For survivors of sexual violence, sexual liberation is possible. This is part of the mission of The Heal Project — an organization that aims to prevent and end childhood sexual abuse (CSA) through healing the wounds of sexual oppression and embracing sexual liberation.

While the organization’s mission specifically targets childhood sexual abuse, the strategies they discuss and community they cultivate can be useful for all survivors of sexual violence.

The path towards sexual liberation starts with dialogue. “We constantly see that victims and harm doers are created in a culture of secrecy and shame around sex,” explained Aredvi Azad, the organization’s Director of Education and Programs. “And when we say sex, this is not just the act of having sex (however you may define it) but about sexuality itself and human connection […] Sexual liberation, then, is about understanding that connection and to be able to have those open conversations about sexuality.”

In April, Rebellious Magazine hosted a virtual storytelling and Q&A event for survivors of sexual violence. The event was led by Aredvi and Ignacio G Hutía Xeiti Rivera, M.A., the Founder/Executive Director of The Heal Project.

Four people in their own screens smiling. Aredvi is Iranian and has light skin with dark hair, Jera is white has brown curly hair, Karen is African American has darker skin and long black braids, and Ignacio is Black-Boricua and Taíno and has dyed red curls and
Clockwise from top left: Aredvi Azad, Jera Brown, Karen Hawkins and Ignacio Rivera

Here are a few highlights from the event.

It’s Important to Recognize Trauma Bonding

“A pattern that happens commonly in abusive relationships is that you trauma bond with someone. When they are causing so many traumatic events in your life, it feels like that, by itself, is a bond that you cannot step outside of,” Aredvi said.

Trauma bonding is a phenomenon where an individual goes through intense periods of love and excitement with someone followed by intense periods of abuse and neglect. And like Aredvi explained, this bonding makes it difficult to leave the relationship and can be used by a harm doer as a manipulative way to keep a victim pulled into the relationship.

Read more about trauma bonding:

Setting Boundaries Helps Break Patterns of Abuse

“Working on my boundaries meant that I needed to really listen to myself. I needed to really work on what it is that I wanted as someone who had experienced abuse, feeling in control of my life and my own immediate circumstances were really important to me. And that was what really helped me be able to feel whole and feel more grounded in my own body,” Aredvi said.

Aredvi started with really simple boundaries, like any time they needed to use the bathroom, they’d actually get up and use the bathroom.

You Don’t Have to Be Afraid

Ignacio explained that fear has no place in sexual liberation. “Fear does not fit in this scenario, because fear creates so much more fear and shame, and there’s no voice. People are afraid to speak up and to say what needs to be said.”

Ignacio recommended two starting points for working through fear.

1. Learn to trust your instincts

“I think a lot of survivors have great instincts, we are just afraid to listen to them because a lot of times we say, ‘Oh, I should have, could have.’ We have instincts in our body and we can get connected to those instincts when we meet people. And even if we’re wrong, if you meet somebody and the energy feels off, you don’t need any excuse for anything. You can walk away.”

2. Have at least two survivor buddies

“Storytelling and sharing are great healing mechanisms,” Ignacio explained. Having people to talk through your story helps to eradicate fear. But these buddies can also help your healing process in other ways, such as holding you accountable.

“We often struggle with boundaries and so we want to be able to try to understand our own boundaries, but we have to have other people helping us. We have our friends helping us to figure out what these boundaries are because if you want to feel safe, there’s some personal work to be done.”

For more, check out The Heal Project’s Caution: Unrestricted! YouTube series, featuring conversations between Ignacio and Aredvi on breaking open sexual stigma and taboos.

Read their guest post for Just the Tip about trauma and anal sex.

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Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...