What Is Somatic Sex Education? Inside the New Form of Therapy That Helps Survivors Heal
Trigger warning for mentions of rape and sexual assault. Six years ago, some friends took me out to our local dive bar for my 30th birthday. The night was supposed to be fun-filled and joyous. What happened next is a bit hazy, thanks to a drink spiked with the date-rape drug known as GHB. From what I can vaguely piece together, though, three men persuaded me to follow them in a cab to a condo downtown. The next thing I remember is fighting them off as I was raped.
Admitting to myself that I was raped in the first place was a hard thing to do, and the whole host of emotions and trauma it opened up for me soon became overwhelming to deal with. Without the help of a therapist, I would not have been able to put a name to the experience. But it took also working with a somatic sex educator to fully realize and work through the trauma left in my body.
Seeking Help to Heal Through Somatic Sex EducationWhen I finally acknowledged what had happened to me, nothing felt safe anymore. The trauma had burrowed itself deep within my skin and my feelings were insurmountable — sometimes unspeakable. Soon, I learned my response was not unusual. “A survivor can experience everything from shock, to denial, to bargaining, to anger, finally to acceptance, then back to denial. Trauma is fickle, and can often be unpredictable,” shares Brooke Bagley, a clinical supervisor and therapist.
I hoped by visiting with a somatic sex educator I could reclaim part of my sexual being. While I had loved sex prior to my rape, the physical, emotional, and psychological aspects that came along with the act of sex were already difficult to deal with sometimes. For me, sex became a much more complex act as I had to figure out how to reconnect with my body. I felt like I needed a way to work through the trauma and get back to a place where I could enjoy sex once again.
Not Your Typical Therapy SessionOnce I knew I needed something beyond my regular therapy sessions, I started doing some research. That's how I found somatic sex education, which is a cognitive-behavioral method for relieving sexual dysfunction.
Somatic sex educators provide bodywork which focuses on one-way, hands-on touch that occurs while both parties are fully clothed. Amanda Wattie, a somatic sex educator, shares with Allure that the distinction between sex therapy and somatic sex education is that sex therapy discusses possibilities in the theory while somatic sex education experiments with those possibilities in the flesh.
For clients who are working through particularly traumatic events in their lives, it can be transformative to re-discover and find a healthy relationship with their bodies, and/or to find a healthy relationship with their sexuality through body-based exercises.
Bodywork, Boundaries, and Other BasicsWhen I booked my first appointment with a somatic sex educator, I was entirely unsure of what to expect. I had done research online but still felt unprepared and hesitant. A wave of anxiety hit me. Online and through my writing, I identified as a fat and self-confident woman, but inside, I felt incredibly isolated and alone. I hoped by visiting with a somatic sex educator I could somehow reclaim some part of my sexual being.
With the support of my partner, I decided to visit educator Caitlin K. Roberts, a certified holistic sex educator. She welcomed me into her studio with a cup of tea and walked me through a few activities to break the ice, including Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent, which teaches clients to ask themselves two questions. The first: "How do you want me to touch you?" The second: "How do you want to touch me?"
BETTY MARTIN Wattie explains that the Wheel of Consent is a useful place to start with clients, saying, “It is a place where people can learn to have awareness of the body in all areas of life and in every step of an interaction.” While not all somatic sex educators use it in their practice, Wattie tells Allure that many do and list it as part of their training. Many sessions include re-teaching clients about boundaries and learning to re-awaken their sensual selves.
In fact, all of my appointments with Roberts started with the Wheel of Consent, and we discussed that when it came to any kind of future touch in my life, I had the power to negotiate who was “doing” the action and ask who the touch was really for. Until I had enrolled in somatic sex education, I had never really thought about consent in this way.
Sessions with somatic sex educators can explore subjects such as body awareness (which helps teach people how to actually be present in their bodies and notice sensations in their bodies), boundary setting (which includes learning Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent and learning how to say no), massage, and basic communication. There’s also erotic trance, which Wattie explains to Allure means helping support clients while they have sexual experiences in a pleasure container. She elaborates, “Erotic trance is about dropping into a sexual experience where the world might drop away, complete immersion. Sometimes people have 'crygasms,' or 'laughgasms.' But they are so deep in their experience, and not anywhere else.” Educators can also do other body-based teachings, but typically these are some of the first things they will work through with their clients.
Working Through the Trauma For many people who are dealing with sexual trauma, Bagley shares they often turn to what can be viewed as an alternative form of sexual therapy. In Bagley’s own practice, she says, “[I] often incorporate mind and body connection interventions through the practice of mindfulness with my clients, as many clients will experience sexual difficulties as a result of their trauma.”
Wattie tells Allure that she tries to guide her clients toward authenticity and asks that they enter into sessions with an open heart and open mind. She explains, “It’s really getting clients to feel what’s right for them at the time. What I want them to know is that I am there to take a stand for them, but they need to have the life they want to have.” While the focus is often on re-awakening a client's sensual self at their own pace, clients also learn to process shame, fear, and grief, if and when they arise.
I felt something inside of me beginning to heal during those sessions, and it felt electric and exciting.Farzana Doctor, a registered social worker and psychotherapist, believes that the strength of somatic-based work helps people integrate and move feelings through the body. “One thing that happens for a lot of people who experience trauma is they disassociate, so to be able to make the link between mind and body can be very powerful,” she explains to Allure.
My Experience With Somatic Sex EducationWhen I started my journey into somatic sex education, I felt entirely disconnected from my body, and although I was living and breathing every day in my body, it felt like I was stuck inside a carrier. I needed help relearning how to process the sexual joy I once had, from the inside out. Wattie notes that this is not unusual, and tells me that many clients who first come to her know that they want more, but can’t yet verbalize what they mean by that.
I ended up being enrolled in somatic sex education sessions for a month. I found my time with my educator enlightening and transformative and felt the heaviness slowly lift from me with every session we had. Together, Roberts and I laid some very important groundwork toward my personal realization that yes, my body is my own and I can own the feeling of pleasure once again. I felt something inside of me beginning to heal during those sessions, and it felt electric and exciting. I was no longer trapped inside of my own body — rather, I felt as if I was being introduced to it in a whole new way.
In fact, it's a feeling of lightness I only wish more people could have. Now that’s there’s a framework to help those who’ve experienced trauma begin reconnecting with their bodies, it's the hope of somatic sex educators that more survivors, just like me, will experience healing. If you're a survivor of sexual assault and looking for resources, you can call RAINN at (800) 656-HOPE (4673). You'll be connected with a trained staff member from a local sexual assault service provider and given access to a wide range of free services. You're not alone.