Recovering From Sexual Trauma


by Kevin Smith

I, like many men who recover from childhood sexual abuse, began that process by talking to a professional therapist. It took me until I was almost 40 years old until I was ready to talk about it. But once I got started, I couldn’t stop.

I talked and talked and talked. I told my story, several times, dozens of times, a hundred times. I joined a support group with other men who had similar stories, and we talked. And talked. (To be fair, we spent some time breathing, but also to be fair, you really can’t talk without breathing–just try.) I talked to my parents, my family, my friends. I told my story to anyone who would listen to it.

And I kept talking about my experience and telling my story until one day, a voice inside of me said, “ok, enough. Even I am tired of hearing this story. I’m tired of hearing myself talk about this. I’m done talking. I’m talked out. Can we do something about this besides talking it to death?”

Have you ever dated someone where all they wanted to do was talk about The Relationship…you know, “how are WE doing…” “how are you feeling about US….” And you’re thinking,oh dear God, can we just go see a movie? Can we do something other than talk about US?” Well, I got to that point with myself around this topic.

So….what else is there to do besides talk about it, anyway?

I tried my first massage—clinical massage—nothing fancy, nothing erotic, just massage. I interviewed six potential masseurs as though I was examining them for security clearance for the CIA. I chose Matt because he was the only one still writing back after my third lengthy email full of questions.

I took myself to my very first massage with great earnestness as though I was going to a medical procedure. I was absolutely terrified, quivering under the sterile white sheet like a patient waiting for an operation. (Yes, me, Mr. TouchPractice. It’s true.) Matt had to constantly remind me to breathe.

Matt was great; he wasn’t afraid to answer every single question I had. He was so obviously comfortable with every part of my body, yet fastidious in maintaining non-sexual boundaries as though my life depended upon them (it did) and I trusted him deeply because of that. Matt was a huge step forward for me, and I worked with him for a couple of years, very regularly. I became something of a massage junkie.

I laugh now, because in the beginning I approached massage like some sacred healing ritual, and so I would go to massage and lie down on the table as though I was attending my own circumcision. And it was some sacred ritual on some level, but by the end of two years I was bounding into the room like a puppy, tearing off my clothes before Matt could leave the room, refusing to be covered up in sheets like a mummy and loving being naked in my body and getting rubbed. After a couple dozen of them, getting a massage got to be as difficult as wolfing down a piece of pie.

What else is there to do besides talk about it?

Yoga. Until I tried it, I hated the idea of yoga, although it had been suggested to me a dozen times by people who knew better. Yoga was a key to the most powerful part of recovery for me.

I’ve lived most of my life in my head. Because I’ve been a professor virtually all my adult life, I have gotten paid to go up into my head and stay there. For many of us academics, the body consists of a head attached to an unnecessarily complicated life support system. The only reason the lower body, from the neck down, even evolved in the first place was to transport the head from one location to the next.

So there was one yoga class, several weeks after I started, where during the shavasana at the end of the class, as I took a breath and relaxed, I fell out of my head into my belly. It happened in one moment, on a Thursday night. It was like dropping a bowling ball onto a hardwood floor. I fell back into my body, in one moment, a body I hadn’t really visited since I was a little kid, and I have been in my body ever since that moment.

I have done lots of yoga. I’ve done naked yoga. I’ve done partnered yoga. I’ve done partnered naked yoga. I’ve explored tantra. I’ve started to love working out, not because it makes me look a certain way but because it is time I get to spend alone in my body. The experience of falling into my belly in yoga has allowed me to work on recovery from my belly as well as from my brain.

While talking and thinking types of recovery work (cognitive behavioral therapies) are essential, my own wound was not caused by talking or thinking, it was caused by physical touch—the wrong touch at the wrong time. So using physical touch—the right touch at the right time—has been an incredibly powerful tool in my recovery.

I have been able to talk and think my way into feeling better, emotionally, about what happened, but I have had to touch my way back into being in my body again. Ultimately, I think we can talk our way out of problems that we talk our way into. But with problems that we touch our way into (or were involuntarily touched into by others,) well, at some point, I think we just have to start touching our way back out.

Once I started to love spending time in my body, not just my mind, I began to explore, in great detail, the sensations of being in this body. And the body I became particularly drawn to is my 13- or 14-year-old body, what I have come to call “puppy body.” If you think about puppies, they gets lots of contact and touch and affection without any of it being about sex, and that’s a place I began to explore and to crave.

Those explorations led to the discovery of what I now call Touch Practice, a ritualized form of creating safe explorations with others.  Touch Practice, although I didn’t call it that or recognize it at the time, was also a piece of my recovery, and it served me well.  And as is true with many things in life, the places where we have the most vivid experiences of learning or healing, where we experience profound growth or change, often later become the places from which we teach, share what we have learned, and help others.

For those of you recovering from childhood sexual abuse, talking with a professional therapist skilled in the area of abuse is a great place to start. And for those of you who are “talked out,” speak with your therapist about non-verbal, tactile ways of moving forward. Getting a massage may be a next step. Don’t be shy about asking lots of questions, finding just the right touch therapist, and being honest with him or her about why you’re there and what your hopes and fears are.

There are lots of organizations and resources dedicated to men recovering from childhood sexual abuse. MaleSurvivorOprah, and Howard Fradkin are but a few of many providing ways for men to move forward.