This week’s Booktastik interview is one of depth and hope and the most meaningful interview we’ve conducted to date. We’re interviewing one of the editors, Cathy Plourde and three contributors Maureen Shaw, Jordan Masciangelo, and Teri West from the recently released non-fiction book Making Out Like a Virgin: Sex, Desire & Intimacy After Sexual Trauma. Unfortunately, there are so many instances of sexual abuse in our society — adults, children, men, women, transgender — no one is safe from the potential of sexual violence. But this book strives to give hope to people who have suffered.
Seventeen brave souls have come together to share their stories of triumph in learning to live, love and enjoy sex again. This is the most meaningful interview we’ve done to date, and we’re honored to share it with you, our readers.
Welcome to Booktastik, and thank you so much for talking to us. As one of the the editors for this book, along with Catriona McHardy, what was your motivation to put it together?
Co-editor Cathy Plourde: I’ve always had an interest in telling stories that aren’t generally heard, finding ways that voices can do more than testify–how can a story transform? We wanted to add to the field. The stories of people moving from survivor to feeling great are hard to find. The telling of the trauma is part of the healing and gaining freedom, and, at some point there is more freedom–love, joy, sex, desire–to be gained.
What emotions did you go through while reading the stories and editing the work?
Cathy: It wasn’t unusual to be moved to tears when we looked at drafts. Each piece seems to shed one more shaft of light on the journey survivors all travel. We tried our best to help people tell their story as clearly, and honor their voice and style, and shine their light as brightly possible. In reading drafts we exclaimed more than once: This is why we’re doing this book.
I imagine there are many readers who have been able to relate to the stories. Have you had strong positive responses
Cathy: We have. Some readers say they read it cover to cover in a sitting. Others say they took it in a story or two at a time. Some said they felt seen. Some who have not had sexual trauma themselves said they felt they gained a lot of insight into their own lives and sexuality.
How did you go about finding contributors to this book, seeing as how it deals with such a sensitive issue?
Cathy: We put the word out through our networks, social media, and the universe. It seems that people found us! There were a number of people who we interviewed and who interviewed us who didn’t come into the project, or who started and found it wasn’t going to work for them at that time. But everyone was enthusiastic and confirmed that they wished there had been this kind of a book for them when they were on the recovery path.
Did you get to know the authors well while working with them?
Cathy: This was strangely intimate, but we knew our limitations as editors. When we asked people who were considering working with us about their support system, we did so because opening up to tell of the joy and success can also open up old and difficult memories. This book was done remotely, via phone calls, Skype, and email, spanning at least two continents and five time zones because I was in England and Catriona was in Vermont, while our contributors were across the US, and in Australia, Dubai, Egypt, Ireland, and Canada. So if a writer needed personal support, we would not be their first choice. We wanted to make sure that our writers were ready on their home front if they needed a hand.
What has editing this book taught you?
Cathy: I’m reminded that we do not know people like we think we do. The complexities of each individual’s trauma and the journey afterward are unique, yet there is a powerful universality to these stories. I’m awed by people who have found their way to fully exist when they’ve endured really harmful things; I’m blown away by their ability to not only survive but to thrive.
Do you plan on having more editions of empowering stories?
Cathy: We hope that this collection will inspire and accompany many more survivors to find agency, a strengthened voice, and wholeness, and we’re open to the possibility of similar collections in the future. Animal Mineral Press, an emerging publisher that put this book out, has a catalogue in development with social justice themes as a throughline for their fiction and nonfiction for young readers to adults. So there are other important and interesting titles coming soon.
That’s great news, Cathy. There’s definitely a need for many more empowering books, and congratulations on the successful release of Animal Mineral Press’s debut anthology.
And now we hear from the amazing and generous contributors, people who have gone from just surviving to thriving.
Is this the first time you’ve told your story?
Maureen Shaw: No. I began publicly telling my story during undergrad—albeit uncomfortably at first—but it’s something I write and speak about often now.
Jordan Masciangelo: I’ve actually been telling my story for quite a few years now. I first publicly told my story almost 10 years ago on a stage in front of a room full of police officers as part of a seminar on how to deal with male sexual victimization. Many opportunities grew from that little seminar, and to date, I have spoken at over 25 conferences, seminars, and educational courses. I have also written many online articles, participated in radio interviews and awareness campaigns and have even appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Teri West: I’ve spoken of it to friends and have become comfortable sharing it over the years, as it is a part of me and has had a great impact on who I am. I have wanted to write about it for years, but this is the first time I’ve told my story in a public format.
Did you have to think twice when you were asked to contribute to this anthology?
Maureen: Absolutely not. The positive message of the book instantly attracted me; yes, we are survivors of sexual violence, but we are thriving now. And that’s something often left out of the sexual violence narrative. We get to reclaim our lives and our stories, and ideally offer hope to other survivors who may not yet see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.
Jordan: Nope. The ideas in this book spoke to me the moment I read the email asking about being a participating author. It is so important for other survivors to understand that their story is not as unique as they may think. We are a community, and we need to work together to help heal each other. There is life beyond abuse, beyond survival, and beyond recovery. It is important for me to share that message with as many people as possible, and this book was the perfect way to do that.
Teri: Not at all. As soon as I heard what the subject was, I wanted to contribute. I had come to a point in my life where I was writing a lot, and I knew I wanted to tell my story, but the particular purpose and theme of the book–recovering from sexual trauma–was not how I had been thinking about telling my story. I immediately wanted to share how I had come through the process of healing, knowing that so many other people were suffering with such similar experiences. Also, reflecting on and writing about the healing process as a part of a larger community of a shared experience gave the healing a kind of concrete reality for me; it made it stick in a way that talking about it to friends hadn’t done.
If you hadn’t told many people before, was it difficult sharing your experience?
Jordan: Although I had indeed told many, many people my story over the years, writing my piece in this book was a whole different ballpark. I had the opportunity to really get deep into those feelings and express them in a way that ended up being very different than when I speak my story out loud. In a way, this felt even more real, more authentic than anything I had ever done. It was difficult at times, but I knew the more vulnerable I could be in the piece, the better the piece would be.
Teri: It was not difficult at all. After almost 40 years of living with these memories, I could talk about my experience nonchalantly. Only when I saw the reaction on people’s faces, sometimes horror, sometimes pity, sometimes disbelief, did I think about how important it was for me to remember the gravity of it and to share it in a way that could be helpful to others who have had similar experiences.
How hard was it to relive the horror of your abuse in telling your story, and how did you overcome any fear or difficulty you had so you could tell it?
Teri: More than anything, telling my story was a healing process. The horror of it has long faded into the past.
Did you find relating your story of survival and success in overcoming what you’d been through empowering?
Maureen: Every time I tell my story—whether it’s online, in person or in this book—I reclaim the power I felt was taken from me during my assault and the turbulent years thereafter. There is immense power in storytelling and I’m beyond proud to be included in this anthology.
Jordan: I believe that the very cornerstone of recovery is telling your story. Whether it is writing it down or speaking it out loud, there is nothing more cathartic and empowering than owning your story and letting others know it!
Teri: I kept this story locked inside me for six years before I could tell a living soul. Telling my story, whether through spoken word or written word, has been my path to recovery. I have told this story countless times to friends and I have written about it in personal journals, and each time I feel I reclaim a part of myself that had been taken away from me.
What advice would you give to others struggling with their self-worth and having difficulty living a fulfilling life, both in a sexual and non-sexual way, after having been abused?
Maureen: This sounds cliche, but believe in yourself. Know that while something horrible happened to you, it does not define you or your worth as an individual. And know that you deserve help, love, and compassion.
Jordan: Always have hope. Life can often be a gruelling war and at times you just want to throw in the towel, but if I could give one piece of advice, it would be to just hang on. I know it sucks. Recovery does not come easy, it never happens overnight, and it will most likely get worse before it gets better—BUT, if you commit to the idea that you are much more than just a survivor of sexual abuse, you will become SO much more than a just survivor of sexual abuse!
Teri: Communicate with the people who are your most trusted and intimate confidantes. When you are feeling like you are worthless, or ashamed, or having difficulty embracing your sexuality, talk about it. Let them know. Locking yourself up inside that dark space and keeping yourself “protected” from the world feeds the beast of shame and guilt. But it takes time. Be patient with yourself. Be kind to yourself.
What was the catalyst that made you decide to face your past, put your fears aside, and live for the future?
Jordan: I was sick and tired of the complacency. I was alive and in recovery, but there wasn’t much else. I used to walk with my hood up and my head down—staring at my feet as I walked down the street, letting people and opportunities pass me by because I was scared of what they might think or do. One day, I decided to lift my head, look people in the eye and face the world that had been so cruel to me in the past. The result: it wasn’t cruel at all! It was a wonderful and inviting place. My recovery skyrocketed from there, and I set out to connect and seize those opportunities that I was so foolishly ignoring.
Teri: I had gotten to a point in my life where I had the physical distance and the emotional maturity to tell that first friend my secret six years after it happened. I had blamed myself for what happened, and seeing my friend’s reaction and her horror, her outrage at the man who had done this to me, was an epiphany. From that point on, each friend I told was another baby step to recovery. That first step, though, was the hardest.
What were the hardest emotions you had to deal with in order to learn to enjoy sex again?
Jordan: Sexual abuse does a number on your sexuality. After the abuse, sex came easy. It was a means to an end. As I grew older, it was the sex-love combination that became the monster under my bed. They were extremely hard to reconcile with each other.
Teri: I had linked sex with love in my mind for so many years and thought I had to give sex in order to be loved. I still struggle with this. It has been the most difficult part of my sexual relationships, and it seems I have to keep learning that lesson again and again.
What is the thing you are most proud of achieving at this point in your survivor’s journey?
Jordan: I’m most proud of the fact that I can stand here today as a happy and healthy man with a beautiful life and a beautiful family. I’m proud of myself and the work I put in for all those years because it has allowed me to be who I am today. I have achieved accolades and awards for my outreach work, but that doesn’t compare to the achievement of the peace and self-worth I have found in myself.
Teri: I like my body. I am not ashamed of it. I can say no to sex without feeling guilty and I can have sex without feeling shame.
In order to be able to love yourself and enjoy sex again after having been abused, do you think it’s essential to ask for professional help, or can you get there by yourself?
Jordan: I think it is absolutely essential. We can’t do this on our own and we shouldn’t have to. Trauma is a devastating thing, and no matter how many times we tell ourselves “I’m fine,” it will never be true until we take the issues head on—and that fight needs be supported.
Teri: I don’t know the answer to this. Everyone is different. For me, I would never have gotten to the place I am without professional help. I would never have been able to confront my mother without the support of my therapist.
What has been your favourite part of being able to tell your story in book form?
Jordan: It allowed me to really step back and tell my story almost as an outside observer with inside information. It was a unique and rewarding experience to be able to get down to the nitty gritty of the story and pluck out what I think would be valuable to readers.
Teri: Owning it. Being proud of my struggle and sharing that struggle with others in a way that I hope is healing.
I’m sure it takes different people different amounts of time to be able to love themselves and enjoy sex again, but how long did the healing process take you, and is it a continual process?
Jordan: I do believe we all spend a good chunk of our lives reconciling and healing from our past and it will forever be apart of who we are, I just think there comes a point in one’s recovery where it doesn’t impact your life so forcefully as it once may have. For me personally, it took a good ten years of therapy, healing, self-care, and self-discovery to get to where I am today.
Teri: It has been a continual process for me. I didn’t start healing until six years after the fact, and then it took another four years before I was in therapy. I was in and out of therapy for another 10 years or so. And then each relationship I’ve had has brought different issues to the surface. My marriage, now going on 18 years, has been another deeply healing and recovering process.
What did you learn about yourself during the recovery phase?
Maureen: Despite the many moments of feeling weak, anxious and scared, I am STRONG. I waded through some very ugly emotions for years as a result of being assaulted, and I’m still here! As the saying goes, I have survived 100% of my toughest days.
Jordan: I learned that I am a resilient little bugger! The strength that I always had but was never really aware of really began to shine through, and it was a force to be reckoned with!
Teri: I’m constantly learning about myself. The most amazing thing is that as human beings, we are all constantly learning, experiencing, living; each moment, each experience in life is another opportunity for growth and wisdom, if you look at it that way.
If someone is a sexual partner to someone they know has been abused, what can they do to make the experience easier and more enjoyable for their partner?
Maureen: Patience and communication are key for any sexual relationship, but all the more so when one partner has been assaulted. Take the survivor’s lead.
Jordan: Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Most of us aren’t psychics and all of us have sexual hang-ups, so without an open dialogue, things can get messy.
Teri: Listen. Communicate. Let the survivor know that you are there and support them in whatever way they need it. Be patient. Be kind.
Thank you all so much for being on Booktastik and sharing just a small part of your inspiring journey. It’s been an honor talking to you, and I hope your stories reach everyone they need to. I hope you all continue to thrive and show others how to as well.
The anthology, the debut title from Portlyn Media, was nominated for a Foreword INDIE award in the self-help category. Making Out Like a Virgin: Sex, Desire & Intimacy After Sexual Trauma is available in ebook and print, with an audiobook edition narrated by award-winning narrator Tavia Gilbert. To grab a copy from Amazon, just click on the book cover below (it’s also available at Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Apple iBooks), and if you want to visit the publisher’s site to keep up to date on all their coming releases and read some reviews of the book, go to AnimalMineralPress.com.
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