It is neither pleasant nor comfortable to discuss sexual abuse and assault. Like so much of the darkness in our world, it all too often hides in the shadows. We may not speak of it, but we can be certain sexual abuse and assault play a role in the lives of those around us.
April is National Sexual Assault Awareness month.
So we refuse to be silent. We drag the ugliness into the light - weakening its power by speaking of it, acknowledging it, and addressing it.
Sexual trauma is far more prevalent than we want to admit. Though we don’t know the actual numbers, as many survivors never come forward, shackled by silence and shame, these numbers give us a sense of the prevalence of sexual trauma in our society today:
- Nearly one in five women in America say they have been sexually assaulted.
- One in five girls are victims of childhood sexual abuse.
- One in six women in America are victims of rape or attempted rape.
- 15% of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12
With how common sexual abuse is, it is essential that we encourage and facilitate safe environments for conversation, support, and healing, especially during pregnancy.
Today we focus on the effects sexual assault and sexual abuse may have on pregnancy and birth. Whether it was an isolated incident or years of abuse, whether you were a child or an adult, if you are pregnant and sexual abuse exists in your past, it is important that you recognize how it may affect your labor and birth…
Sexual Trauma and Its Effects on Childbirth
The simple reality that both sexual abuse and childbirth may involve the same areas of the body can affect a woman’s ability to trust the birthing process. Survivors may experience flashbacks or intense physiological symptoms of anxiety and post traumatic stress. If the abuse occurred in the woman’s childhood, some of these memories may be repressed and this intense reaction may surprise or frighten her.
If survivors of abuse or assault find themselves in positions that remind them of their abuse, they may experience a flood of adrenaline, causing labor to slow or stall all together.
Perception of Being Out of Control
The underlying nature of birth requires surrender to the birthing process. In many ways, women must release control to facilitate birth. For women who have experienced sexual trauma, there may be an underlying fear of not being in control of their body.
Feeling Helpless to Defend One’s Wishes with a Care Provider
Because survivors can sometimes feel like they don’t own their bodies or don’t have the power to make decisions about their bodies, interactions with care providers can often be challenging. Women with a history of trauma may find themselves either losing their voice or fighting with their provider.
Unsure of Who to Trust
If sexual abuse occurred in the survivor’s childhood, there is a 93% probability their attacker was someone known to them. As a result, many survivors may find themselves unsure of who can be trusted - they may feel especially vulnerable with male care providers and other authority figures.
Dissociation vs. Labor Land
In the birth world, we lovingly refer to the birthing zone as a mystical, beautiful, primal world birthing mothers often find themselves in as they move through active labor. This state is often peaceful and indicative of mom trusting her body and the birthing process. This is very different than dissociation, a coping mechanism survivors of trauma often utilize in stressful, threatening situations. Instead of embracing and releasing themselves to the birthing process, women who are disengaging with the process through dissociation may ultimately feel unsafe because they’re not fully present during a really intense time.
Words and Phrases
Depending on the abuse, specific words or phrases can easily trigger flashbacks and memories. While I initially included a list of potential “trigger phrases”, after seeking professional counsel and editing of this article, I removed these phrases so as to avoid potentially triggering any negative memories or experiences for our readers. If you are supporting someone with a history of sexual abuse, please feel free to reach out to me if you would like a list of potentially sensitive phrases.
Childbirth as a Tool for Healing
What if it was possible to not only avoid post traumatic stress during labor, but also utilize labor as a tool of healing from past trauma?
There are some practical strategies that may not only help alleviate the potentially triggering stress of labor, but also help empower birthing survivors to heal.
Healing Introspection with a Professional
Seeking professional counseling is, perhaps, one of the most powerful assets pregnant survivors can use to help gain insight into their past and prepare for their birth.
Find a Care Provider that Understands
Though it is important for all women to partner with care providers that align with their values, it is vital for pregnant survivors to find care providers that will help them in their healing process. Even if a woman hasn’t disclosed her history to her provider, being treated with respect and autonomy can make a big difference.
Even more important than for the average birthing mother, it is essential that survivors birth somewhere that feels safe to them, with people that understand and support their vision for labor birth.
“Practice” for Birth by Watching Empowering Birth Videos
Especially for survivors who experienced childhood abuse and may have repressed memories of their abuse,, watching positive, empowering birth videos can provide a safe space before labor in case flashbacks or memories arise.
If you or someone you love has experienced sexual trauma, there is hope - hope for healing and hope for transformation.
My sincerest thanks go out to the professionals that provided me with insight and wisdom in my compiling this article. Specifically I would like to thank Amanda Baker, a Licensed Certified Social Worker, doula, and birth educator. Her focused expertise in this area provided me with valuable wisdom as I composed this article. If you would like to reach out to her or learn more about the services she provides couples and individuals, you can find her page here.
I would also like to thank Selena Shelley, Colorado-based psychotherapist and doula, who specializes in supporting women with a history of sexual abuse. Selena provided me with strong editing support and insight into the world of sexual abuse and counseling. If you would like to reach out to Selena or get more information on the incredibly valuable services she provides Survivors, you can find her website here.
Tomorrow we are featuring excerpts from an interview I recently conducted with Selena, as well as an anonymous interview I conducted with a survivor of sexual abuse.