Talking openly about sex is important for finding support, healing trauma, as I learned from Brooke Shields

I learned about how people dissociate to detach themselves from trauma by watching the “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” documentary on Hulu. It was a revelation.

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Brooke Shields in New York last month.

Brooke Shields in New York last month. In the “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” documentary on Hulu, she talks about an experience she had that left her wanting only “to erase the whole thing from my mind and body and just keep on the path that I was on.”

Mike Coppola / Getty Images

During a rare weekend hangout, my college best friends and I — now in our early 30s — went against our strict Catholic upbringing and asked ourselves: Why can’t we talk about sex?

I’m usually pretty reserved. To make me blush, a simple smile by the right guy is all I need. But this was not a time to be shy. This was a golden opportunity to learn by talking with friends with varying sexual experiences and lifestyles.

The conversation was steamy, with room for some laughs but still thought-provoking.

Sex toys shouldn’t be a stressful turnoff, try something that will make you work less, one friend suggested. Another curious friend asked me to explain the physiological process of how a man can be sexually attracted to another man. And porn — is it just a form of entertainment that a partner should be free to explore, or could that break a relationship?

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Later that night, I went through my own college experiences.

I thought about missed opportunities, like when the most attractive guy in the marching band made a move on me at a Halloween party, and I froze in disbelief. I thought about times I was glad I said no, like when the persistent resident adviser asked to come into my dorm.

And then I thought about the time I didn’t have the chance to say no. It happened after a long day of school, followed by two hours of working out. I showered and was taking a nap when I woke to the realization that someone I trusted was taking advantage of me. Exhausted, I fell back asleep during the assault.

The next day, after remembering that experience, I told my friends. They were shocked, as they knew the person, a nice guy in our social circle. Telling them did grant me some relief, but there was still a mystery that left me unsettled.

I had forgotten I was a victim of sexual assault, yes. But also I clearly remember continuing my friendship with that person until graduation. We laughed and shared beers around the barbecue grill, as if that ugly abuse of trust never happened.

Who does that?

Well, recently, I learned that such dissociation is pretty common. It’s a detachment from reality, a natural reaction to trauma and one of the many defense mechanisms the brain uses to cope with sexual violence, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

I wish I’d learned that by talking to a loved one. But it was through a weekday viewing of the “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields” documentary on Hulu.

While sipping on instant noodles, emotions came bubbling up, and I became teary-eyed as my brain found the answer it was looking for.

Dissociation is mentioned throughout the documentary. But what resonated with me was when Shields had a meeting with a person who was “always nice” to her. They go up to a hotel room. He disappears and comes out naked. She freezes. As she makes her way to leave, the man nonchalantly says, “I’ll see you around,” still with no clothes on.

“I wanted to erase the whole thing from my mind and body and just keep on the path that I was on,” Shields says.

A young Brooke Shields in the Hulu docuseries “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”

A young Brooke Shields in the Hulu docuseries “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”

ABC News Studios

I don’t know how long her detachment lasted or whether it was as extreme as mine, but I was relieved to have someone I could relate to.

When my friends and I shared what we do behind closed doors, even though we trusted each other, there were still some nerves. With sex being such a shushed subject, there’s definitely a sense of vulnerability a person needs to talk about it openly. 

We need a system of rapport — and sometimes therapy — to learn that we are not alone with our specific kinks. And when sex gets ugly, and you’re ready to talk about it, it’s good to know there are different roads to recovery, and you are not alone there, either.

If you believe you are experiencing dissociation, talk with a healthcare professional or someone you trust. To speak with someone trained to help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to online.rainn.org to chat online.

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