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How Trauma Numbs Sexuality: Girly Thoughts Running Rampant

Feature Articles

Many layers of trauma affect women every day, with each level of trauma intensifying the other levels. These range from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to what may be a new term for you: toxic girly thoughts

 

The concept of toxic girly thoughts presents a new way of understanding the persistent impact of trauma on women by capturing how the pervasive sense of devaluation women experience in society is then internalized into a negative inner dialogue. Toxic girly thoughts impact many aspects of functioning (O’Gorman, 2013, 2014) including sexual enjoyment, which is our focus here. 

 

My goal in developing this concept of toxic girly thoughts was to provide the practitioners and clients with an understanding as well as tools to help women eliminate this type of persistent negative thinking, which often leads to anesthetizing this voice with drugs, alcohol or eating. 

 

For most women, being sexual still feels like a risk. Why? There are many reasons for this, but they originated with the protective messages women received from their mothers to be the “good girl.” These messages were distorted by societal messages of beauty and behavior and were then internalized into toxic girly thoughts, which make women critical of their appearance and sexual performance, and take a major toll on women’s sexual enjoyment.  

 

For example, we are just beginning to understand the female orgasm, but one thing is clear: sexual insecurity is a factor in the prevalence of women faking orgasm. One study alone found that nearly 50 percent of women were faking orgasms (Langer, Arnedt, & Sussman, 2004), and 80 percent of women used vocalization to strongly suggest orgasm when they were certain they were not going to orgasm (Brewer & Hendire, 2011), with trauma considered to be a key factor in the inability to orgasm (Young, 2010).

 

Sexual violation is only one of the traumas women experience that diminishes their feeling of self-worth and decreases their feelings of sensuality. “If you are feeling sexually numb, you must have been sexually traumatized” is an erroneous thought that minimizes the complexity of this issue. That being said, sexual violation of women is all too common. No longer are women worried that it is just their shameful experience or that of their best friend, or that the girl down the street was somehow “asking for it.” 

 

We are realizing that the sexual violation of women represents a disturbing national trend that is far from new. The findings of a 2015 Washington Post and Kaiser Foundation poll of one thousand people who had recently attended college found that one in five college women reported they had been sexually violated (Anderson & Clement, 2015).
 
Shocking? Yes—and sponsors of polls such as this admit their numbers still underestimate the true figure.

 

As astonishing and disgusting as this statistic is, it tells only part of the story. We know through the telling of family secrets, literature, and even the movies that sexual violation of women is not new. We also know that sexual attacks on women compound other traumas, earlier traumas, such as childhood abuse and neglect.

 

The interesting question is why have women remained quiet, in denial, and even ashamed and self-blaming for so very long about sexual assault? Could it be that women have felt powerless, that unwanted sexual advances were something they needed to endure? That is an example of a toxic girly thought.

 

“I’m a Good Girl, and Good Girls Don’t . . .” 

 

It is important to peel away the societal messages women have been taught. This allows them to understand both the origin of those messages and how they can be traumatizing. Messages we hear from those we love and respect, those who have our best interest at heart—and are repeated incessantly by the media—tend to be believed. 

 

First and foremost, there is the clear message every woman has received repeatedly: be the good girl. The reasons for this are complicated:

 

  • Our mothers were trying to protect us the only way they knew how, which was to take responsibility for not only her actions, but also the actions of others. The roots of codependency extend far back into a woman’s history (O’Gorman, 2013).
  • Lack of political clout (even though women are 53 percent of the voting public in the US), which results in feeling the need to be dependent on men to make big changes.
  • Financial dependence on men, which still exists today.
  • Ongoing messages to not upset the man you are dependent on because you could end up alone, and then what? 
  • The belief that a “good girl” is a less desirable target for sexual assault.

 

Elizabeth remembers all the messages she received as a young girl: 

 

“Don’t wear patent leather shoes because boys can see up your skirt,” “Keep your legs crossed—you shouldn’t be able to see your panties,” “Don’t dress provocatively in any way, a man will think that you ‘want it,’” “Yes, movie stars can do this, but you’re no movie star.” I felt then, as I still do, that I had to be on guard, and if there was a problem, if a guy came on too strong, I was somehow to blame.

 

Being the “good girl” has also resulted in generations of women being taught:

 

  • You need a man.
  • You are less than a man.
  • You are lucky to have a man.
  • A man’s home is his castle, not yours.
  • A man’s word is final.
  • Smile, always, even when you’re sad, but particularly when you’re angry.
  • Don’t rock the boat.

 

These statements, when made simply and clearly, may seem ridiculous, but they represent beliefs many women had drilled into their heads as children and have become unconscious beliefs that still guide actions and thoughts. They are traumatizing in and of themselves because they essentially define women as a dependent gender. They speak to women being less than a man by constantly reinforcing the notion that a woman needs a man, is only fulfilled if she is with a man, and is only beautiful if a man sees her that way. 

 

Girly thoughts promise the brass ring. They promise love and all your dreams fulfilled as long as you are thin enough, young enough, nice enough, and sexual enough, but in just the right ways. Yet the result is something different. 

 

Toxic girly thoughts provide mixed messages about a woman’s sexuality. In this way, being a sexual person is like playing with fire: thrilling—fascinating, even—but with a very real threat of getting burned. Some of the traumatizing toxic girly thoughts about being sexual are:

 

Love Sex, but Not Too Much

 

Girly thoughts are a reminder that being considered talented sexually doesn’t convey the same status for women it does for men, and for women it has a definite down side. There is no female term for stud; words like slut somehow do not have a male equivalent. 

 

Don’t Initiate Anything You Find Sexually Pleasurable

 

So much of what a woman learns about being sexual is really more about pleasing a man than about exploring what she might enjoy. One of the clear messages women receive is that they should not be too dominant sexually, for this could be a turn off to a male partner. Another is to fake orgasm to make him feel better.

 

Look Young and Sexy

 

But not too sexy because then you are “asking for it.”

 

The sad result for many women is the expectation that they are good at certain things, but not at sex—this continues to be the man’s domain. What do toxic girly thoughts advise a woman to do? Tone it down: you don’t want to be too much.

 

Women have unique cultural stresses that can also be traumatic. These include being heckled as they walk through the streets; being expected to make coffee as part of a preparation for a sales meeting in which they are presenting; heading out for what they think will be a relaxing date and being pressured to have sex. And these traumatic stresses compound other traumas.

 

On a simple level, trauma is a wounding, a piercing of the sanctity of the self such that there is significant distress in its aftermath. What is so interesting is that most people who have been impacted by trauma do not think of themselves as trauma survivors (O’Gorman & Diaz, 2012). Why is this? 

 

When most people think of trauma, they tend to focus only on what can be called trauma with a big “T.” These are the potentially life-changing major events experienced due to being in a place where trauma occurs, as in a one-time event of a natural disaster such as a hurricane, flood, tornado, fire or a near-death experience after a serious accident. There is also the big “T” trauma of loss that includes the death of a parent, friend or sibling, and the sustained big “T” trauma of war—both fighting in one and living through one—and of being a refugee. And there are big “T” traumas that are felt on a very intimate level: rape, sexual abuse, the infidelity of a spouse, and ongoing physical and emotional abuse as a child. These are all traumas that profoundly affect our sense of worthiness as well as our sexuality. But by only focusing on the big “T” of trauma, we tend to blame ourselves for the pain and distress we feel because our trauma is not of the big “T” variety; in other words, we don’t think it qualifies as “real” trauma (O’Gorman & Diaz, 2012). 

 

Courtney is a great example of this: “I always felt weird talking about my childhood. It’s not liked anyone died. We had food, a roof over our heads. It was just . . . my father would get drunk and walk around with his thing hanging out all the time.”

 

By only seeing major life events as potentially traumatic, we underestimate how much other trauma affects us. There is also trauma of the smaller “t” variety: the trauma experienced by a child or adolescent (and felt as an adult) through the distancing of caregivers who repeatedly abandoned their child to go to a bar at night, parental divorce or from being bullied by peers as a child, in the workplace as an adult or as a woman in the military. There is also the subtle—and often easy to blame yourself for—emotional distancing of an intimate partner that can make you feel alone and undesirable.

 

Another layer of trauma is created by toxic girly thoughts through the highly nuanced cultural environment in which women live, especially through the messages and images that help to shape a woman—messages that reinforce what is acceptable, what is desirable, and the rewards a woman can expect for achieving perfection (O’Gorman, 2014). 

 

And if a woman cannot become and maintain the idealized image she’s been marketed? Then she is very likely to berate herself and feel unworthy—ugly even—because her hips are too wide, her breasts are too small, she’s seen as too aggressive at work or as just too needy. Those toxic girly thoughts get in the way of a woman feeling worthy of love and acceptance, and the list goes on and on. 

 

Molly said it well after a seminar she attended where I spoke: “I always thought it was me. That if I was taller, less assertive at work, less anxious, had more energy for sex, then my husband wouldn’t have had that affair and we’d still be together. The term girly thoughts is such an eye opener. Now I realize I’ve all been marketed a bunch of bull! I’ve been trying too hard to make everyone but me happy!”

 

The Effects of Trauma

 

Yes, girly thoughts are traumatic in and of themselves. Women blame themselves and see themselves as the problem instead of pausing for a moment to consider that images of women in the media are photoshopped, and mostly young and beautiful women are talking heads on TV and the stars in movies.

 

You may not think at first that walking down the street, entering a room or going to the beach can be traumatic. But it can be when you feel you are being mentally undressed, scrutinized, judged, and commented on. How do women typically handle this?  Often by shutting down, steeling themselves, and numbing themselves.   

 

Traumas—both the big “T” and small “t” varieties—tend to engender similar responses. Anyone who has experienced trauma is familiar with its immediate aftereffects: the sudden sensory deprivation, the experience of everything slowing and stopping, including your own breathing. Then, like a miracle, your senses gradually return. You experience sound, sight, movement, temperature, smell. You are able to take a deep breath. You experience a reawakening to the world around you. It may be gradual or sudden, depending on what you have experienced and whether in real-time or in a flashback.

 

But what happens when a part of you impacted by trauma does not turn back on? Or does not come back fully in the way it was before? Would you notice if one part of you was still on hold? Particularly if this was a part of you that you have already been conditioned to think of as dangerous, a part of you that you have been struggling with feeling you never expressed “correctly”? Do you think you would notice? Would others?

 

Charlotte shared: “It feels to me that I function more in survival mode. It doesn’t leave much energy for romance.” How many times have you, your clients, and your friends, said the same thing? Why do you think women push themselves so hard? Could it be their toxic girly thoughts are telling them to do it all, or else? What impact do you think this has on being amorous?

 

Trauma exacerbates the mixed sexual messages sent to women by their toxic girly thoughts, making expressing sexuality tricky. Increasingly, women pay the price for being trapped by pervasive societal notions of desirability and popularly touted images of desire, which edge out true sensuality. More and more women struggle to feel and explore their sensuality. Clara states, “I worry how I look when I’m having sex, like if my stomach looks big.” 

 

Is Clara the only woman who feels that way? Or do you know women who are also critical of their bodies, even in their most intimate moments? If so, realize that the more focus women have on how they look during sexual intimacy, the less focus they have on enjoying sexual intimacy. If this isn’t what the women you know want, consider helping them changing their thinking.

 

The result is that feeling sexual and being sexy can feel scary because women are afraid of being judged, being seen as too daring or being seen as wrong. Over time this can even make these feelings traumatizing.  

 

We know from psychological research that being constantly frustrated in the pursuit of your goals can lead to a host of physical and psychological maladies. Physical ailments like stomach problems and psychological concerns such as diminished access to sexual feelings can result from trying to quiet toxic girly thoughts at work and at home.

 

This is an unfortunate consequence when women try to anesthetize toxic girly thoughts through a variety of means that include alcohol and drug usage, excessive plastic surgery, harmful levels of exercise or excessive eating and then dieting. Let’s look at two of these ways for self-medicating the traumatic stress associated with toxic girly thoughts

 

Trauma and Substance Abuse

 

First, look at any media and you’ll see alcohol advertised as a solution to your problems. Having a bad day? Your friends will invite you out for a drink or more. This can present serious health problems, especially for women, because of “telescoping,” a term used to describe an accelerated progression from the initiation of substance use to the onset of dependence and first admission to treatment. As a result women develop more problems earlier than men when they begin heavy alcohol and/or drug use (Greenfield, Back, Lawson, & Brady, 2010).

 

Why do women choose this strategy? Booze and drugs do initially lower anxiety about being sexual, but that decreased anxiety comes with increased risk of sexual assault, as another finding from a previously mentioned study illustrates:

 

Most notably, two-thirds of victims say they had been drinking alcohol just before the incidents . . . Booze, from cheap beer to odd concoctions of liquor and juice, creates major risks. Analysis of the poll found that women who say they sometimes or often drink more than they should are twice as likely to be victims of completed, attempted, or suspected sexual assault compared with those who rarely or never do (Anderson & Clement, 2015). 

 

The anxiety created by this type of potential scenario helps to explain the type of drugs women choose. Women lead men in the use of narcotic analgesics and tranquilizers (Greenfield et al, 2010). Women tend to overuse drugs that calm them and that relieve pain, essentially leading to numbing.  

 

Trauma and Disordered Eating

 

As for choosing food, chocolate cake, sweet coffee or a bagel with extra cream cheese all sound good and taste even better, sometimes when a woman eats them it’s because she’s given up and feels she’ll never be thin. Think again! Eating away her toxic girly thoughts is no better plan than drinking them away! Short-term relief leads to long-term problems. According to a report from the American Psychological Association (2013), 43 percent of women report having overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month due to stress, compared to 32 percent of men.   

 

Women tend to be stress eaters. Know someone who wants to lose weight? Suggest she lose her toxic girly thoughts, and her weight will follow.

 

Recovery

 

Recovery from the trauma of toxic girly thoughts is not only possible, but is necessary for your clients to progress in their recovery so they can live the type of lives they deserve, which includes enjoying their sexuality. This involves identifying and changing their toxic girly thoughts so they will not need to self-medicate through alcohol, drugs or food, and identifying specific strategies to regain their sexual enjoyment. You can help your clients begin to rediscover their sexuality through these concrete steps:

 

Name Those Toxic Girly Thoughts

 

Why do your clients need a label for what they are thinking that is pulling them down? To get the one thing we all long for: control! In the same way having the term “addiction” helped your clients realize what was going on, naming their inner turmoil in their personal quest for perfection as toxic girly thoughts allows women to exercise control over it. 

 

Helping your clients identify when they are thinking a toxic girly thought is a powerful tool that can help them realize that no, they are not crazy, and they are not the only ones who feel this way. This also provides a shorthand term to share with their girlfriends, and they will all discover that women dealing with their toxic girly thoughts are everywhere, including in bed.

 

Learn to Self-Soothe

 

Help clients find beneficial ways to self-soothe the anxiety that wells up from their trauma as they begin to feel sexual and their numbness retreats. Dealing with trauma involves learning how to self-soothe at the very first sign of distress, which is sure to come as clients give themselves permission to safely explore their sexuality. Simple techniques include:

 

  • Using measured breathing techniques such as breathing in for five seconds, holding for five, and let the breath out for five
  • Grounding in the immediate environment by finding five colors when beginning to feel tense
  • Practicing progressive muscle relaxation, including tensing and relaxing of the vagina
Let Numbness Go

 

Encourage clients to let the numbness fall away. Encourage them to listen to their bodies, not their toxic girly thoughts, as they encourage themselves to come to life and leave the numbness behind. This is easier than it may appear and involves two actions: 

 

  1. First, encouraging your clients to let the numbness to drop away by noticing what their senses are telling them. Simple activities involve awareness of smells, our most basic sense; noticing what is around them by walking with their heads up; listening for the sounds that surround them; enjoying the feel of their bodies while having a bubble bath or climbing into a freshly made bed. In this way, she can become aware of her body. 
  2. Second, help them make it safe to feel. Help your clients know that in turning on the tap of feelings, they may experience sadness, which could be a first feeling under the numbness. Share that feeling sad is wonderful; it means the spigot of feelings is opening, and she is back in business. Remind them that this can be a sweet feeling. Also, they may feel anger, which often follows. This could be anger over having missed positive feelings, anger at having felt beholden to others, and maybe even anger for being involved in sexual activities that were against her value system.

 

Help your clients to understand that feelings pass. The important thing is that they are feeling again.   

 

Discover Sexuality

 

Encourage clients to discover what is in their sexuality in several ways. Firstly, clients should give themselves permission to have sexual fantasies that are just fantasies; they don’t need to take any action. Secondly, remind them that they don’t need to retraumatize themselves by acting on everything she fantasizes. And lastly, encourage them to enjoy what turns them on without judging themselves, their sexual fantasies or how they look when they put on a bathing suit, are kissing or are sexually intimate. 

 

By helping them make their sexuality an area of safe curiosity and excitement, they can learn to own what feels right for them.

 

Conclusion

 

This is the promise of recovery: your clients will have more energy, more creativity, and feel more desirable when they learn how to get out of their own way by not listening to their toxic girly thoughts!

 

Your clients do not need to continue doing to themselves what society does to them. They don’t have to continue traumatizing themselves! They can change; in fact, they have changed. This is life. Stopping their toxic girly thoughts and making room to self-soothe and enjoy their sexual feelings is just another step to becoming their best selves. 

 

 

 

References

 

American Psychological Association (APA). (2013). Stress and eating. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/eating.aspx
Anderson, N., & Clement, S. (2015). College sexual assault: One in five women say they were violated. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2015/06/12/1-in-5-women-say-they-were-violated/
Brewer, G., & Hendrie, C. A. (2011). Evidence to suggest that copulatory vocalization in women are not a reflexive consequence of orgasm. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 40(3), 559–64.
Greenfield, S. F., Back, S. E., Lawson, K., & Brady, K. T. (2010) Substance abuse in women. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(2), 339–55. 
Langer, G., Arnedt, C., & Sussman, D. (2004). The American sex survey: A peek beneath the sheets. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/images/Politics/959a1AmericanSexSurvey.pdf
O’Gorman, P. (2013). The resilient woman: Mastering the seven steps to personal power. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
O’Gorman, P. (2014). The girly thoughts ten-day detox plan: The resilient woman’s guide to saying no to negative self-talk and yes to personal power. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
O’Gorman, P., & Diaz, P. (2012). Healing trauma through self-parenting: The codependency connection. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications. 
Young, K. (2010). How trauma impacts mental health. Retrieved from https://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/how-trauma-impacts-mental-health/