditation or tantric masturbation in other media) has become more mainstream. Mintz explains that mindful masturbation is exactly what it sounds like: Learning how to be mindful in your body while you masturbate.

“Mindfulness is, simply put, putting your mind and body in the same place and space and being able to notice when your mind inevitably wanders and bringing it back to your body.” She believes that this practise can help folks be in the present—rather than trying to accomplish something else—and gives clients the space they need to become bodily immersed in something that is useful.

When I decided to take the plunge and face my own sex-based trauma, I started working with a somatic sex educator. Working alongside a somatic sex educator can differ from a sex therapist in various ways; a therapist may look more into why something is happening, whereas a somatic sex educator might help you work on healing within your body using breath, sound, touch and movement to connect you to your body in a more erotic way. Each week, I met with my somatic sex educator and we worked on body mapping, prompts on boundaries, consent and mindful masturbation.

Britta Love, a somatic sex educator based out of New York, believes that working with an educator when doing this type of work can be helpful but is not necessary. “All you need to do is set aside some time and stay connected to your sound, breath, touch and movement for the duration of your self-pleasuring.” If you’re interested, you can incorporate tools like a journal to keep track of your orgasms or how your body feels, or even meditation apps like Headspace or Muse, the latter of which offers a meditation headband that can track your brainwaves.

Mindful masturbation is meant to increase awareness of what’s pleasurable for you, while encouraging a slower, more intentional approach to solo exploration. Love explains that clients who are dealing with trauma will often seek out mindful masturbation to help them really feel in their bodies again. She adds that being present and being able to focus on what’s happening within you can be very helpful for someone dealing with trauma.

Most often, individuals will masturbate just to “rub one out” and get it done as soon as possible. But for Love, it’s about showing individuals how to trust their bodies once again.

“A big trauma-informed piece, for me, is teaching clients how to be in their bodies and learn how to notice, trust and vocalize their desire or lack of desire,” Love explains, noting that touch through masturbation can allow people to experience a safe “container” for experiencing erotic touch and relearn how their body works through exploration of their own desire.

The end goal in mindful masturbation isn’t just about having an orgasm—though orgasms (and sexual activity) have been proven to provide a whole host of benefits, including endorphins which enhance sleep, provide better focus and stress relief and help with depression, anxiety and connection. “For trauma survivors, the pleasure of orgasm derived from oneself can help lend a new meaning to sexuality and sexual empowerment,” Mintz says.

Love agrees, adding, “Starting in your own body can be a really powerful place to do that reclamation work.”

Lauren Gostick, of Whitehorse, Yukon, participated in a 30-day online community challenge, organized by a somatic sex educator, during which folks mindfully masturbated once a day. Individuals were provided guidance by the educator in a private Facebook group, and were encouraged to share their stories and feedback about what the process was like for them. Navigating some emotional hardships in her life at the time, Gostick felt that the mindful masturbation practice was exactly what she needed.

“I learned that pleasure was so much more than my favourite vibrator in my favourite position and all my typical go-tos. I learned that, despite my unresolved trauma, I can still feel pleasure. I learned that pleasure is all mine to explore, to have, to cherish and to—most importantly—have fun with,” she says.

Much like Gostick, learning basic tools with a somatic sex educator like pleasure mapping and body awareness in my mindful masturbation practice helped me rewire my pleasure-based mindset and take me out fight, flight or freeze mode. Mintz believes the first step is learning what works for you, and being able to recreate a new positive association with pleasure. If you’re experiencing trauma or sexual dysfunction, she explains that “you have to be able to do it by yourself first, and then the next step is feeling empowered enough to translate that to a partner.”

Learning about mindful masturbation gave me the tools and the strength to finally feel safe in my own body, and the practice has always placed me at the centre of it. So much has changed since that fateful night in 2014, but the best part? I have come to know myself, sexually and emotionally, so much more than I ever have. And through it all, I’ve healed myself.