Since the #MeToo movement gained national attention in 2017, mainstream media has been filled with stories of sexual assault and abuse — and the powerful men who inflict that abuse. But we’ve heard little about the true impact on survivors and even less about ways to cope. And while many of the most prominent survivors in the movement are straight, white, and famous, marginalized people are much more likely to endure sexual abuse. Women of color, queer women, trans women, and those living at the intersections are all more likely to experience sexual abuse and assault. So as we continue to find ways to change a culture that’s overly permissive of abuse, survivors and their loved ones must face an equally complex problem: how to heal.
Women who work in mental health, engineering, and design, many of whom are survivors, are creating tools to help other survivors heal. Wendy Maltz, LCSW, who has worked as a sex therapist since 1986, is among the medical professionals looking to address the specific mental health needs of sexual assault and abuse survivors. Shortly after she began her work, she noticed that many standard sex therapy exercises were too physically intense for some of her clients, and that these clients all had something in common — they were survivors of sexual assault. She decided to develop a series of healing exercises, working in part from her own experience as a survivor. In 1991, when conversations around sexuality and sexual assault were far more taboo than they are even today, she published the first edition of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Abuse. “A lot of times people don’t see that word, ‘sex,’ in sexual abuse,” she says. “But it’s abuse done to a person’s sexuality. And because it’s of a sexual nature, it has a sexual impact.”
Breathing, Relaxing, Communicating
Many sexual assault survivors experience dissociation, or a sense of detachment, especially during intimate situations, as both an effect of their assault and a coping mechanism. Many of Maltz’s exercises are intended to help survivors relax and remain present in intimate situations, instead of dissociating. She prescribes a series of exercises called “Relearning Touch” that include simple physical games that survivors can play with their partners. For example, a person can make up a hand clapping pattern and teach it to their partner. In this exercise, it is always the survivor who creates and teaches the pattern — this shows them that they’re able to choose how they’d like to touch and communicate about touch to their partner. It also helps patients to stay present in the moment while physically interacting with their partners, and to relearn a sense of play during a physical interaction.
“You’d be surprised — some people, they had the hardest time doing that,” says Maltz, adding that this might even be true of partners who are still sexual with one another. “It’s different to be in your body and not dissociated — and really present and really connected to the other person.” Maltz says that she even encourages clients to invent their own exercises, but she does have specific criteria to figure out if the exercises are working: “Were you able to breathe? How well did you stay relaxed? Were you able to communicate your needs and feelings? Were you able to stay present? How well were you able to stay present? And did you feel you could express affection or receive affection through touch and have fun?”
Healing by Design
Nienke Helder, a Netherlands-based designer with engineering experience, is also a survivor. She’s working to create a series of tools specifically for survivors. According to her website, the tools are intended to help users overcome painful intercourse, shame, problems with penetration, and difficulty with getting in the ‘mood’ or orgasms. The tools her team is developing are intended to be used outside a clinical environment and help users become more connected to their bodies.
Helder is taking her time to get the tools right. Before starting to build her objects, she says, “I discussed a lot of different steps in the process. I made a problem analysis and started sketching and prototyping from there. I made hundreds of shape and color studies, and finally I had a design of the set as a concept,” she says. She originally presented prototypes at 2017’s Dutch Design Week but still is working with various experts — including a team of business coaches and the innovation department at Radboud University — to perfect the final product.
The set includes a brush to help users experience sensory touch, a mirror with a light to help them examine their bodies, and a pelvic floor sensor intended to help them relax their pelvic muscles. Helder was careful to design objects that would specifically address the needs of survivors, both psychological and physical, but she admits that they might not suit everyone. “I tried to design tools that function as guidelines, so everyone can be free to explore their own process. But actually, I think it would be great if there are more product options focusing on this problem. I don’t believe my work will be a solution to everyone. But I do hope that these objects inspire other people to start offering other options,” she says.
Maltz encourages her own clients to re-explore sensuality and touch using physical objects, but she has them simply choose objects from their own home. She calls this exercise “sensory basket”: “You just get a collection of different objects, and it could be like an orange or a feather or a scented candle … things that you find kind of sensually pleasing to touch, you know, a carved piece of wood. And you just spend some time — five minutes or something — sitting in a calm way and interacting one by one with these different objects, where the focus is on staying present, breathing comfortably, relaxing, focusing on the sensations and all your senses. Like what does it smell like? What does it feel like to touch? Does it make a sound? How does it move?”
Tools for Survivors and Beyond
Melanie Cristol, the creator of Lorals — which are essentially underwear made out of material similar to a dental dam — said that when she first came up with her concept, she was thinking about prevention of sexually transmitted infections more than assault. She wanted to create an alternative to dental dams — which help make vaginal oral sex safer — that people would actually use. Once she began designing the product and talking to women who would potentially use it, she realized that it could help survivors as well. Some women had “been through sexual trauma, and oral sex felt too intimate.” Once women started using Lorals, she says she heard that the product helped “decrease the intensity of having someone’s face so close to their body, and Lorals have served as an emotional barrier so that they’re able to feel the sensations with less of the physicality that can be triggering.”
Reclaiming Sexual Experience
There aren’t many tools yet available to help sexual assault and abuse survivors recover from their trauma. But those that do exist and are in development have a few common goals: helping users stay present during sensual and sexual experiences, and helping them feel a sense of control over their environment and their own bodies. As designers and medical professionals continue to explore ways to help survivors heal, we can begin to understand their needs more deeply.