The Importance of Being Trauma Informed for Sexuality Professionals

The Importance of Being Trauma Informed for Sexuality Professionals September 24, 2016

In this third and final installment of my Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit 2016 panel summary posts, I’ll share some information from a panel on trauma, which is a topic near and dear to my heart.

Photo by averie woodard from Unsplash.
Photo by averie woodard from Unsplash.

Though there were originally going to be more presenters, sex educator Ashley Manta did a fantastic job on her own. She created a space that felt very safe, and made sure everyone in the audience knew that we were free – even encouraged – to do self-care at any time. Hell, she provided us with individual packets of Play-Doh so we’d have something tactile to engage with in case we needed to be more in our bodies. There was kinetic sand, too!

Why am I going into the details about Play-Doh? (other than that it  was pretty funny watching serious sex educators make theirs into mustaches and similarly amusing things) Because, as Ashley pointed out, choice is one of the most important things we can give to the people we serve. Empowering people through choice is the path to healing.

One of the main things Ashley emphasized is that trauma  can occur  anywhere, to anyone, at any time. Trauma impacts individuals as well as whole communities. Here, we’re using the definition of trauma as one or more experiences that overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope, thus flooding their system, and often leading to feelings of helplessness and loss of control. And a traumatic stressor is defined as the direct experience of a traumatic event (on a personal or cultural level, so anything from natural disasters to abuse), as well as witnessed events, including videos on social media, or learning about such events more generally.

Trauma resilience usually results from coming from an emotionally healthy family of origin, having a support network, and having a toolbox filled with exercises that help you ground and stay in the moment. All these things can help you cope when life dumps trauma in your lap.

See also: Take-homes from the AASECT Winter Institute on Trauma

For those of us who are professionals, it’s important to be trauma-aware. This means being aware of trauma without fixating on it. How we respond when others tell us about their trauma matters, and may impact them as well as our relationships with them in the future. A helpful response includes elements of:

  • Thank you for telling me
  • I’m honored/grateful that you trust me
  • How can I help you, now or moving forward?
  • Meeting the person where they’re at/not having an agenda
  • Saying “I imagine that was…” instead of “That must have been…”

It’s important to avoid being prescriptive, because the fact of the matter is that you don’t know exactly what they’re going through, since people process trauma differently. Reacting with “OMG, I’m so sorry!!!” and making it into a huge sympathetic thing may not be what a person needs in that moment. Similarly, don’t ascribe meanings or emotions where you’re not sure they exist. In most cases, you are not a detective or therapist, so don’t act like one.

There was more information – for instance, we got into the autonomic nervous system and how trauma affects it – but I’ll wrap this post up here, noting that I’ve already made a post sharing Ashley’s list of evidence-based tools for self-care.

If you want to see the livestream of the Twitter crowd’s response to the session, check out #SFSTrauma.

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