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  • Getting Massage After Sexual Assault

    massage the feetI know I tend toward the lighter side of topics, even when I’m being totally serious, but there is no light side to sexual assault. The term sexual assault is a broad term used to encompass both completed and attempted rape as well as groping, fondling, or any other form of unwanted sexual contact. It’s a weighty, highly charged topic that is often ignored or neglected out of fear or ignorance, but it needs to be addressed.

    First the good news: Sexual assault has fallen by more than 50% since 1993. Now the Bad news: Currently, about 18% of women and 3% of men will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in their lifetime. That is still too high. (For more statistics check out the RAINN website)

    The Effects of Sexual Assault

    When I was in college the rate for rape and attempted rape in women was around 40%! And that’s just the ones who reported it. We may never know the actual rates because so many people don’t report their assault, no matter the type. Regardless of the “severity” of the crime or whether it was reported, the possible mental, emotional, and physical repercussions are the same:

    • Anxiety
    • Fear
    • Depression
    • Anger
    • Increased vulnerability
    • Increased stress
    • Lowered trust
    • Touch aversion
    • Relationship difficulties
    • Mood swings
    • Phobias
    • Panic attacks
    • Feeling helpless
    • Pregnancy
    • Sexually Transmitted Infections
    • Bruising
    • Bleeding
    • Abrasions
    • Broken bones
    • Shame
    • Guilt
    • Denial
    • Minimizing
    • Blame
    • Shock
    • Numbness
    • Flashbacks
    • Dissociation
    • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    • Self-harm
    • Substance Abuse
    • Eating disorders
    • Sleep disorders
    • Suicide

    For more in-depth information about the effects of sexual assault visit these websites: Joyful Heart Foundation, Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, RAINN

    What Does This Have to do With Massage?

    Although the current numbers for sexual assault come in around 20% for all adults, the actual number of survivors is quite a bit higher. Remember, the numbers have only been falling since 1993; prior to that the numbers were up around 40%, but those numbers are statistical estimates and rely on victims reporting the crime to police or to researchers in an annual survey. Some victims minimize the crime that happened to them and may not give accurate information, or may even deny an assault occurred.

    Sexual assault brings with it a whole host of physical, mental, and emotional effects that will affect someone’s desire or ability to get massage. Why is it a big deal if a few less people get massage? Because safe touch is a necessary part of a healthy life; vulnerable populations like babies and the elderly die without it. For some people, (many more than share it with me, I’m sure) massage is the only form of touch they get.

    Benefits of Massage After Sexual Assault

    Below is a list of emotional, mental, and physical benefits of massage that overlap the list of effects of sexual assault*:

    • Lowered anxiety
    • Lowered depression
    • Lessens anger response
    • Positive touch experience
    • Releases stored physical, mental, and emotional trauma in the body
    • Regulation of nervous system
    • Stress relief/relaxation
    • Emotional regulation
    • Increase mindfulness
    • Grief work
    • Create new neural pathways in your brain by releasing old muscle/emotional habits and patterns
    • Increased body awareness
    • Increased self-awareness
    • Better sleep
    • Reduce PTSD

    *Good Therapy has a great article on the psychological benefits of massage, and I got a few of the benefits on this list from them.

    The trust and touch issues associated with sexual assault often keep people from getting massage when it would greatly benefit them. But that doesn’t have to be the case. There are safe ways to get the positive touch benefits of massage that will help counteract the stress of daily life, the stress and myriad emotional effects of the assault, and the physical aches and pains associated with everyday activities as well as those of stored trauma.

    Things to remember when getting a massage (whether you’re a sexual assault survivor or not):

    • You never, ever need to get naked – run away if a therapist tells you otherwise
    • You never, ever need to take off any piece of clothing that you don’t want to
    • You can stay fully clothed, including your shoes if that makes you feel the most comfortable
    • You can request focus to specific areas of your body
    • You can request that the therapist avoid certain areas of your body, especially if the assault has made you touch averse in those areas and/or touching those areas would retraumatize you
    • You can request that the therapist spend the entire session on one area of your body like your  head, hands, or your feet to help get you used to their touch in a way that is not threatening or traumatizing to you
    • You never need to go through with a massage if the therapist makes you uncomfortable in any way
    • You never need to tell your massage therapist about your assault…unless you want to
    • If you decide to tell your therapist about your assault, or that you have some touch aversion or trust issues, take note of their reaction. If the therapist blames, shames, or says or does anything negative, you should leave. Do not let them retraumatize you.
    • A massage therapist works on your soft tissue. It is outside their scope of practice to offer mental health counseling. If you need the help of a counselor look for a psychologist or LMSW (Licensed Master Social Worker) therapist. They have extensive training in diagnosing and treating emotional and mental health issues.
    • If you suspect you have PTSD go see a therapist who specializes in trauma – massage can be a wonderful complement to therapy but is a poor substitute for it
      • If you have an addiction issue resulting from the assault, find a therapist who is an addiction specialist
      • If you have both PTSD and addiction issues, please find a therapist with advanced or specialty training in both trauma and addictions
    • At this point there is no official designation of “Trauma Informed Massage Therapy” but some therapists have extensive experience working with people with PTSD. There are also many therapists out there who have spent countless hours doing their own research into trauma, and those who’ve experienced the trauma of sexual assault themselves.
    • It’s OK to ask a prospective massage therapist about their experience working with trauma survivors. In fact, you should.

    If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, you have an uphill battle ahead of you and you can’t do it alone. I recommend finding a good counselor or mental health therapist. I also recommend massage therapy when you’re ready. If you’re having flashbacks or extreme touch aversion, massage is best done in conjunction with your mental health professional.