The road to recovery after sexual trauma looks different for everyone—and all survivors deserve a chance to heal on their own timetable, and in their own way. Getting back in touch with your sexuality (if you choose to do so) can be one of the most complex and difficult aspects of this healing.
Nienke Helder is an artist, designer, and sexual trauma survivor herself who knows that journey all too well. And that’s why she designed some amazing tools to help survivors gently and gradually ease back into sex. A recent graduate of Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Helder presented her set of “sensory objects” at this year’s Dutch Design Week.
“My project was inspired by my own experience with sexual dysfunctions after some traumatic events,” Helder tells Scary Mommy. “As I went through the recovery process, I got very frustrated with how clinical it all was and how much focus there was on penetration. After recovering in a totally different way, I realized that a much more holistic/interdisciplinary approach would be so much more helpful.”
And that is how Helder’s much-needed, inspiring project was born.
According to Dezeen, a Dutch design magazine that featured the project, Helder worked with medical experts as well as women in recovery to design five objects that can be used to help women rediscover their sexuality after sexual trauma.
“The objects encourage women to explore what feels good to them, which in turn, relieves fear and pain, and help them regain a sense of security about their bodies,” writes Dezzen.
Not only is this such a refreshing and important concept, but the objects themselves are beautifully designed—even calming and relaxing to look at.
The first object is an ergonomically designed mirror (with a light!) so women can explore their vulvas and vaginas. “Research shows that if you look at your own vulva, it increases your body positivity a lot. But if you have a trauma, it can really be confronting to look at your own body,” Helder tells Dezzen.
Next is a brush made of horse-hair, which allows women to explore soft, light touches. The brush can be used alone, or with a partner. If you are ready to explore your sexuality with a partner, Helder thinks doing so with an object like this can be a great way to ease yourself into it, and also open up communication with your partner.
As she explains to Dezeen: “If you have a trauma, it can be really difficult to talk about it. But by giving someone an object and making them part of the therapy, it opens a lot of doors for conversation.”
The next two objects are based on the concept of biofeedback, and give the user information about whether or not they are tensing up or exhibiting signs of stress. One is an object placed on the belly; it lights up if your breathing becomes stressed or tense, reminding you to relax and breathe. The other measures the stress in your pelvic floor, vibrating if you tense up.
“Trauma creates certain reflexes in your body that comes from your subconscious mind,” Helder says. “To break that cycle, you need to rationally understand what is causing these processes in order to overcome them emotionally.”
The final object is a gorgeous silk kimono, which was designed to make you feel warm and relaxed during sex. Warmth is an important aspect for Helder, who says that cold feet can inhibit orgasm in some women.
As of now, the objects are not available for purchase, but Helder hopes that will change eventually. She tells Scary Mommy that in order for her to get the tools officially approved for therapy in the Netherlands, she needs to do some more work with research institutions.
“This is a long and complex process, but I’d rather bring something successful onto the market that actually helps women, then something that just sounds like a good idea,” says Helder.
There is definitely demand for the work that Helder is doing. And as she shares with Scary Mommy, the response to her project has really blown her away. Survivors of sexual abuse have told Helder that they see themselves in her story, and they feel grateful that someone is finally finding a way to address their needs. She has even received positive responses from the medical community, and was proud to be invited to speak at a conference about pelvic floor issues.
While the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, there are a few naysayers who seemed to have missed the point of her project.
“Of course there are also people that think it’s a shit idea,” Helder says. “Mostly I think that they misunderstand what I’m doing, some people think I just make dildos, but behind each object is a long research into a specific thing it tries to solve and the objects together also overlap in function.”
Helder wants it to be clear that healing from sexual trauma is about more than finding the right objects or tools work through your feelings. She views the objects she made as only part of the solution.
“When you are dealing with a trauma, it’s always good to talk to a professional,” Helder says. “The objects are more meant to serve as guidelines, to explore, to get to know your body, to recover step by step.”
Can we please give this woman a standing ovation? The work she is doing is brave, sensitive, and thoughtful—and it shows brilliant artistry and craft to boot. We hope that her products will be available for purchase ASAP, and that more women like her will continue to brainstorm ways to ease sexual abuse survivors back into their sex lives gently, and with love.
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