Victims of sexual trauma have learned to associate touch with shame, feeling out of control and danger. They are often left feeling as if they are bad and unlovable; all due to the way a victim will cope with the overwhelming pain of the experience. As victims and partners are educated on the psychological and sexual effects of sexual trauma, this understanding can motivate couples to engage in touching exercises designed to shift the negative associations to positive. These touch exercises are not substitutes for good therapy with an experienced couples counselor; however they will enhance the work you do with the therapist and can be done even on your own without a therapist. However, if while doing any of these exercises, you find yourself getting re-traumatized or having some other adverse reaction, please see a qualified professional for assistance.
Many of these exercises have been taken from the work of Wendy Maltz, LCSW. She has written several excellent books and done some videos that you can easily access on YouTube. (For the sake of writing clarity, I will be writing as if this is a heterosexual married couple where the sexual trauma victim was female. It is understood that these exercises could be done between two people with any sexual combination, straight or LGBTQ, married or unmarried and that victims can most certainly be male).
Exercise # 1:
She places her head on the chest of the husband in bed and rests comfortably there. As she does this, she takes in the kinesthetic and emotional experience of being supported in that way. The husband holds her around her waist or anywhere that is comfortable. Nothing else is asked of her but to receive the loving and reassuring touch. This touch begins re-associating touch with love and safety.
Exercise # 2:
They sit across from each other and as they have the palms of each hand touch the partner, she leads the way making designs in the air as he follows her lead. These designs could be ‘figure eights,’ moving up and down, sideways, diagonally or a mixture. The movements should be slow and their hands must continually touch. The purpose of this exercise is for the trauma survivor to experience leading while touching which is very different than the trauma experience where touch was all about her responding and accommodating to the perpetrator’s needs. She can learn what it feels like to have a sense of control while touching her partner. It might seem corny; however it is simple and powerfully healing for many couples I have used this with who were healing from sexual trauma.
Exercise # 3:
Similar to Exercise # 2, the couple can hold each end of a pencil and she can lead with him following where she goes. He needs to hold his end gently enough so that he can follow her movements easily. The purpose is identical to Exercise # 2 as well.
Exercise # 4:
She draws letters or numbers on his back and he has to guess what she is writing. She can spell out words that he has to guess and they can get very imaginative even beyond that. This is a way to associate touch with playfulness and as some of the other exercises, she is in control, which is far different than the traumatic touching experience she had in her history.
Exercise # 5:
Sensate focus exercises are exercises where one partner caresses the other in non-genital areas for a period of time (usually 5 minutes) and then the partners switch off. Both the person receiving touch and the person giving touch is attending to the sensations in either their hands or the part of the body being caressed. The idea here is that there is no goal of arousal or intercourse. If arousal happens it is incidental to the goal, which is to just enjoy the pleasure of the non-genital physical touching. The couple is practicing touch just for the connection. While doing this exercise the giver of the touch is intentionally coming from a place of love. This focus has a very powerful and healing effect.
Exercise # 6:
The sensate focus exercise of above gradually moves into including genital areas. The sexual trauma victim is always in control and directs where and how she would like to be touched and where and how she would like to touch in areas that can arouse him. The focus always has to remain that the intent is for her to feel safe, empowered and n control.
Exercise # 7:
When she feels more comfortable and ready to explore her sexuality more, she (as above) is the director of the sexual activity. She decides what she would like to do sexually and as long as the partner is comfortable enough with the suggestion, he goes with it. In this exercise, she is continuing to associate sex with safety, control, pleasure and love. This arrangement can go on for as long as it takes for her to stabilize her new mindset towards her sexual self and sexual activity with her partner. As she feels more self-acceptance and less sexual shame and as she becomes more enthusiastic about her sexuality, she can give up some of the control and let her partner direct and initiate as well.
Couples need to find their own way and every couple is different. You can see that the exercises are somewhat in the order of increasing risk and trust. Each exercise builds on the next. Couples do not have to do all the exercises. As I said previously, it is good to do these exercises under the guidance of a couples therapist, especially one such as myself who specializes in sexuality as well as trauma. If it happens to be that both partners were sexual trauma victims, then they each need to take turns in directing the activities There are resources out there as I said and there is hope for couples where one or both partners have been victims of sexual trauma.