Posted on 01 March 2017 by Rachel Warwick
When sex becomes a self-harm
Every now and again I deliver training on the topic of ‘Self-Harm’, and always ask the attendees to name some of the different methods of self-harm. The list usually contains the behaviours you’d expect- cutting, bruising, burning, poisoning and so on, however rarely does risky sexual behaviour come up as a suggestion. You may be surprised to find this on the same list as ‘cutting’, but in the lives of the young men and women I work with, this is a huge issue.
I’m not talking about 2 teenagers in love deciding to make the huge decision to having sex.
I’m talking about those boys and girls who use sex to forget about their brokenness, the pain of what is going on around them. I’m talking about those boys and girls who have promiscuous sex as a way of building their self-esteem, feeling wanted and desired. I’m talking about those teenagers who use it as a commodity, selling their bodies for a lift in a car, for getting a better status in a group. I’m talking about those boys and girls who are so ashamed of themselves that they think sex will make it better. I’m talking about those boys and girls who place such little value of themselves that they will risk unprotected sex because they don’t care about the consequences. I’m talking about those young people who feel so out of control that the only thing they can control is their bodies and what they do with them.
It’s also not just sex, it’s sexual behaviour. It’s young people so desperate to be loved and to be accepted that they will post indecent images of themselves online, even sharing them with strangers. They will send sexually explicit messages or videos. They will let people watch them from a far.
Self-harm is often more than cutting. The NHS defines is as “when someone intentionally damages or injures their body” but I want to suggest that this incorporates psychological and emotional damage as well.
More and more of our young people are finding other ways of harming themselves and sadly sex is fast becoming one of them.
One girl I worked with, let’s call her Q, she was so traumatised by her experiences in the past that she believed the only way that she could feel anything was to have sex with anyone who gave her attention. She felt so worthless that she genuinely believed she got find worth this way. She once told me that whilst she was with someone she felt like she could just tune out, they could do what they wanted, she would let them, and for that time all she had to think about was their breathing. The pain wasn’t there; it was just breathing.
I’ve spoken to many self-harmers in the past, and a huge number of them would say something very similar about what it feels like to hurt themselves.
Many of us will have a Q in our youth group, whether we know it or not, many of us will interact with these young people who are broken and don’t know how to verbally express this pain, so they use their body and their actions instead.
But we can do something about it.
There are a number of reasons why people self-harm and many of these reasons are things that we can offer them support for, issues that we can help them deal with. What Q needed was counselling, she needed someone to help her learn how to talk. She needed people around her to help her see that her self-worth was not in giving people her body but in who she is. To help her see that she was slowly damaging herself further, she was putting herself in dangerous situations; that she was slowly allowing that belief, that her worth was only in sex, to be reinforced.
Most of culture says having sex is something everyone should do, that it doesn’t matter who it’s with, but it rarely talks about the impact that this has on people; the connections we make, and the vulnerability that this involves.
Our young people aren’t always prepared for the emotional impact of having sex, but as youth workers we are in a prime position to support our young people and encourage healthy and positive choices when it comes to sex, relationships, and coping strategies.
So what can we do to support our young people, and how can we encourage healthy and positive choice when it comes to sex?
1. We need to be talking to our young people about sex and relationships. If we can talk to them about what healthy sex and relationships look like they will notice when they are behaving in a way that is going to cause them pain, they can notice the signs but also how to keep themselves safe. We can also help them to see when their friends are also behaving in a way that isn’t good for them. It’s why we need to have frank and honest conversations.
2. We need to be talking to our young people about emotional resilience and language. (May I recommend the SHUK Emotions playing cards) Starting with what do emotions feel like and how do we recognise them in ourselves and then healthy expressions of this, it’s ok to be angry about things, what does being angry feel like to you and how do you deal with that healthily, go for a run or write a song for example.
3. We need to know about mental health and self-harm ourselves, so that we can be ready and prepared to have difficult conversations when needed. SelfHarmUK offers training around this specific area you can find out more here https://training.selfharm.co.uk/training
We need to do our best to give our young people (and their parents) the skills and knowledge to deal with life and all that comes with it so that they don’t end up abusing their bodies or allowing others to do it.