Feminist Therapy: When our sexualities are shaped by trauma & misogyny, how can we reclaim our bodies & minds?

feminist therapy*I am a therapist, but I am not your therapist. Therapy, in my opinion, is not just about the information I give, but also about the highly individualized relationship I build with each client, getting to know their unique needs, strengths, and challenges. This column is not meant to substitute individual therapy. And when in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and is equipped to support you exactly as you are.

** All of the questions I received were complex, and profoundly honest. Thank you for your submissions. The questions answered in this month’s column were edited for length and privacy, while attempting to preserve the original question.

Dear Feminist Therapist,

After recently discovering radical feminism, I came to see much more clearly how my sexuality has been shaped by our culture (and, in a way that seems typical for most women my age, became aware of harmful/non-consensual experiences with an ex-boyfriend). One of these effects has been that my sexuality feels less “for me/myself” than for my partner. I also sometimes find myself drawn to submissive fantasies. Given my position as a woman in society, plus sexual trauma in my past relationship, I really don’t want to feed the eroticization of my own submission, and find this pattern disturbing. Although frequent and very honest communication and lots of radfem reading is helping, my outlook on sex needs a complete overhaul.

How can women go about trying retrain their brain/reclaim their sexuality?

– V

Dear V,

I’m so glad you wrote in with this question. Sexuality is a complex thing — as much as we might like to think, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but instead is shaped by our culture, past and current repetitive behaviors, trauma history, power hierarchies in relationships, sense of self, and cognitions. This complexity means there are lots of moving parts when looking at trying to change sexual behavior and fantasy, often leaving people feeling discouraged, at first, when trying to change things.

There are specific processes that occur neurologically when we do something over and over again. This applies to all parts of our lives, from how we brush our teeth, to what we think about during sex. Systems of thought, behavior, and emotion get hardwired in place the more we utilize and reinforce them. Consequently, these systems then become easier and easier to fall into — think of these systems like grooves which form on pathways or roads people have taken for centuries.

The good news is that we have brain plasticity even into adulthood, which means that it’s possible for our brains to change. Time, motivation, and energy are important for making these changes stick. Returning to the “grooves on paths” analogy: It is possible for you to take another path, but if you’re not careful or if you get distracted, you might find yourself taking the old path instead of working hard to do something unfamiliar, challenging, confusing, and oftentimes scary.

As for the trauma piece, sometimes because of what has happened to us, the things we desire sexually can get all mixed up. When something happens with someone we care about (perhaps who has power over us), and it physically and emotionally feels pleasurable, our brain can start to think that it is good. It can even happen in children who are sexually assaulted: because there is an element of the assault which can be physically pleasurable, the victims’ brains and subconscious get confused — how could something so bad feel good?

Research done by Richard Solomon (1980, p 691-712), and later by Bessel van der Kolk and M. Greenberg), shows that painful, terrifying, or dangerous experiences can later become thrilling. This is especially true of certain kinds of sexual abuse. We can become adjusted neurochemically to these kinds of experiences (think repeated trauma in relationship of any kind) and later reenact them (including in fantasies) — evidence that our brain/body system has formed new connections between things which were previously disconnected, like violence and sex, and that we have a new neurochemical baseline. Things which were previously scary can become exciting, and things which were previously safe and exciting can feel boring.

As adults, recognizing these patterns and trying to change them can become very distressing, as it can often feel like the part of you that consciously thinks something is a good idea or not (think of your rational and impulse-controlling frontal lobe saying, “I don’t want to have submissive fantasies, I want to engage in sexual relationships where I am treated as an equal”) can be spontaneously usurped by another part of you (the more primitive part of our brain which links sensory experiences with emotion and stores it as memory, saying, “This happened before and it was exciting and it felt really good”). When an event or experience is intense (and especially if there is also a part of it that feels good), our brain encodes the memory differently, making it really really hard to forget.

This gets more complicated when we remind ourselves that what is expected of us sexually, as women — and what we subsequently participate in — is socially constructed. This adds yet another level of reinforcement. There is empirical evidence that shows we are socialized into gender scripts right from the time we’re born, groomed to play a certain role, and praised and rewarded for doing so. In addition to all to that, we have our own sexual needs and desires; but as women we may feel we have to act a certain way — perhaps performing certain roles which don’t reflect our most authentic desires and values about ourselves. This means that we may, at times, consciously or not, participate in our own oppression as women in order to get our sexual needs met.

When we start to examine our sexuality, sexual experiences, and the patriachal context we exist in, it can begin to feel like a big mess… One that often starts early and is reinforced repeatedly throughout our lives with many or most of our sexual experiences.

Based on what we know about changing our brains, there are a few key things that apply: redirection, focus, reinforcement, and time. Take a break from the behaviors and thoughts you don’t like. If you notice yourself thinking something you don’t want to think (perhaps a submissive fantasy pops into mind), distract yourself and think of something else — if possible even think about what you would like to be able to fantasize about instead. Over time that could create positive associations between what’s happening physiologically for you and what’s happening in your thoughts. When you’re engaging in sexual behavior, try to stay in the moment, feeling what’s happening in your body and paying attention to what feels good and what doesn’t feel good, not thinking about what else is going on, what’s expected of you, what you think is expected of you, or what you used to do. Don’t be surprised if “being in your body” is hard to do. For a lot of women, sex is more about performing pleasure — for themselves and/or for others — than experiencing it.

If you can’t engage in the same behavior without falling back into those same “neurocognitive grooves,” take a break from it for a while. Believe it or not, that will actually help resensitize your brain, almost like pressing reset. This time gap can weaken unwanted associations between things.

Lastly, keep it up — it takes time to undo the patterns that have been around for a long time. Be kind and compassionate with yourself. If you find yourself stuck back in old thoughts and behaviors, don’t beat yourself up — instead remind yourself of your worth and value, and why you’re trying to changes things in first place.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

It’s been almost a year since my parents found out that my sister was gay. They were not accepting at all and she was beaten and scolded and called the most vicious things. Her means of communication were cut off and our family stopped speaking to her. I tried to stand up for her but was called “rotten.” It broke me completely. Then I found out my brother had been watching porn and had contacted prostitutes. I found that my father had been watching lesbian porn as well. This shattered everything inside me. I don’t know what to do. They are my parents and I have to live with them but at the same time I hate them so much for what they have done. I know they have provided me with education through real difficulties but I can’t forget what all of this has done to me. I live with constant fear that they will find out how I actually feel about all this. I constantly dream about leaving about running away, but then feel ungrateful as people face greater difficulties. How can I face this situation?

– Z

Dear Z,

I’m sorry to hear that this is your situation right now. It sounds painful, scary, and confusing.

First, if there is abuse happening in your home, please tell someone you trust. Have them help you make a plan to keep you and your siblings safe, even if that means leaving.

Second, the way your parents treated your sister is not ok. It sounds like you really care about her, and that it may be important for you two to find a way to continue your relationship, as long as it doesn’t endanger you or her. As much as your stories are different, she may be someone who understands what you’re going through more than anyone else could.

Third, I am saddened to hear about the use of pornography in your home. Even though, as feminists, we understand that the oppression of women is all around us, it can still feel shattering when we see that those closest to us are a part of it. There can be grief associated with these discoveries — it is ok to mourn the loss of the person you thought your father and your brother were, and not blame yourself for having believed they were different.

It sounds like it may be difficult to have a voice in the family situation you are in now, especially if there is the possibility of emotional and physical abuse. But, you do have a voice, and you do have the right to talk about what saddens and angers you, even if it’s not safe to do it with them. Finding people who are safe to talk to, who can listen and support you is going to be important. There are lots of good counselling services in every city, and they are always confidential. Having someone who knows more about your situation will help you determine how to stay both safe and well in your life right now, and what might need to change and how.

If you can do it in a way that would not endanger you, journaling can be a great way to work through your feelings and frustrations. For people in situations like yours, I sometimes recommend doing it digitally, encrypting and password-protecting your journals so that no one can stumble upon your most intimate reflections.

It may feel tempting to teach your parents a lesson, but I do not recommend doing anything that could put you in a traumatic situation. There will be lots of time in the future, when you’re no longer living with them, to tell them about how their actions affected you, but that may not be appropriate for a little while (and is also something you can talk more with your counsellor about).

Reminding ourselves that “other people have it worse” is often a way that we keep ourselves stuck in abusive, oppressive, traumatic situations. I don’t know your circumstances, but if you’re hurting, it’s ok to ask for help and look at what can change in your life so that you don’t go on feeling this way. You matter, your story matters, your pain matters. You don’t have to measure it next to anyone else’s to see if it’s “bad enough” for you to be allowed to hurt. If you’re hurting, you’re hurting, and you do not need to also feel guilt about that. Please tell the people in your life that you trust about what’s going on. You do not need to carry this all alone.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

Any good books you would recommend that fit into both categories of Feminism and Psychology?

– H

Dear H,

I must confess, I’m kind of obsessed with reading, and loved putting together this list. Not all of these will be a good fit, but I hope something on this list sparks something inside of you. When picking a book, I often read the description on the back cover and a few pages inside, and then just listen to my gut. I try not to read online reviews, because as much as we like to pretend we aren’t, we are all at least a little biased. Try doing that with some of these, and see what comes up for you — you may be surprised with where your “gut” takes you, and why.

In a Different Voice – Carol Gilligan

Towards a New Psychology of Women – Jean Baker Miller

Revisioning Men’s Lives – Terry Kupers

The Dance of Anger – Harriet Lerner

Women Who Run with the Wolves – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Women’s Sexuality Across the Lifespan – Judith Daniluk

Unbearable Weight – Susan Bordo

The Psychology of the Female Body – Jane Ussher

Lectures on the Psychology of Women – Chrisler, Goldon & Rozee

The Birth of Pleasure – Carol Gilligan

Vagina – Naomi Wolf

Reviving Ophelia – Mary Pipher

My Mother My Self – Nancy Friday

Femininity – Susan Brownmiller

Joining the Resistance – Carol Gilligan

Women’s Experience of Sex – Sheila Kitzinger

You can send your questions for Hillary, our Feminist Therapist, to [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject: “Feminist Therapy,” or tweet her @hillarylmcbride using the hashtag, #feministtherapy. (We will anonymize your questions, unless you specifically ask us to include your name.)

Hillary McBride

Hillary McBride is a registered clinical counsellor working in the Vancouver area. She specializes in women's experiences and feminist therapy. Hillary is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, where she researches women's experiences using feminist methodologies. She is the author of "Mothers, Daughters, and Body Image: Learning to Love Ourselves as We Are" and recently won the International Young Investigator Award in Human Sexuality from Taylor & Francis for her research and clinical work on sexuality in mothers.