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  • Writer's pictureDevin Olivia Barton-Torres

Beyond Stigma, Shame, & Trauma: Cultivating Sexual Wellness & Healing

Updated: Jan 3

An open, peeled orange on a black sheet.

Sexual wellness is the overall well-being and positive relationship with sexuality and sexual experiences. It includes a variety of aspects such as physical, emotional, mental, and social dimensions. Sexual wellness cultivates healthy, respectful, and satisfying sexual experiences. Consent, communication, and care are foundational to healthy sexual experiences. These provide safe parameters for people to establish boundaries, communicate their needs, and engage in safer sex practices. Sexual wellness promotes safety, pleasure, satisfaction, and personal growth while prioritizing the safety and autonomy of all people involved.

The culture of shamed sexuality surrounding us makes it difficult to cultivate genuine sexual wellness for a variety of reasons. Among these are:

  • A lack of resources for sexual health.

  • Limited accessibility for sexual health resources.

  • Social stigma regarding sexuality, particularly among Queer, non-monogamous, and kinky people.

  • Lack of support and justice for victims of sexual abuse and violence.

Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. Sexual wellness supports:

Physical health

Healthy and pleasurable sexual experiences contribute to physical health not only through the physical nature of sex, but also by releasing hormones that support your health. Sex releases endorphins that improves sleep, strengthens the immune systems, and promotes cardiovascular health.

Emotional health

Sexual wellness supports improved self-esteem, confidence and body image. It also fosters feelings of intimacy, joy, and connection which are critical to overall emotional health and life satisfaction.

Relationship satisfaction

Healthy and satisfying relationships have a strong foundation of sexual wellness. It supports open and authentic communication, emotional intimacy, trust, and connection between partners. Openness to talking about sexual desires, fears, and curiosities brings partners closer together and supports strengthening all areas of the relationship.

Self-exploration and acceptance

Sexual wellness encourages people to engage in self-exploration and discovery that promotes an increased sense of self-acceptance. Understanding and embracing your boundaries, desires, preferences, and curiosities develops a positive and empowered sense of self. Sexual wellness can help heal sexual trauma, wounds, and internalized sexual shame by reducing the judgment and stigma associated with your own sexuality.

Breaking free from these constraints is essential for embracing sexual wellness and self-acceptance. Increasing your knowledge and understanding of sexuality, establishing and honoring the boundaries you have regarding sex, and embracing sex as an opportunity to connect with yourself and others beyond a physical level are powerful ways to cultivate lifelong sexual wellness.

Get Educated About Sexuality

Comprehensive sexual education is crucial for debunking myths about sex and human sexuality. Medically accurate sexual education promotes healthy attitudes towards sexuality, develops skills for consensual and positive sexual experiences, and connects people with affirming care and resources. It can feel overwhelming to seek out knowledge about sex with the abundance of information available. Some good starting points are:

  • Sign up for a comprehensive education program hosted by a trained expert.

  • Reading books and articles based on medically-accurate information and research.

  • Connecting with online or in-person groups involved in sexual education and advocacy.

  • Speaking with your healthcare provider or therapist about your specific needs.

  • Attending educational workshops or programs.

  • Listening to podcasts and following blogs by experts, educators, and advocates.

  • Watching documentaries, Ted Talks, or other free resources by experts and educators.

It’s important to connect with a range of resources and practice critical thinking regarding all the information you consume. Building a community of friends that are also on a journey of cultivating sexual wellness can help you feel supported, validated, and cared for on this journey.

Prioritize Consent

Consent and boundaries are essential components of healthy sexual experiences. A culture of consent creates healthier and more fulfilling sexual interactions. It promotes open communication, healthy boundaries. Consent is an ongoing practice that creates a safe environment for all people involved. Here are some ways to create a continuous consent practice as you develop holistic sexual wellness:

  • Clear communication.

  • Active listening.

  • Mutual agreement.

  • Communicating and honoring boundaries.

  • Paying attention to non-verbal cues.

  • Asking for explicit permission, particularly with new partners and activities.

  • Sharing important information regarding sexually transmitted infections (STI’s).

  • Sharing important information about relationship status that impacts new potential partners.

Connect with Sex Beyond a Physical Level

Sex provides the opportunity for emotional, social, and spiritual connection and intimacy in addition to the physical connection and benefits people are most familiar with. It’s a way of expressing emotions we may not have words for, of seeking comfort and care from another person or providing it to them. Sex is a vulnerable act that allows people to build connection, intimacy, and trust. It supports people in relationships in not only sustaining, but deepening love, affection, and closeness. People strengthen social connections, their sense of belonging, and their sense of safety within a relationship when sex is consensual and caring. It provides shared pleasure. It’s an opportunity to rewrite painful associations when done within a safe and caring context.

Sex can also increase people’s sense of presence and mindfulness when we engage in it with thoughtfulness and intentionality. The pleasure, connection, vulnerability, and intimacy involved can cultivate a sense of spiritual connection, not only with our partner but deep within ourselves. Sex, whether partnered or alone, connects us with the type of stimulation and emotional mindset that allows our bodies to experience profound pleasure, and to even transcend the physical world when the mind is fully engaged.

Creating a space for our bodies, minds, and hearts to connect with pleasure is a powerful way of cultivating deep healing and personal growth. It teaches us to center pleasure and joy in our lives. It reinforces that bodies aren’t simple vehicles for labor, but they are vessels that can carry us to the greatest heights of pleasure and ecstasy. Explore practices such as mindfulness, stress reduction, and self-pleasure to cultivate a deeper connection with oneself. The process of learning to advocate for what sexual experiences we want, say no to those we don’t want, and center consent and safety is a powerful journey in learning our own body, heart, mind, and spirit at a deep, fundamental level.

While the initial traumatic experiences cannot be removed from the mind or the body, they can lessen the impact on the survivor when the brain has healing and empowering experiences to integrate.

Create Sexual Experiences that Heal and Connect

Developing sexual identities and having sexual experiences in a society built on shame and stigma results in a variety of sexual traumas that affect most, if not all, people to some degree. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over half of all women and an estimated 1 in 3 men have experienced some form of sexual violence involving physical contact in their lifetime. Sexual violence and abuse are pervasive in our society. Social messages teach us sex is inherently shameful, and this is particularly true for people engaging in sexual relationships and activities outside the context of cis-heteronormative relationship dynamics. The cumulative effect of sexual shame, harassment, and violence results in complicated sexual dynamics that can be challenging to heal from.

Research on neural pathways and sexuality provides valuable insights that can inform how we heal from sexual trauma. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and adapt through a person’s life. Essentially, it’s the brain’s ability to reorganize neural connections to modify existing pathways and create new ones. Sexual trauma disrupts the normal functioning of the brain, overriding it with trauma responses intended to keep the person safe. Various therapeutic modalities support this process in targeted and strategic ways so people can reshape their neural pathways that have been developed from trauma into healthier responses.

Sex is a powerful mind-body connection that can reshape these neural pathways. When experiences are traumatic, they become pathways that strengthen trauma responses to keep the person safe. When these experiences are safe, consensual, and caring, pathways they give the brain new sensory information and memories that can override traumatic associations. These become empowering sexual experiences that can rewrite neural associations with similar sensory data and memories based on traumatic experiences.

While the initial traumatic experiences cannot be removed from the mind or the body, they can lessen the impact on the survivor when the brain has healing and empowering experiences to integrate. Building new neural pathways is a powerful way to reclaim agency over your body, heart, mind, and spirit. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, some of the most profound healing experiences have occurred by experiencing a breadth of consensual, beautiful, and empowering sexual experiences. They have provided the opportunity to advocate for my needs in a way sexual violence threatened to destroy. They have empowered me to trust my own judgment and instincts in choosing sexual partners. They have reduced the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and made room from Post Traumatic Growth in ways I could never imagine. Sexual wellness, empowerment, and healing is possible for everyone and it’s a journey you can take with a safe and loving community to support you.

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