Restoring Wellness: The Journey To Healing After Sexual Trauma

Psychologist dr. shena young discusses her new book, body rites: a holistic healing and embodiment workbook for Black survivors of sexual trauma.

Restoring Wellness- The Journey To Healing After Sexual Trauma
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Licensed psychologist dr. shena young is not your typical therapist. So it’s no surprise that her new book is not your typical guide for healing from trauma. Her book, body rites: a holistic healing and embodiment workbook for Black survivors of sexual trauma is the first of its kind to hit the bookshelves.

“What’s unique is that this book was written for Black survivors, unapologetically,” dr. young says. “And I would say what is most different is that it’s rooted in African spiritual practices, calling Black beings back home into their bodies.”

Through the workbook, survivors are gently guided on a healing journey that includes journaling and self-inquiry, meditation, trauma-informed yoga practices, spirituality and more. The book is also rooted in Africana Womanism, particularly in the idea of Black women having the right to self-define.

“My work is very much rooted in the decolonized perspective, which means untangling from how we’ve been conditioned from a Westernized lens,” dr. young explains. “In many ways, we’ve been conditioned to externalize our trust, externalize intuition, and we wait for doctors and therapists and whomever to tell us what’s best for us, as opposed to checking in with ourselves and listening to our bodies and what our intuition is saying that we might need.”

The Body Holds The Medicine

Both dr. young’s book and her work with survivors take a four-fold approach to healing, involving the mind, body, heart, and spirit.

“We typically think about healing and therapy from a mental perspective,” dr. young says. “It’s about the mind and what we think, how we think about ourselves and the world. The body is the part that’s most often left out.”

But this is exactly where much of the healing should focus, dr. young says. “Sexual trauma, in particular, happens to the body, so it’s not like we can escape it,” she says. “If we have a car accident, you can avoid that intersection, but the body is the crime scene.”

But dr. young believes the body can also be a source of healing. “The body holds so much of the medicine,” she says. “My work centers around listening to the body, giving it voice and listening to its wisdom.”

Unraveling The Effects Of Sexual Trauma

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that more than 20% of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall.

According to the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community, 35% of Black women have experienced some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime and 40% to 60% of Black women report being subjected to coercive sexual contact by age 18.

“The numbers are probably higher,” dr young says, explaining that many Black girls, women, and trans women don’t report their assaults.

In fact, the National Center on Violence Against Women in the Black Community estimates that for every Black woman who reports rape, at least 15 Black women do not report it.

“There are many reasons why Black women, Black girls, Black folx, don’t report their abuse,” dr. young says. “They’re blamed, which can be re-traumatizing. We have a long history of mistrust with law enforcement agencies and those that claim to protect and serve. Sharing, coming out and saying that this is something that happened, can bring shame to the person, the survivor, but also shame to the family. And then there’s the expectation of loyalty to the family as well, particularly to Black men. Black women are often put in a position to express loyalty to Black men at their expense.”

In recent years several celebrities have spoken out about sexual abuse they have endured, including star actresses such as Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, and Gabrielle Union.

“I think it is unfortunate that we live in a world where we have to see someone have a particular status or social influence speaking about something to take it seriously,” dr. young says. “That being said, I think it’s important that in general, we hear each other naming this experience so that we know that we’re not alone. But I also want to underscore that, regardless of who the person is, it needs to be their choice to share their story.”

A Spiritual Journey Towards Healing

From a young age, dr. young was aware of the link between the body and the mind, heart, and spirit.

dr. shena j. young
Photo by Roz Kumari

“As a little shena, as I often say, I had wisdom that didn’t match the amount of time I had been on Earth,” she says. “One of the things that I discovered really early was dance as a freedom space for me. I would go into a dance class and be feeling a certain way, then I would leave dance class and be feeling differently. I didn’t yet have the words to understand what was happening, but that was sort of the beginning of my embodiment journey.”

Along the way, she also discovered a love for listening to others. “I also remember growing up within the Black community where there was a lot of secrecy and yet people would talk to me,” she says. “I was always the secret keeper.”

Today dr. young can live out all of her passions as a licensed psychologist whose work is rooted in decolonized healing and a trauma-informed yoga teacher. She also does West African dance.

“My journey shaped my path,” she says. “I am a survivor, myself, a survivor of many traumas, not just sexual trauma.”

“My journey shaped my path. I am a survivor, myself, a survivor of many traumas, not just sexual trauma.”

When discussing her book, dr. young often says she didn’t write it alone.  

“I channeled a lot of it,” she says, adding that her ancestors co-wrote the book. “When I was writing this book, this was a very spiritual experience for me.” 

In her book, dr. young makes a connection between the enslavement of African people and the trauma that Black people in America continue to endure today. Furthermore, she believes we carry the trauma of our ancestors in our bodies.

“But just as we carry the stories of their pain and their trauma, we also carry the wisdom and the resource of their joy,” she says, and this is something she explores in her practice and in her book.

How To Begin Healing

For the friends and family members of sexual trauma survivors, dr. young’s advice is simple: “Believe them when they tell you,” she says. “Ask how you can support them in their healing journey. Perhaps that’s just listening. Maybe they want you to walk through the body rites workbook with them.”

For survivors of sexual assault who are ready to take ownership of their healing, dr. young says the first step is to acknowledge what happened. 

“It may be one of the hardest things to do but I think it’s important for survivors to be honest with themselves,” dr. young says. “That first step opens the way for what comes next. And it’s complicated and frustrating because now we’re in this position– we have the burden of healing. After all, someone else decided to try to own our bodies. But when we avoid looking at what happened, we also rob ourselves of the opportunity to live differently and to be free.”

Javacia Harris Bowser is an award-winning freelance journalist and essayist based in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the founder of See Jane Write, a community and online platform for women who write. She’s the author of Find Your Way Back, a collection of essays that explore how she’s used writing to cope with cancer and everything else life has thrown her way. Find Javacia on Instagram @seejavaciawrite.