Feminist Therapy: ‘Normal’ sexual desire and women’s intergenerational trauma

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. When in doubt, speak to a therapist about these issues — preferably someone who knows you, who you feel safe with, and who 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,

I read an article recently that discussed “intergenerational trauma”. I’m not sure if there is any evidence for it, but as a feminist it got me thinking about what the effects of our current sociopolitical climate could be on future generations. Thoughts?

– J

Dear J,

Thank you for your question — it is such an important one. For readers who haven’t heard of the term before, intergenerational trauma is observed in the descendants of trauma survivors who may have not experienced the trauma themselves. It is commonly known as occurring among the children of the survivors of trauma inflicted on a group of people based on their identity, ethnic, religious, or otherwise. Obvious examples include the children of Holocaust survivors or the family of survivors of residential schools. These effects are often psychosocial.

Unlike other forms of trauma, the effects of intergenerational trauma can be trickier to assess. However, because of research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology — or attachment research — we know that what is going on for parents can often shape their children’s experience of the world, including what they learn fear, what they learn has value, who is safe or unsafe, whether relationships are good or bad, and what it means to be human.

Trauma can be passed down through parents’ non-verbal communication and behaviors. For example, a parent who is coping with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may use substances to self-medicate, impairing their ability to provide a home environment supportive of their child’s ability to thrive psychologically, socially, and physically.

There is fascinating research from 2014 that tells us that there may be more to intergenerational trauma than we currently know. Although humans are not mice, obviously, there is some research that has been conducted on mice which points to there being a biological link to intergenerational trauma.

In the study, mice were exposed to cherry blossom scent, then were administered an intense electrical shock — an example of classical conditioning like in the case of Pavlov’s experiment with dogs. Not surprisingly, later the mice would react with fear when smelling the scent of cherry blossoms. What is incredibly meaningful is that five generations afterwards, the great great great grandchildren of the mice in the original experiment would also react to the smell of cherry blossoms with fear, even though they had never received a shock in conjunction with the smell. While we can’t immediately draw clear conclusions about what this means for humans, it supports the idea that fear and pain could be passed down between generations.

What I like about your question is that you identify that our current sociopolitical climate is likely having a profound effect on many of us. I will never forget what happened November 9, 2016 — Trump’s election victory sent a message about the frightening tolerance in America for racist and misogynistic behavior. While it is different for myself, as a caucasian woman living in Canada, I know that many people living in the USA have had to re-experience a level of daily fear about their safety, well-being, and choice, which is likely experienced as traumatizing.

Based on available definitions of intergenerational trauma, it seems appropriate to acknowledge that certain oppressed and marginalized people groups have experienced particular trauma. But what about other groups? Specifically, what about women?

When our mothers have been raped, and their mothers were told not to speak unless spoken to, or told that they were property of a man, and those are the stories we are told about what it means to be a woman, how does that shape us? Does that count as intergenerational trauma? Will it ever? Will it not count because our diagnostic (including medical and psychological) context often contributes to the oppression and trauma of women?

Regardless of if we define it as trauma or not, our experiences as individuals, as well as the experiences of the women who came before us, craft a story for us about what it means to be a woman. These stories can be painful ones, often shaping our experiences and behaviors without us even knowing it. This is all the more reason for us to examine our lives and work towards our own healing in an effort to first become aware of the story, and then to participate in changing it. But this needs to be done while examining the sociopolitical context for that pain and trauma, and finding ways to work towards a more equitable and just world. But in this, find courage knowing that you are not alone, both in your struggles, and your desire to heal.


Dear Feminist Therapist,

I was spending time with some friends recently and we were talking about sex. They all started telling stories and joking about how they knew they were turned on, sexually, just by looking at someone. I began to realize that this doesn’t happen to me often, and might not have happened to me ever. I haven’t stopped thinking of it since. As a feminist, I work hard not to objectify other people, but am wondering if never getting aroused by looking at someone means there might be something wrong. Is there something wrong with me that I haven’t experienced that?

– R

Dear R,

Although it may not be in relationship to sexual arousal, at some point in our life we have all felt like there might be something wrong with us, which can feel distressing. That distress can become consuming. So I really admire the courage it took to write in, and I’m glad to say that there is NOTHING wrong with you, and there is evidence to prove it.

First, mainstream media has done a notoriously poor job of presenting a healthy version of sexuality — particularly female sexuality. And the truth is that, whether or not we like to admit it, most of us get our primary sex education from media. What has been portrayed is a very untypical sexual response cycle, but one that represents the majority of sexual response for young males. This has lead quite notably to the vast underrepresentation of female pleasure and desire, and what has been presented in terms of women’s sexual response cycle only represents the experiences of a minority of women. I’ll get to that in a moment.

This starts in the late 1960s, when sex researchers Masters and Johnson published their research on human sexual response, which presented four neat and tidy stages of sexual response which were thought to occur in a linear fashion: excitement (or arousal), plateau, orgasm, and resolution. Some of you might remember this from a human sexuality class you took forever ago. The problem with this model  is that it was built on the idea that people are spontaneously aroused — as in, you think of sex (sometimes, seemingly, for no reason) and feel yourself getting aroused. While spontaneous arousal happens for most young men, for many women and older men,arousal is mostly responsive.

Responsive arousal means that the desire to have sex and the physiological cues that go along with that occur after sexual behavior has started. Some women may never experience spontaneous arousal. But, like in so many other spheres of life, women’s experiences have been pathologized or seen as “deficient” in some way, compared to the experiences of men.

Arguments about sex differences have no doubt been used to oppress women, but the research about responsive arousal is one example of how research looking the ways male and female bodies are different has actually led to a greater understanding of how women’s bodies — that don’t function like the typical male bodies portrayed in mainstream media (and pornography) — are, in fact, normal. Unfortunately those are the stories that are not often told. Although the differences in male and female sexual response have been empirically proven, they are not equally applicable to  all people, nor is it possible to tell how much of people’s sexual responses are connected with differing hormonal make-ups, neurological configurations, or gender-role socialization. There is still more research to do on that front.

Further, some women may feel that claiming a feminist identity is their opportunity to unbuckle themselves from years of sexual shame they inherited from their families, culture, and religion, often without even knowing it. Many women may be devastated to find that, while they are now “free” from those old narratives of female sexuality, they still have difficulties with sexual desire and arousal.

Shame does not help, however, and can actually impede sexual arousal. One way to deal with this is to have confidence in yourself, and your sexual response style, by learning more about it.

Take heart in knowing that, no, there is nothing wrong with you. You can have a perfectly healthy, enjoyable, and erotic sex life, but getting aroused might take a little work for you, as well as for most people (including women and older men), than you were once told. For further reading, you might like the book Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski.

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.