This month, I’ve published a few articles for women, particularly for women with a history of abuse and/or trauma.

Today’s article is an important one following up these blogs, but before you read any further, I’d like to invite you to read them first as they will put context on the work we have done so far (identifying unwanted behaviours, acknowledging trauma, understanding the role of attachment, and taking responsibility for our own recoveries/safety).

Find these articles here and here.

Recapping …

What we’re learnt so far that is that many women have experienced unwanted attention, either sexually, emotionally, or physically at some point in their lives. Especially if these happened growing up, women are likely to allow abuse to occur in the future as they don’t have the skills to prevent it, lack assertiveness training to communicate their needs, or seek comfort wherever they may find it, regardless of the cost to pay to get it.

In short, their anxious attachment style means they are driven to avoid rejection at any cost, even if the relationship with a person is underwhelming or questionable.

As a sexologist, I have lots of conversations with people about sexuality. Imagine my surprise when an extremely well versed member of the BDSM community introduced me to a term I’d never actually heard of when discussing this notion. “Ah, the old comfort whore,” he said, “In the nicest way possible, of course.”

“Comfort whore?” I laughed. Okay, I guess there is truth to it if we consider the example of Sheridan in our first article. Sheridan didn’t care what she had to do, as long as she got to be held in the end. Side notes, she would have been better off to seek a Dom partner for this purpose as they take meeting their sub’s needs seriously VS hooking up with a guy who couldn’t have cared less about poor old Sheridan’s issues. Anyway, I digress 🙂

Finally, our last article talked about the importance of understanding the above so that women could be empowered to articulate their intentions and wants in a healthy way, and not assume that good men had a crystal ball to read our needs from without our souls. Essentially, we talked about starting fresh with an self-advocacy lens, support from the sisterhood, and the enlisting of good men to change decades of gender inequality when it comes to abuse and sexual/emotional trauma.

The Shark Cage framework

This model, designed by Ursula Benstead in 2018 is a simple, down to earth, visual metaphor to help women build resilience following DV and sexual abuse (training available here). However, it’s so common sense that it could literally be used by anyone for anything to build inner strength.

In short, picture a shark cage, plain and simple.

What would be needed to keep the shark out of your cage? How confident would you feel about your safety with the picture above compared to the one below? What differences can you see?

I don’t think it takes a PhD to work out that the cage with the strong bars is more likely to keep us safe than the cage with the rusty and eroded ones. Basically, when we have suffered trauma and/or abuse growing up, this is what our cages end up looking like. Because being taken advantage of/allowing bad behaviours is something these women have done for decades, they’ve sort of forgotten (or not learnt) how to keep their bars checked for strength, and end up with every shark in the land poking their noses where they shouldn’t.

Early in my career, I wondered why a woman who had experienced sexual abuse or DV often ended up experiencing it again. Why would these women be so “unlucky” to pick these men over and over again? Until I clicked that they were magnets for them, simply based on the fact that they didn’t how to protect themselves. The sharks simply kept swimming until they ran into weak cages, and bang, here we went again.

It’s not these women’s fault. However, now that we know this, we have to work our hardest at building Kryptonite resistant cages that even Superman himself couldn’t break in. THAT is what these lot of articles are about. In my usual blunt ways, enough wallowing. It’s time for change because we rock. We will embrace this journey until our boundaries are like concrete boulders keeping anything less than what we deserve out.

Shark cage in action!

I’m going to use an example that Ursula has used when explaining her framework. It’s brilliant and I recommend you read her whole article here.

Let’s compare Sheridan with Sophie in the same situation that Sheridan found herself in a couple of weeks ago:

Take five minutes to process the two scenarios. We all know how it ended for Sheridan, but isn’t interesting that the same scenario for Sophie had a complete different outcome?

Sheridan’s bars were weakened based on years of trauma and different experiences from Sophie. Now, Mister X was the same guy. He wasn’t even a bad guy at all in the scheme of life, but he sensed Sheridan’s weakness and like a good shark, he followed the scent of blood until he got what he wanted out of her.

The five steps to building a resistant cage

Step 1: Understanding the metaphore

Step 2: Renovating the cage

Step 3: Installing an alarm system

Step 4: Defending breaches in the cage

Step 5: Identifying potential sharks

Simple tips for us to start differencing between sharks and dolphins…

Alright, now I’m by no means a trainer for this fabulous model so rather than butcher it, I’ll just give us some pointers to start with.

Set clear boundaries

It’s easier to be prepared when we’ve rehearsed the scenarios in our mind. What are clear boundaries for you? What are acceptable standards? What are you willing to accept/not accept from others? From friends, to work colleagues and romantic relationships, be prepared to set healthy boundaries so that your bars have got the right tags on. There is a good chapter in my book Unlock Your Resilience that you might find helpful on this topic.

Learn assertiveness

It may sound simple, but it’s the key. When people learn to be assertive, they’re able to express their needs clearly, avoid ambivalence and ambiguity. There are no doubts left as to what can or can’t happen, and everyone’s rights are maintained. There’s also quite a bit on communication and assertiveness in most of my books for kids and adults alike. Check them out.

Recognise the alarm bells

Sheridan knew in her gut something didn’t feel right. Yet, she didn’t know whether she should trust it or ignore it. One good strategy for women is to become familiar with their internal alarm bells. Do they feel ‘wrong’, ‘awkward’? Does your body feel pain or tension anywhere? Basically link body and feelings together until you recognise any clear negative vibe that should not be pushed away.

Remove the emotions

If you were to remove the emotions out of all the scenarios, what would be left? This might be helpful to process events as they arise. If you were watching this in a movie, would you scream at the heroin to run and not turn around on her way out? If yes, then that’s probably what you should do.

Talk to someone

If you’re anything like most people, talking to a third party out loud may help you problem solve the situation on your own. It’s incredible how voicing things can be enough for our brains and heart to know what we should do. Like the words break the shame, guilt, and hesitation in one blow.

Role Play

Practice these situations with trusted friends and/or relatives until it doesn’t feel so weird or foreign anymore. Though it may sound silly, in reality it’s very helpful in preparing your body and brain to practice faking it until you make it.

Observe the facts

Another therapist and I were discussing the difference between judgment and profiling this week. I thought this was quite interesting. It’s true that we can’t deny the facts. If a person tells you they’re well established but are living in squalor, kind and respectful but have DVOs against them, or how special you are but they’re saying this to everyone else as well, the odds are these people are sharks in disguise. Again, remove the emotions and profile them with no judgment. What do the facts actually say?

Become aware of your blind spots

Whether it’s about attachment, trauma history, mental health, or anything in between, be mindful of your blind spots and what drives you or influences you. Some of these things, you’ll work on alone. Some others, you may need professional help to process. Don’t assume that these blind spots will go away on their own. Instead, seek help and address them for good (and I can help, give me a call!)

Let’s start appling these and see the difference it can make

Alright, why not put some of these into action and see whether we can strengthen the shark cage a bit more. I’d love to hear your thoughts, see how this journey is working for you, and of course, I’m always an email away.

Why not leave a message below for other women to see they’re not alone?

PS: As always, as a women’s health professional, I work for women and these articles were written for them, however by no mean am I implying that these couldn’t apply to men, or that all sharks are men. I send my love and respect to the good men around us and thank you for helping the sisterhood in this journey xoxo

PS: My next article will be on BDSM as a form of therapy. If you have any thoughts, let me know. If you’d like a specific topic next, also let me know 🙂

Couple counselling, couples therapy, sexology

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