In the years after she was sexually assaulted, Julie Peters was stuck in the “fog of trauma,” the colourless, tasteless experience of barely getting through the day. No one―not counsellors, support groups, or other survivors―could give her any advice about how to find the desire that could bring her back to joy, intimacy, and connection, so she had to make it up on her own. In her new book, Want: Recovering Desire after Sexual Assault, she shares her story of getting through the devastation of sexual assault in order to live a fuller, more abundant life.
We spoke with her this week.
SDTC: Can you tell us a bit about your own story?
JP: I was sexually assaulted by a close friend, someone I really trusted. It didn’t match my understanding about the world, so it was really hard for me to face. When I started telling people what happened, many of them didn’t believe me, assumed I had done something to cause it, and simply went right on being friends with him like nothing ever happened. So I shut down for a solid four years. I was mildly depressed, constantly anxious, not super creative, tired and sick all the time. I got into a couple of relationships with men who seemed safe but who didn’t inspire me and who I wasn’t really connected to. I was trying to survive.
Things changed for me, actually, when a friend of mine was sexually assaulted. It was so upsetting for me that I called the crisis line and ended up talking to them about what had happened to me. They set me up with some resources and I started doing therapy and really facing what it meant to be assaulted and betrayed by someone I trusted.
I think being violently attacked on the street by a stranger would be really awful, and I don’t know what that healing process is like, but being “gently” attacked by a friend really affected my ability to trust people. It has made dating very hard—every first date makes me want to throw up!
But I have also cultivated a lot of courage in my healing process, and I am very deeply connected to my body and my gut feelings now. That connection is uncompromising with me. It has made me more compassionate, more empathetic, more able to access my own emotions. That courage has made it more possible for me to feel pleasure and desire, and I only date people who are able to access their own depths as well. I wouldn’t wish a traumatic experience on anyone, but the difficult recovery process comes with many great benefits. One of them is that I no longer put my pleasures, my desires, and my connection to my body last. Those things are vitally important, they keep me alive and present. I don’t tolerate anyone in my life who tries to suppress those things. I think I’m more powerful, more creative, and more interesting than I ever was before the assault. Oh—and I have way better sex. But you’ll have to read the book to learn more about that!
When we talk about survivors, a lot of talk centres around trauma, but there’s very little information about making a return to desire, sexuality, trust, and pleasure. Why do you think that is the case?
I think it’s partly because women’s sexuality has been policed in so many ways for such a long time. Our society is invested in the victim identity for women, and imagining a woman reclaiming her sexual power is kind of uncomfortable for some. When we are sexually empowered, we are more creative, more present, more willing to stand up for ourselves. When we need women to be meek and quiet, we don’t have much space for a story that involves a woman finding her power again.
For men (and other genders) it may be a bit of a different story. Men are not taught to show vulnerability, so many men never even get to the part where they acknowledge themselves as victims of sexual violence. Feeling our desire and pleasure is vulnerable; it means we have to be connected to our bodies and able to feel not only the good things but also the bad things. Many men learn to shove down their feelings about anything, so we don’t engage with them either as victims or survivors.
These are narratives that I’m hoping my book can challenge a little bit. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of sexual violence, and returning to desire, trust, and pleasure are not the first steps in the process—the first step is to survive, however you have to. But that’s not the end of the story. I believe the recovery process, while definitely difficult, can be enlightening. It can teach survivors so much about themselves. I want survivors to know that they are far from alone, and that no matter how disempowered the experience may have made them feel, there are plenty of ways to get back to connection, love, trust, desire, pleasure, and their personal sense of empowerment.
Does everyone’s path towards recovery look similar? Or have you seen a lot of variation in terms of how people heal?
Absolutely, everyone is different. It depends not only on what happened, but also how the person assimilates what happened based on their background and whatever is going on in their lives as well as how their community responds and supports or not. People often say, “Time heals all,” and I couldn’t disagree more. Time is helpful, but if we don’t go to therapy, don’t talk about it, don’t process what happened, don’t engage in any healing practices at all, the trauma just kind of sits there in our bodies growing more and more toxic all the time. Sometimes we need a while before we can start dealing with it (it took me four years before I was willing to start facing what happened to me!), but if we don’t deal with it, it can make our lives worse. Time, yes, but add therapy and some sort of body-based technique that can access the nervous system as well as the mind. Yoga and meditation are really helpful for some people, but they have to be the right kinds of yoga and meditation. It has to be the right therapist, too, for that matter.
That being said, I do think some phases of healing are similar for many survivors. Judith Herman is a trauma therapist who names three distinct stages of recovery: First, you find safety. Second, you remember what happened and mourn the losses associated with the trauma. Third, you reconnect with ordinary life and your community. You need help to go through these phases, ideally professional help. Trauma is in part a social wound, a relational wound, and we need the right kinds of healing relationships to help us get through it. We can’t heal trauma all by ourselves.
In my book, I break down my recovery process into eight steps, which are somewhat tongue-in-cheek. They are the steps that worked for me and that I hope might be helpful for someone else. They are 1. Survive, 2. Feel, 3. Rage, 4. Forgive, 5. Pleasure, 6. Eat, 7. Sex, and 8. Love. Survival is first, then comes feeling. With feeling must come rage. Rage paves the way for forgiveness (which does not mean, I should note, forgetting or letting the perpetrator back into your life). With forgiveness, reconnection becomes possible—now we can talk about practices like how we feel pleasure, how we feed ourselves, how we re-engage with sex. The last step is love, which is really about how we let another person in, finally, how we trust again, how we allow love and intimacy to continue to heal us, whether that’s with lovers or friends and community.
What are the biggest misconceptions that you’ve encountered when it comes to sexual violence, trauma and healing?
A major misconception is that sexual trauma is always explicitly violent—involving a weapon of some kind, some sort of physical force. Many of these violations happen in a context of emotional manipulation. In the course of my research, I discovered that there is a stress response that tends to affect female mammals more than males which is called Tend and Befriend. The idea is that because female mammals tend to be smaller and may be pregnant or have children to protect, their first response to stress isn’t to fight, run, or try to bat her aggressors away. Instead, she seeks allies and does her best to befriend someone to protect her—sometimes even her attacker. This means a lot of women say yes out of fear when they really mean no. That might be why so many men are confused when something they thought was consensual turns out not to have been. It is often safer for women to just go along with whatever is happening to avoid getting hurt. Whether or not the perpetrator intended harm, that can still be traumatizing.
Another misconception is that only women are sexually assaulted. It happens to a lot of us, don’t get me wrong: a common statistic is three in four women, but for men it’s one in six. For queer and transgender populations it’s often even higher. We’re so uncomfortable talking about sexual violence, but it is incredibly common for all of us. We all need to be participating in this conversation in a larger way.
Someone asked me recently how I felt about publishing this book and essentially tying my identity to the fact of having been sexually assaulted. I thought about that a lot as I was writing it, but I think, first of all, I’m hardly alone. Most people know what I’m talking about when I say I’ve been sexually violated because they have been, too. And secondly, survivors are conditioned to feel shame about what happened to them and to take on self-blame. We need to understand what sexual violence is and how it works so we can stop doing that. Besides, as Paul Gilmartin, a survivor and the host of the podcast The Mental Illness Happy Hour puts it, “it’s not my shame to carry.”
How can we better support a loved one who is facing trauma due to sexual violence?
That’s a great question because everyone is different. In the book, I talk about how step one is to survive, and the survival phase sometimes involves a lot of self-destructive, shame-based behaviour. Sometimes it involves denying that anything is wrong. Some people need to talk about it and some people don’t want to acknowledge it happened at all. But how the community responds to a person in trauma matters so much—it can actually be the difference between whether a person has post-traumatic symptoms for an extended period of time or heals quickly and is able to move on with their lives.
Survivors, first of all, need to be believed. The people listening to the survivor need to place blame and responsibility on the perpetrator or perpetrators, not on the survivor. Don’t assume it’s because she was wearing a short skirt or has low self-esteem or because she never should have gotten drunk at that party or whatever. Sexual violence is never okay, no matter the context.
Survivors need support. We need to know you care about us and that the assault doesn’t make you see us differently. Most of us need professional help, and there are so many hotlines and organizations that offer crisis support, resources, sometimes even free therapy, which I got from WAVAW (Women Against Violence Against Women) in Vancouver. RAINN’s national hotline redirects you to a local crisis line if you call 800-656-HOPE.
It can be hard to know what to say when someone talks to you about their assault. Don’t give advice, try to solve it, or change the subject (though sometimes listeners can be triggered because of their own assaults, and do what you need to do to keep yourself safe). The best thing you can say is usually just “I’m so sorry that happened to you.” Then shut up and listen.