Many of us grew up in religious traditions that held toxic views of sexuality, sex, gender, and romantic relationships. And our backgrounds have influenced our perspectives in ways that we might not even realize. They also can lead to a subtle form of trauma called Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS).
Krista Wilson, a licensed professional counselor working in Chicago, knows all about it. She was a pastor’s kid whose initial career centered around church ministry in the conservative Evangelical tradition. “My lived experience makes me incredibly passionate about my work and walking with others through this healing process.”
Krista Wilson is currently developing an online community for the treatment of RTS and the effects of Purity Culture called Existence Therapy.
While much of Krista’s personal work centers around folks who grew up in a conservative Christian background, people of any conservative religious upbringing can supper from RTS and may find her insights useful.
Jera: What is religious trauma syndrome and how does it often impact people’s romantic relationships and sex lives?
Krista: Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS) is a subtype of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that is common to those exposed, especially in childhood, to fundamentalist thinking. Fundamentalist thinking is characterized as all-or-nothing, us vs. them, and is motivated by shame and fear. This thinking often results in the idea that there is one “correct” way of being and that differing options are ignorant and lead to the destruction of the self, others, and the world at large. RTS has many symptoms and presentations, but at its core, it messes with very important stages of the development of the self (for more see https://journeyfree.org/rts/). Based on the work of psychologist Erik Erikson, early development would hopefully result in self-trust, autonomy, and a sense of initiative. Instead, those with RTS often experience mistrust of the intuition, self-doubt, shame, guilt, and difficulty making self-supportive decisions.
So, because our “sense of self” is inextricably tied to our relational and sexual expressions, RTS makes things… well, scary. While there are so many implications, the biggest one that shows up in romantic relationships and sexuality is shame. Many with RTS have a harsh practice of perfectionism which makes them feel that if they can’t show up in perfection, they should pretend and perform or not show up at all. This results in the ideology that folks have to be fully healed from their pasts in order to seek out relationships, and more practically, it results in the idea that you must show up physically flawless and groomed to perfection for sex. Those with RTS often report PTSD symptoms when trying to engage sexually such as sexual anxiety, freeze survival response, and at times panic symptoms, like tearfulness or shaking.
What’s a good starting place for folks still struggling to own their desires or sexual selves because of religious conditioning?
While we are still uncovering and studying the best practices here, what comes up for me is the beautiful work of reparenting. This is the process, rooted in Narrative Therapy, of going back to the moments where shame-inducing messages about sexuality and desire were given, overtly or subtly, and rewriting the answers for the present self based in the reality of being human, self-compassion, and even humor. This might look internally like heading back to a time where you were told that desire and sex must look a certain way and asking the present self the questions: “What do I actually think about this now, given my life experience?” and “What did I really need to hear in this moment?” We become our own best caretakers, lovers, and guides, in direct contrast to RTS which often has us believe that the answers we need are dictated by a high, all-powerful judge.
We’ve talked before about how useful a masturbation practice can be. Can you explain how it fits into the healing process?
Ugh. I get so excited about this! Pun absolutely intended. So, if the biggest barrier to freedom and presence in our relationships, desires, and sexual expression is shame; the biggest sources of healing are self-compassion, self-care, and connection to the self and others. Changing the relationship that we have with ourselves is not the end-all-be-all, but it is such an important part of practicing self-trust. So, a masturbation practice is an entirely powerful way to build this sense of self that is rooted in trust, autonomy, and initiative.
In a full self-love or masturbation practice, you experience listening to your body, affirming your desires, and literally “taking care of yourself,” all of which fly in the face of the disembodiment, shame, and self-neglect of RTS. I shy away from practical advice with my patients, but I sometimes almost want to prescribe a loving masturbation practice as treatment for the effects of being raised in a fundamental setting. The self provides safety for the experience of self-connection, desire, and pleasure. It is the exact opposite of the shame and fear that RTS says we should expect around sexual experience. It is a caring way to prove to yourself that your natural, human desires do not hurt you and others, rather they bring you pleasure, joy, and creative power. It is important to note that some will need to experience healing and support around masturbation before it can feel like this. If you have experienced sexual trauma, work with a sex therapist or self-healing may be necessary. I love the work of Australian sexologist, Juliet Allen, who addresses this in her amazing podcast, Authentic Sex. There is no shame in the need for this, only strength and power in offering yourself this chance at self-love and pleasure.
Are there areas related to sexual or romantic intimacy that religious conditioning impacts that people aren’t often aware of?
In short, the answer here is: absolutely! At its core, religious conditioning sends the message that to be you is not good enough or not best. So, we have developed so many mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual ways to mutate ourselves in order to meet the standard of being holy or faithful or God-fearing enough to be accepted and loved. To begin this healing process, pay attention to the areas in your relationships and sexual experience where you show up as yourself and feel insufficient; the times you judge you – at your core – to be lacking. That is probably a place to cue into some reparenting and self-compassion. Some examples that have come up in my practice with patients are:
- Feeling that they don’t deserve good relationships or to ask for what they want sexually.
- Feeling unable to experience or enjoy pleasure.
- Feeling that their place in sexual experience is solely to give not receive.
- Fear that they are not experienced enough.
- Fear of death or condemnation following a sexual experience that doesn’t meet the confines of the religion.
This, again, all comes down to that fear that you might be seen relationally or sexually for who you truly are and be judged as undesirable or unacceptable by a holy standard.
Do you have thoughts on how to reclaim a spiritual connection to one’s sexuality and desires that’s less toxic?
Yes! It is to cue deeply into your own thoughts and desires. It is to begin to listen to and respect yourself. Our spirits, at least in this existence, are embodied and designed for pleasure and ecstasy. One of the most powerful messages of RTS is that there is this “way to be” and if your thoughts or desires don’t fit then, you need to cut them out. To reverse this, we begin to connect to the intuition, the gut, the wisdom of the body in order to build a life that feels best for us in self-trust. This has often been rejected by religion as idolatry of the self, but I believe wholeheartedly that the divine is quite big enough to connect to our individual consciousness through intuition. In this way, beginning to listen to yourself well and with love is a spiritual practice, not the rejection of one. To look inward is to connect spiritually.
Practically, this looks like loving and present experimentation. Try something (erotic self-massage, porn, erotic lit, a position or sex act you haven’t tried, a toy you’re curious about, a roll play, etc.) and listen to your body, your emotions, your thoughts. Does it feel good for you? If not, try something different. If so, do it more, listen more, learn more about yourself. Know that your being – mind, body, spirit – has been made to experience pleasure, and it and you already have within you the information you need to grow sexually. Trust and find your own voice as a sexual and spiritual being. For those who have RTS, there may be fear that this will lead to you becoming a reprobate, or dying of an STI, or eternal punishment, etc. So, go slow, have courage and self-compassion, have support. But go.
Our sexual, life-force energy is the source of creativity, love, and literally life. It is a deep power that you deserve to own for yourself and the good of the world. Spirituality and sexuality have been divided by years of religious tradition and the shame in our societies around sex is the result. It comes from dividing the human and the divine, which is perplexing because the narrative of religion is the unity of the human and the divine. The doctrines of religion have separated the two and this brings in shame. To deal with shame we look to love and connection. So, love yourself. Connect your spirit to your body and observe what happens for you with non-judgment. I am honestly so excited to watch the healing of our hearts, relationships, families, and cultures as we do this work together.