Dangerous Compassions

sexual trauma and dentistry

Content warning: mention of sexual trauma and dentistry

smiling white woman

Hello, how are you doing?  I want to speak of sexual trauma and dentistry because it’s a great example of how people need different things, and bodies differ.  Shame is not a good motivator for all people, and my outlier needs didn’t come about from choices I made–most came about as a result of trauma I never chose.


Some people have extreme dental anxiety so don’t go unless its an emergency.  Some people can’t afford it, of course.  Not sure how our mouths are such separate parts of our bodies that we might have medical coverage, but not for our mouths!

Going to the dentist means the two days before (at least), life is not very possible because I’m terrified.  Then I need two days after to recover.  The day of, I’m a mess.

In the chair I’m gripping the arm rests and doing kind self-talk: You’re ok.  These people want to help you.  I’m so proud of you.  Thank you for being responsible.  We’ll be done soon.

I try to keep breathing.  It’s hard work to be responsible.


It has to do with pain–it always hurts physically, even when they say it won’t.  One of the worst parts is how I’m not supposed to admit it hurts.  I’m supposed to pretend we are not doing a traumatic thing–there’s not blood oozing from my mouth, I’m not terrified, and when they put the pokey thing into my gums to measure how big the gap is between my teeth and gums, that hurts a lot too.

The shame is even more painful.  I hate the praise when my mouth looks good, and the shame when my mouth looks bad.  They say it like it’s my doing–did I brush and floss enough, did I go to the dentist enough, did I get the expensive procedure or product they suggested last time.  Weird threats and predictions hurt a lot too.

I’m sensitive to it because I’m always sensitive to blame in tone and language, but also because I’m at the dentist, so I’m terrified and in pain.  The vulnerable situation means their shame goes right into me.  They seem to think shaming a patient is the way to get them to take an issue seriously.  I don’t need to be shamed to figure out what I need.

not true

Some of their beliefs are just not true.  When they told me my gums would toughen up if I kept flossing, they were wrong.  I kept at it for a long time, and it hurt a lot every time.

I’ve never heard a dentist or hygienist mention that it could be genes.  There can be differences in how our nerves work.  They pretend a mouth is just a mouth, and we all need the same things.  That’s not true.

Bodies differ.  Ming goes to the dentist with no problem.  He has no anxiety beforehand or recovery time afterward.  For him, it doesn’t hurt physically, and he doesn’t feel the shame like I do.

I realized recently that when Ming and I are eating together, food that’s hot in temperature is fine for him to eat.  The same food at the same temperature is intolerably hot for me–it burns my mouth.  So I think the nerves in our mouths are different, or there’s a difference in how our bodies process nerve information.

Hot food in my mouth hurts and makes me panic.  Hot food in his mouth is fine.

sexual trauma and dentistry

The part that’s hard to talk about is how dentistry feels like the sexual trauma of being violated as a young person.  The trapped feeling, being extremely vulnerable and often in pain, my entire body telling me to run away, but there’s a reason I can’t because it will be worse for me, if I run.

Shame is mixed in, and the denial of what’s happening.  Sexual violation and dentistry are very similar, in a way.  I’m supposed to pretend the horrific thing that was just done to me wasn’t just done to me.

When dental stuff comes up in conversation, and I mention I haven’t been to the dentist in a long time, people think they understand, saying, “Yeah, dentist is no fun.”

Maybe they do understand or have it in a different way.  A good friend of mine has a sensitive gag reflex, so dentistry is terrifying for that.  Vomiting feels very personal to her, so it turned into a very anxious situation.

we all need different things

My point is that we all need different things.  Please stop saying, “We’re all just people, and we all need the same things.”  Yes, there are things people can have in common.  But my needs might differ, and that doesn’t make them wrong, bad, or faking it.

My terror of going to the dentist means I can’t go unless I can’t avoid it.  Having mouth issues like tooth infections or gum disease could shorten my life  That’s not a joke.

I didn’t choose to be sexually violated as a child–the trauma I carry is nothing I chose.  Yet I carry that burden with little understanding from others, and feel blamed for my dental aversion by people who don’t have a clue what I’ve endured.

The conversational moment where I could tell my friend, “Sitting in a dentist chair feels a lot like being sexually violated as a child,” is a weird moment.  I could share my truth, but that will seriously disturb my friend.  Almost always I avoid saying that because I feel guilty, making my friend imagine the harm I endured.  I choose to protect my friend from the ideas.  I wish I had been protected from the harm as a child.


Dentistry has some weird problems with it.  Being shamed by dentists and hygienists is something that’s happened to me almost everywhere I’ve tried.  Does shame really work?  Something tells me it’s not even an effective strategy, let alone a kind one.

If there was a clear question at the beginning about whether I have any needs they should know about, and I felt free to share what would help me, that would be great.  It’s just assumed that I’m a normal person who has normal dental anxiety.  Asking for something special at that moment isn’t possible because I can barely function.

Sedation dentistry is a thing, but I’m afraid to be sedated because I need my wits about me.  I’m too scared to trust these people while I have reduced cognition.  I need to be in control of myself, to protect myself.

When I had an MRI, they offered me a pill to sedate me since I’m claustrophobic, but I was too afraid to take the pill.  It’s like that.  The help that’s offered can’t be used by the people who most need it.

thank you

Thank you for seeing that people are different and have different needs.  If you were not violated as a child, thank your lucky stars and your caregivers.  If going to the dentist is no biggie or a minor annoyance, thank goodness.  Money not a problem, mouth not sensitive, nerves work in a usual way?  Count your blessings and smile.

Of course other things are hard for you, and I’m not saying your life is easy.  But it’s great your life can be easy in that way.

Please consider taking that ease and somehow making life better for people who are not so blessed.  Consider how to help people who were violated as children, people who need different things from you, people who are disabled, in poverty, misunderstood.

I think of the elders I live with who were chronically homeless and don’t have working teeth.  There are so many reasons.  Thank you for widening your concept of needs.

By Laura-Marie

Good at listening to the noise until it makes sense.

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