Episode 12: Tantra For Sex Abuse Survivors with Stephen Braveman

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Francesca Gentille interviews Stephen Braveman, gender specialist, healing from sexual abuse specialist, and outspoken advocate for bringing sacred sexuality into the clinical practice. In this episode, you'll learn what sexual abuse is and how to heal using Tantric methods. Stephen reveals healing practices that turn intimacy Brick Walls into easily navigated Speed Bumps. Steps covered include: When to ask permission and build consent, How to make sex safe and sacred, Invoking the God/dess into your beloved, The foundational empowerment of recognizing that sex abuse has happened, and Resources.


Tantra For Sex Abuse Survivors with Stephen Braveman, LMFT, AASECT Certified Diplomate of Sex Therapy, Gender Specialist and Tantra Facilitator. Author of “Innovative Methods of Treating Patients with Sexual Trauma,” co-author of the brand new book "CPR for Your Sex Life: How to Breathe Life Into a Dead, Dying or Dull Sex Life”.

Announcer:  This program is intended for mature audiences only.


Francesca Gentille: Welcome to Sex, Tantra, and Kama Sutra, bringing you the soul of sex.  I’m your host, Francesca Gentille, and with me today is Stephen Braveman, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist, an ASEC-certified diplomate of sex therapy, and innovative gender specialist with a private practice specializing in sexuality, sexual abuse and gender-related therapies in Monterrey, California.

Stephen Braveman: Sexual abuse includes a wide variety of things.  One is the violent rape that most people think of.  However that’s actually a small percentage of the sexual abuse that occurs in America today.  The average person who is sexually abused, both male and female, are sexually abused by a friend, a family member, a person from the church, somebody who they supposedly are supposed to trust…  If one person has power over the other person, we consider it abusive.  If it’s coerced, if its use, if trickery is involved, if it’s in any way, shape or form, the child is not just engaging in playful activities that we would expect most children to maybe explore, then we consider it abuse…  Francesca Gentille: The statistics are high; they say that women… they say that almost 40% of women will have been molested by the time they’re eighteen, and for men, it’s, what is it?  Stephen Braveman: It’s typically described as one out of six.  Of course we take educated guesses at these statistics, and if you look at the literature carefully, you’ll find that some people say that 75% of all women have been sexually abused, and 60% of all males.  Some people even go as far as saying that everybody on the planet has been sexually abused.

Francesca Gentille: Welcome, Stephen.

Stephen Braveman: Thank you.

Francesca Gentille: I want to start out, just because it is so intriguing, with that ‘diplomate of sex therapy’.  Just, it’s in the back of my mind; I’m sure it’s in the back of our listeners’ minds, what is that?

Stephen Braveman: Oh, that’s a very good question I get asked a lot.  It’s a confusing term to many, because it sounds like I go around the world working out contracts or peace agreements with people.  Certainly it’s not that.  What a ‘diplomate’ is, is it’s an academic honor, which is bestowed upon people who’ve reached the highest level in their field.  So it’s a fancy title to say that I’m at the top level of being a sex therapist.

Francesca Gentille: Well, you’re not only at the top level of being a sex therapist, and I’m honored to be interviewing you about sex therapy, but also what I found so intriguing and why I wanted to talk with you was about that sexual abuse factor, and even the male victimization factor, which is just really starting to come out more and more, isn’t it?

Stephen Braveman: It really is.  It was a very short amount of time ago where people did not believe that males could be sexually abused, and in fact many of the patients I work with, who are a little bit on the older side, have been hospitalized, put on medication, and even received electroshock therapy, because they reported to somebody that’ they had been sexually abused as a child.  And back then, nobody believed them.  They figured they must be crazy to say such things, and went to great extremes to try to convince them that they were wrong.  In the last fifteen years we’ve made incredible progress in turning this around.  Still many people don’t believe that males can be abused.  Many people deny it.  Most males who’ve been sexually abused still deny that they’ve been abused, themselves.  So we’ve got a ways to go, but we’ve made a lot of great progress, and we’ve got some really neat projects that are helping us along with that effort.

Francesca Gentille: Now, there are so many questions I want to ask about this, and how Tantra fits in.  You know, how does Tantra really bring more healing to this?  But first I want to get a little bit clearer.  What is sexual abuse?  I think one of the reasons people don’t talk about it is that they’re not actually clear what it is, or that it’s even happened to them.

Stephen Braveman: Yes, definitely.  This is very, very true for the male.  Sexual abuse includes a wide variety of things.  One is the violent rape that most people think of.  However, that’s actually a small percentage of sexual abuse that occurs in America today.  The average person who is sexually abused, both male and female, are sexually abused by a friend, a family member, a person from the church, somebody who they supposedly are supposed to trust, and have great faith in.  And the sexual abuse is usually don in a covert way, through bribes, through what we call ‘grooming the child’, where the child is given gifts in exchange for the sexual favors.  The child is slowly taught that it is supposed to be something normal, something okay, “this is alright”, however, they need to keep it their little secret.

Francesca Gentille: So it’s the secrecy, in a sense, you know when we’re saying it’s the coercion and it’s the secrecy that are part of whatever happens vis-à-vis to the spirit.

Stephen Braveman: The secrecy and the betrayal.  We clearly see sexual abuse as the betrayal of trust, and that’s one reason why the emotional effects of it linger much, much longer than the physical effects.  Specifically, it’s important to note that for the male child who’s been sexually abused, rarely does the sexual abuse actually include anal penetration.  Most boys who are sexually abused are fondled; they have oral sex with the perpetrator, and where it really gets tricky for guys to figure out is if the perpetrator was a female and the boy actually physically and/or emotionally enjoyed the sexual contact, then it’s very hard for him to understand that this was abuse.

Francesca Gentille: That could be true for a woman as well.

Stephen Braveman: It can be, however it’s much more for a male.

Francesca Gentille: That confusion that, “If I enjoyed it, was it also abusive to me in some way?”

Stephen Braveman: That’s right.

Francesca Gentille: And it is abusive because of that sense of betrayal of trust, right?

Stephen Braveman: Yes.  Betrayal of trust, and the lack of ability to give true consent.  And consent is a very important thing, leaping over to the use of Tantra for it, one of the healing aspects of Tantra is we teach people to use consent with every kind of sexual contact they may have with their partner now.  It’s the lack of consent… The child did not know what they were doing, so we always have to hold the adult or the older child, the perpetrator, responsible.

Francesca Gentille: So it’s the Tantra brings in that sense of sacred choice and consent which is so healing, and what gets wounded in us is when that consent is taken away, and by someone that we trust.  Now that’s very different than two kids playing ‘doctor’, right?

Stephen Braveman: Oh, yes.  Yes, absolutely.

Francesca Gentille: And the difference is that in one case there is mutual consent, a sense of exploration…  Where does, when does it cross over?  I bet that’s confusing for some people.

Stephen Braveman: It’s very confusing, especially because the laws from state to state are very varied, so in one state if a child is having sex and they are sixteen it may be considered child molestation.  In another state it has to be eighteen.  So that confuses things.  But also, where we really look is, is we have to look at the relationship between the two people, the age difference and the intent.  So if we have two young kids, boy and girl, or two boys or two girls, at five or six years old, and they’re playing ‘show me yours, show [you] mine’, that’s okay.  We’ve considered that an average, or what some people like to term ‘normal’ stage of development, learning about sexuality.  If boys around, oh ten to thirteen years old, are gathering together as friends and they may explore mutual masturbation, that again, while not all boys do that kind of a thing, it’s considered an average, a very common expression of sexual exploration.  If we have a child under the age of twelve having sex with anybody over the age of twelve, then that’s where we consensually agree that is an abusive situation.  If one person has power over the other person, we’d consider it abusive.  If it’s coerced, if trickery is involved, if in any way, shape, or form the child is not just engaging in playful activities that we would expect most children to maybe explore, then we consider it abuse.  And as far as how big of an abuse it is, well one thing that is abusive, according to law, is taking pictures of children who are naked and posting that on the Internet, creating child pornography in that way.  In that case the child may never know that they were victimized!  The parent may never know.  In some ways it seems like it’s a victimless crime.  However, it is still considered abuse, and if perhaps, let’s say, little Susie at three has her pictures posted on the Internet, and then later at thirteen discovers them and her friends discover them, oh boy!  It can really have a great impact.  So the abuse is there even if they don’t necessarily know that they’ve been abused.

Francesca Gentille: It’s very fascinating to find out these kind of different ways that we can think of abuse or discover abuse, and I think that’s the first step in how do we come to healing, how do we come to that fabulous sacred sex life that we want, is first facing these issues of possible abuse.  And I want to talk more when we come back about what are the steps, once we realize that ourselves or our partners, this may have been happening.  What are the steps out of this?  How does Tantra contribute to this?  When we come back from our break, and a word from our sponsors.


Francesca Gentille: Welcome back to Sex, Tantra, and Kama Sutra, brining you the soul of sex.  My guest today is Stephen Braveman, licensed sex and family therapist, and also an author of two books, the Innovative… a chapter in The Innovative Methods of Treating Sexual Abuse Patients in the… Actually, The Innovative Methods of Treating Patients With Sexual Trauma, let me get that right, in the book Innovations in Clinical Practice, focused on sexual health, and also a new book, CPR For Your Sex Life: How to Breathe Life Into a Dead, Dying, or Dull Sex Life, and today we’re talking about how our sexual life and our sexual breadth can be affected by trauma, by sexual abuse, and how Tantra can positively heal us, nourish us, and Stephen has worked in both.  And, Stephen, how does a clinical therapist… I mean how does it move from therapy to Tantra?  How does that work?

Stephen Braveman: Well the way I use it is that typically a person will come in by theirself, or as a couple, with the multiple complaints of the symptoms of sexual abuse.  When we put the pieces together and realize that there has been sexual abuse…

Francesca Gentille: And what are the symptoms?

Stephen Braveman: Oh, common symptoms are low self-esteem, drug abuse, depression, maybe over-achievement, under-achievement, poor relationships with others, sexual shutting down, or sexual acting out.  A major cornerstone to the symptoms is we see an incredible split.  It’s all-or-nothing, black-or-white, yes-or-no, so we may see, for example a man who has sexually shut down with his wife or partner in the primary relationship, and yet at the same time he’s spending an awful lot of time masturbating while looking at porn on the Internet, or seeking prostitutes.  Or it could be somebody who’s completely shut down altogether, or experiencing what some people would call ‘sexual anorexia’, where there is no sexual appetite, there is no sexual activity.  These are some of the very common symptoms that we see.  And so if somebody comes in with those common symptoms we identify that they’ve been sexually abused as a child and are ready to work on it, then we want to make sure that the patient has individual therapy to explore their very, very personal issues around it.  Group therapy is tremendously helpful, so that they can get the idea that they’re not alone, and hear other people’s stories.  While we don’t compare pain… Pain is pain, and one person’s pain is just as valid as the other’s, it’s good to compare stories, so that they get an idea of what sexual abuse really is.  Quite often if people hear other people’s stories about sexual abuse, they start to realize that, “Aha!  That happened to me too!” or “Oh, good; I’m glad that didn’t happen to me.”  When we finish up with group, and maybe some couples work, it’s very important to finish the healing.  Sexual abuse is a sexual issue, and it’s important to do some sexual healing, and that’s where Tantra comes in.  Where we can introduce Tantra into the relationship, and help couples learn to make sex safe, loving, connected, desirous.

Francesca Gentille: And what about people who may just have, you know, wanted to study Tantra?  Some of our listeners might be recognizing right now, “Oh, my goodness!  I think this is me,” or “I think this is my partner,” and they want to study Tantra, and they’re maybe a little bit more leery of therapy or group therapy?  Can Tantra support them or serve them?  Or is it really important that they’re getting some of these more personal and educated consultations?

Stephen Braveman: Well that varies from person to person, and couple to couple.  There are truly couples and individuals who do not necessarily need therapy.  Tantra can be extremely helpful.  The issue about Tantra without therapy for the sexual abuse person and their partner though, is that in many Tantra trainings there is no room to address what may come up if someone has been sexually abused.  So it’s best, if somebody has been sexually abused, for them and their partner to attend a specialized Tantra workshop that’s specific for abuse survivors and their partners.  In those kinds of workshops we make adjustments.  For example, if you come into a Tantra workshop for sexual abuse survivors, you’ll find the typical things in other Tantra workshops, such as lowered lights, soft spiritual type of music, a nice safe environment, people may be sitting on pillows or on the floor, candles burning, sacred kind of clothing, all those nice juicy things that people might think of that is related to Tantra.  What you won’t find though is a lot of physical interaction between strangers, because sexual abuse, being a violation, means that we have to develop very clear boundaries for the sexual abuse survivor, and so we typically only have them work specifically with their partner in those workshops.  So we may be doing something like a typical Tantra exercise, which involves sitting cross-legged, looking at each other, staring into each others’ eyes, what we call ‘eye-gazing’, putting each others’ hands on each others’ hearts, and breathing together.  This is very, very wonderful connected exercise that people can do.  You can do it at home; you can do it in workshops.  Doing this with a partner who’s been sexually abused helps keep both people focused and connected, helps the loving connection bond build there.  We don’t necessarily want a sexual abuse survivor to be doing this with a stranger.  While it may be good practice, if they’ve been abused, it could bring up so, so many issues for them, that if it’s not addressed there at the moment they’re likely to leave the workshop and never come back, and feel that Tantra is not for them.  So we make adjustments like that in the specified workshop.

Francesca Gentille: What I would love to talk with you about more is, for some people listening, it’s going to be them, you know.  The statistics are high.  They say for women that almost 40% of women will have been molested by the time they’re eighteen.  And for men, it’s… What is it?

Stephen Braveman: It’s typically described as one out of six.  Of course we take educated guesses at these statistics, and if you look at the literature carefully you’ll find that some people say that 75% of all women have been sexually abused, and 60% of all males.  Some people even go as far as saying that everybody on the planet has been sexually abused.  I think that’s a little bit extreme.  Certainly society does influence our sexuality, and sometimes in a negative way.  We’re talking about actual physical contact though.

Francesca Gentille: So given that it’s as high as it is, in many cases with people listening, it’ll be themselves or their partner, so what I would love to have a little tip maybe, that people can even use tonight, is if they’re… If it’s themselves that have had, if they’re noticing that they have some, either splitting between their intimacy, if they’re noticing that they can have sex only one way, or with everybody but their partner, or they never want to have sex, or they always want to have sex, you know that, something that the individual who has suffered sexual abuse can do, and maybe something that they can, that people listening can offer to their partner if they realize, “Oh, my goodness, it is my partner that has been,” something that they can give to them.  And I’d love to go into that right after we come back from our break and a word from our sponsor.


Francesca Gentille: Welcome back to Sex, Tantra, and Kama Sutra, bringing you the soul of sex, with our guest today, Stephen Braveman, who has a private practice specializing in sexuality, sexual abuse, and gender-related therapies in Monterrey, California.  And Stephen and I were just talking about… Some of us who are listening may be recognizing that we have been the victim of sex abuse or are a survivor of that, or may be recognizing that our partner might be that, and I was asking Stephen if he would give us some take-home tips for how to deal with that today.  So, shall we start with the… If someone is recognizing that they are the survivor?

Stephen Braveman: Yes.  If you recognize that you are the survivor, if you’ve been sexually abused and you’re dealing with that, some of the things that you can do immediately, right today… You don’t need a workshop; of course we encourage you to take your workshops and groups and all that…  Without a workshop, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you never say yes to something you don’t want to do.  Saying yes is very important to things you want to do.  Saying no to things you don’t want to do.  Don’t do a sex activity you’re not interested in doing.  Another thing that you can do with your partner is get in the habit of stopping sex wherever you’re at if issues come up.  If you feel like you’re outside your body, if you feel your partner’s not connected with you, if you’re starting to feel unsafe, stop the action and ask your partner to reconnect with you.  To do that in a tantric way, we would probably do some eye-gazing, ask our partner to look into our eyes, perhaps put a hand on each other’s heart, and breathe together, saying a few things maybe like, “I love you.  I’m here with you.” And then start again.  By doing that we take what some people would consider brick walls that would derail the sexual activity, we turn them into speed bumps, which we can successfully navigate, get over, and keep going.  If you’re the partner of a sexual abuse survivor, the most important thing you can do for your partner is first and foremost believe them.  And second of all, don’t pressure them to heal in any specific amount of time.  Keep in mind that they will heal, in the time that’s it’s going to take to do that.  You can also definitely do check-ins, learn what your partners triggers are, try to avoid them as best as you can, try to help them work it through.  Foremost for both, as a couple, if you’re dealing with this, if you can embrace a concept that sex is a sacred activity, something that is to be rejoiced in, something to be looking forward to, something fun and juicy, yes, and something to approach with the right intent, the intent of making love, not necessarily just having sex, then you’ll find that your time together in the bed or wherever else you’re sexually interacting with each other, is much more successful, much more safe, and safety is the very most important thing for sexual abuse survivors, around sexuality with the right person.

Francesca Gentille: And the thing I love that you said that sacredness, in the sense that sacredness is a healing complement.  It’s like the healing substance, the healing pill, in a way, for the abuse, that when we have been abused, or when someone’s been abused, and that choice, that consent has been taken away, that they’ve become an object.  They are… They have become an object and they become dis-integrated, themselves.

Stephen Braveman: Yes.

Francesca Gentille: And it was a dis-integrated action.  And that the sacred…  My students say that the sacred is holy; it’s special; it’s set apart.  It’s ‘holy’ from the word ‘whole’, itself, as a sense of in-tegration.  And that’s what I hear you speaking to, is the sense of in-tegration that Tantra brings. 

Stephen Braveman: And along those lines, it’s important for our listeners to know that when we say ‘sacred’, that doesn’t mean that you have to become a Buddhist or a Hindi or anything.  If you have a spiritual, religious practice, great.  Tantra can be introduced into any spiritual or religious practice.  And if you are not spiritual, if you’re not religious, if you don’t want to go that way, you can still make sex sacred by making it special, making it important.  Kind of like dining with the Queen, as opposed to showing up at McDonalds and sitting next to strangers.  You want to do it right, and you want to do it meaningfully.

Francesca Gentille: And for people, you mentioned low self-esteem, and for people who have had, are survivors themselves, or who their partners are survivors of sex abuse, and their… It maybe feeds into their low self-esteem, that they’re not having the kind of connected sex that they want.  Is there any tip that you would give, to either the survivor or the partner when they’re not yet having sex?

Stephen Braveman: When they’re not having sex?

Francesca Gentille: Yeah.

Stephen Braveman: Uh huh, well it’s a really good idea to find what you’re good at and run with that, and start with small things.  If you feel like you can’t do anything right, maybe get a small paper airplane and make it.  And there, you’re successful!  Then maybe you could move on to a three-part airplane, just as an example of taking something small and building upon it, keeping gin mind you’re a human being.  Give yourself some credit.  Nobody on our planet is an expert, per se, in always making love right.  And we all have to work daily on our relationships, and the sexual abuse survivor is no different in that, and by recognizing that they’re no different than anybody else, it can help with the self-esteem.  You’re okay.  It’s important for the sexual abuse survivor to remember, too, that they were fine until somebody else did something to them.  It wasn’t their fault.  It wasn’t their responsibility.  And they can and do, heal.

Francesca Gentille: And then with Tantra, the way that a Tantra exercise, if they’re not… You mentioned the eye-gazing; that can be a beautiful way to connect, that’s not… It’s very intimate, yet not necessarily sexual.  It doesn’t have to lead to sexuality.  Is there any other favorite practice that you would recommend that helps to, from Tantra, that helps to bring that sense of connection?

Stephen Braveman: One of the things that I find that is wonderful for connecting is movement.  So in our Tantra workshops, what we do is we will play what’s called chakra-atoning music.  This is where we get in touch with the different energy sources in our body, and we move them.  So we may start with our hips, where our first chakra is, and we will work on moving that for a while, and then we move up the body.  Moving together, watching each other’s bodies move, and getting in touch in touch with that sacredness of sound is a wonderful, wonderful healing experience.  People can do that at home.  Doesn’t matter what kind of music you play, as long as you both enjoy it.  Move.  Look at each other.  If you wear some special clothing, it can greatly enhance it, so that you can watch your goddess or watch your god move, and see the specialness in them.

Francesca Gentille: And when you say, “watch your goddess or watch your god,” what you’re saying is that our partner is a manifestation, a spark, of the divine.

Stephen Braveman: That’s how we see it in Tantra.  Absolutely.

Francesca Gentille: And if people are really resonating with this and they want more information, where can they get more information about this?

Stephen Braveman: Well, for more information about the Tantra workshops for sexual abuse survivors, which incidentally we have one coming up very soon in Northern California, you can go to my website, www.bravemantherapy.com, or just Google me, “Stephen Braveman”, and you’ll find my website.  If you want more information about Tantra as a whole, a really good website is www.tantra.com.  It’s kind of a clearinghouse, run by wonderful people.  You can find videos on it.  You can find out about workshops that are coming up, a great source for things like that.  If you’d like to find out more about sexual abuse issues that I’ve been talking bout today, definitely check out my website.  There’s lots of good links.  For the males in particular, you may want to go to www.malesurvivor.org, which is a national organization specific for males who have been sexually abused as children.

Francesca Gentille: And for women?

Stephen Braveman: For women, check out your local rape crisis centers.  There’s typically a women’s group and services for women across the country.   Unfortunately, there’s not for men; that’s why what we do out here in Monterrey is so rare.  For women, it’s fairly easy.  Rape crisis center, women’s crisis center… check them out.  They’re all across the country.

Francesca Gentille: And I just want to… Also, as you said, I wanted to reiterate that… And now a warning, is that for Tantra, if you are someone who has been a survivor of abuse, or your partner has, definitely to seek out classes that are specific for you, and to recognize that a regular Tantra class may not hold this kind of safety that this journey, this journey of healing is, that’s nourished by.  And thank you so much for bringing that up, Stephen.  And I want to thank… Thank you, Stephen, for joining us today, Stephen who’s an amazing expert in these areas, who’s devoted his life to this, who’s…  I think you’ve won an award from the National Organization on Male Sexual Victimization, or an honor.

Stephen Braveman: Yes, I’ve been honored by my work for leading the very first national workshop retreat for male sexual abuse survivors in 1998, here in Watsonville, California; amazing that as recently as that, this was the first.

Francesca Gentille: So thank you for joining us today.  And for those of us who are listening, if we want, if you want to get a transcript from this show, get more information about this show or other shows from Sex, Tantra and Kama Sutra, you would go to www.PersonalLifeMedia.com.  That’s www.PersonalLifeMedia.com; it’s two “L’s” there in the middle.  Thank you for joining us.

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