[Mara Santilli | Shape]

The Me Too movement is more than a hashtag: It’s an important reminder that sexual assault is a very, very prevalent problem. To put the numbers in perspective, 1 in 6 women have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes, and a sexual assault happens every 98 seconds in the U.S. (And those are just the cases that have been reported.)

Of these survivors, 94 percent experience symptoms of PTSD following the assault, which can manifest itself in a number of ways, but often affects the woman’s relationship with her body. “It’s common for survivors of sexual violence to want to hide their bodies, or engage in health risk behaviors, often in an attempt to avoid or numb overwhelming feelings,” says Alison Rhodes, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and trauma and recovery researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Though the road to recovery is long and difficult, and there’s by no means a cure-all to such trauma, many survivors are finding solace in fitness.

Strengthening the Body and Mind

“Healing from sexual violence often entails restoring one’s sense of self,” says Claire Burke Draucker, Ph.D., R.N., professor of Mental Health Nursing at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. “This phase often comes later in the recovery process after individuals have had an opportunity to process the trauma, begin to make sense of it, and understand the impact it’s had on their lives.”

Yoga can help at this stage. Women in domestic violence shelters and community centers throughout New York City, Los Angeles, parts of New York state, and Connecticut are turning to Exhale to Inhale, a nonprofit offering yoga for survivors of domestic and sexual violence. The classes, some taught by sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors, put students at ease by using invitational language to move slowly through the flows, like “Join me in [fill in the blank] pose, if that feels comfortable for you, or “If you’d like to stay with me, we’ll be there for three breaths,” explains Kimberly Campbell, executive director of Exhale to Inhale, yoga instructor, and longtime domestic violence prevention advocate.

"For some survivors, this is the most difficult part of the class, getting to practice advocating for yourself, especially when adrenaline is rushing through your system..."

— Meg Stone

Learning Self-Defense Skills

Survivors often feel silenced, both during the assault and sometimes years after, which is why self-defense classes, like those at IMPACT, encourage women to advocate for themselves and for other women. One anonymous survivor of childhood abuse and repeated sexual harassment from a professor shares that it wasn’t until she coupled self-defense with her other therapeutic practices that she got the chance to take back the power that was stolen from her, starting with finding her voice.

The first part of class at IMPACT is yelling “no,” to get that word in your body, and that verbal adrenaline release is what propels the entire physical portion of the class. “For some survivors, this is the most difficult part of the class, getting to practice advocating for yourself, especially when adrenaline is rushing through your system,” says Meg Stone, executive director of IMPACT Boston, a division of Triangle.

"Recovery often involves reclaiming your sexuality, including reclaiming the right to make sexual decisions, to engage in sexual behaviors of your own choosing, and honoring your sexual and gender identity..."

— Claire Burke Draucker, Ph.D., R.N.

Reclaiming Sexuality

“Recovery often involves reclaiming your sexuality, including reclaiming the right to make sexual decisions, to engage in sexual behaviors of your own choosing, and honoring your sexual and gender identity,” Draucker says.

Some survivors have turned to more sensual fitness practices like burlesque and pole dance for this sense of reclamation. Despite notions that these activities exist solely to fulfill the male gaze, “this couldn’t be further from the truth,” argues Gina DeRoos, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, pole fitness instructor, and Reiki healer in Manteca, California. “Pole dance teaches women how to engage with their bodies on a sensual level, and love their bodies through movement,” she says. Years of therapy for her PTSD-related triggers, nightmares, and panic attacks, which she still experienced 20 years after her initial assault, were essential in her long healing process, she shares. But it was pole dancing that helped her rebuild self-love and self-acceptance.

Telisha Williams has a similar perspective. Running and all of her other healthy habits were nourishing her from day to day, but something was missing in her long recovery from childhood sexual abuse, which took her many years to unpack and seek treatment for. “Why can’t I love my body?” she wondered. “I had not been able to look at my body and see ‘sexy’—it was kind of blocked.” One day, she dropped in on a burlesque dance class in Nashville, and immediately started to feel the love—the instructor asked students to find something positive about their bodies in each class, instead of taking a cynical or comical approach to the way they moved in the space. Williams was hooked, and class became a space of refuge. She joined a 24-week burlesque training program that culminated in a performance, complete with costumes, and her own choreography, set to some of Wild Ponies’ songs. “At the end of that performance, I stood on stage and I felt so powerful in that moment, and I knew I didn’t need to go back to not having that power again,” she says.

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