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Sexual Abuse Survivors and Sex

source: Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist

Many sexual abuse survivors struggle to have positive and enjoyable sex lives. It can be very hard to feel comfortable with and enjoy sex when you’ve been sexually abused. Even people who haven’t been sexually abused struggle to feel comfortable with their sexuality and sex. This article may be helpful to anyone who has issues with sexuality.

Many Survivors Are Vulnerable to Further Abuse

For many sexual abuse survivors, sex becomes linked with sexual abuse. As a result, some survivors will mistake unsatisfying and unpleasurable sex, or even sexually abusive behavior, for sex. This means that survivors can be vulnerable to being further abused. As a survivor, this is not your fault. You may not know: that you have the right to enjoy yourself sexually; what a mutually satisfying sexual experience is; what you want sexually, and that those needs deserve respect; and that you can say “no” and have that respected.

Abuse teaches the opposite – during abuse, your needs don’t matter; you have to cater to someone else’s sexual needs. Your sexual desires don’t exist, and if they do exist they don’t count. And of course you have no power to stop the abuse.

Some survivors believe that’s what sex is – unenjoyable and abusive – or that is how it is with a man, or with a woman. They may also believe that’s all they are good for, that they can’t expect anything better, and that if sex isn’t enjoyable it’s their fault or the result of their own inadequacy – they are “damaged”. These reactions and beliefs are outcomes of abuse and need to be challenged – because they are not true.

Sexual Abuse Is Not Sex

One of the hardest things for abuse survivors to do is separate sexual abuse from sex. I know you may know this intellectually, but it’s worth repeating many times – sexual abuse is not sex. Even if you liked the attention, approached your abuser for attention, were aroused, or had an orgasm, it’s still not sex and you are not responsible.

Placing responsibility on the abuser is one of the most important steps in separating the sexual abuse from your sexuality and sex life. That may involve feeling anger at your abuser, holding him/her responsible (in your own mind), grieving your victimization and powerlessness, and reassuring the hurt child inside you that it wasn’t her/his fault.

Sexual Abuse Becomes the Model For Sex

Sexual abuse is often the child’s first introduction to sex. Children are too young to understand what sex is so it’s not surprising that many abused children mistake abuse for sex. After all, it does involve sexual contact, sexual body parts, and sexual stimulation. Sadly, sexual abuse becomes the child’s model for future sex.

It is crucial to find ways to separate your sexuality and sex from sexual abuse, and to create an entirely new association with sex – one that is positive, safe, and fun. You may need to discover your own sexuality – what it means to you, what you enjoy, and what gives you pleasure. It helps to develop a sexual relationship with yourself including self-pleasuring and discovering how you like to talk, move, dance, or interact with others when you’re in touch with your sexual feelings.

You may want to fantasize or read about sex, view erotica,and talk about sex with your friends or partner. If you have a partner try to be playful about sex – cuddle, massage each other, talk about fantasies, and ask for what you want sexually. Sex can be playful, fun, and safe.

The Myth That Sexual Abuse Causes Survivors’ Sexual Orientation

Because same-sex abuse is considered to be the same as lesbian and gay sex, many people believe that same-sex abuse causes survivors to be gay. On the flip side, when a survivor has been abused by a member of the other sex and the survivor identifies as gay, it’s assumed that that, too, is the result of abuse. This can cause a lesbian or gay sexual abuse survivor to question her/his sexual identity. Many heterosexual survivors also struggle with questions about their sexuality because of the confusion and negative associations about sex that are created by sexual abuse.

It might help to try and remember if you had any sense of your sexual desires prior to the abuse. What gender(s) were you attracted to then? If you can’t remember or you were abused very young, you may need to start paying attention to who you are attracted to now, who you feel most comfortable with emotionally and sexually, and who you fantasize about. You may need to see or read about positive images of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or heterosexual sex to help you discover what feels right for you.

The challenge is to find ways to connect deep inside yourself and unearth your own truth – your own sexual desires, fantasies, passion, and emotional and sexual attractions. Working on separating the abuse from your sexuality will help clear some of the confusion. If you are gay and fear that your sexual orientation was caused by the abuse, you may want to learn more about gay sexuality from a positive perspective – for example read some gay-positive books, look at lesbian and gay websites, and talk to a gay help line or a gay-positive therapist.

When You Don’t Feel Safe With Sex

Sexual abuse robs survivors of their ability to feel safe in the world and with themselves. Internal safety is the extent to which you feel safe when the situation you are in is safe. Many survivors feel unsafe even when the person they are with or the situation they are in is safe. There is a difference between feeling safe and being safe. The first is a feeling and is affected by your past experiences with safety or lack of safety. The second is an actual fact about whether or not the people you are with or the situation you are in is safe.

It’s so important for survivors to develop a sense of safety (internal safety) as well as to have ways to identify whether or not people and situations are safe (external safety). Both internal and external safety are needed for enjoyable consensual sex. Without internal safety, sex can feel very scary and triggering. Without external safety, the sex will not be safe, consensual, or pleasurable.

Some ways to develop internal safety:

  • Create a safe place for yourself inside your home – a comfortable place that you can call your own. No one should go into this space without your permission, it is yours.

  • Imagine what an ideal safe place would look like. It doesn’t have to be reality based, you can create a fantasy safe place. Really let your imagination go with this; you can imagine anything you want. What would be there? What would you see, hear, smell, and be able to touch? How would you feel in this safe place? Spend time with this imaginary safe place on a regular basis to strengthen your internal experience of safety.

Some ways to develop external safety:

  • Explore your definition of external safety. What does it mean for a person or a situation to be safe? How do you know when you are safe? How do you know when people or situations are not safe? What contributes to your feeling safe, and what interferes with your ability to feel safe? What are your internal signs that tell you when someone or a situation is not safe?

  • Identify what helps you to feel safe with a sexual partner. Do you need to talk during sex? Do you need to talk about issues before having sex? Do you need to know that you can stop at any time? Do you need to practice saying “stop” or “no” during sex? Do you need to have opportunities to initiate sex?

When Trust Is an Issue

Because sexual abuse is such a major violation of trust, many survivors have difficulty trusting their own perceptions and trusting other people. Building trust in yourself – knowing and trusting your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, intuition, and perceptions – is crucial, and will help you to know who you can trust.

Without a minimum of trust, sex is scary, unsafe, and unenjoyable. Different people require different amounts of trust in order to enjoy sex. Some survivors require a great deal of trust, and must know the person they are going to have sex with a long time before they feel comfortable to have sex. Others do not require as much trust to enjoy themselves sexually. Both are okay; it’s just important to know your own boundaries and to respect them.

Developing internal trust means becoming aware of and respectful of your own feelings, physical sensations, intuition, thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions – or in other words, your own reality. They are your guides and can be relied upon. At the same, it’s important to know the difference between what you have learned to be drawn to or are comfortable with because of its association with the abuse, and what is coming from a deeper, wiser place from within you. Exploring these issues in more depth will help you to make those distinctions.

Building a Comfort Level With Intimacy

For many survivors being intimate – emotionally or sexually – can be very scary. Many survivors dissociate from intimacy, yet they crave the closeness at the same time. Fear of intimacy is often rooted in fear of being vulnerable with another person and of being hurt by them.

Some suggestions to build a comfort level with intimacy:

  • Take little steps whenever you can to increase your intimacy with someone you trust and are safe with. This could mean sharing something personal, talking about your feelings, touching them, asking for a hug, holding eye contact, inviting them out, calling a friend, reaching out when you are upset, or staying present for as long as you can in their presence.

  • During sex, take it slow, stop when you need to, and breathe in and feel what you are feeling. Be aware of how you are feeling in your body. Take your time. Hold eye contact. Touch your partner. Stay connected with your partner. Talk about how you are feeling.

Being In Your Body

Because sexual abuse is an invasion and an attack on the body, many survivors feel cut off or distant from their bodies. They may view their bodies as being responsible for the abuse, or at very least intimately linked with the abuse. This negative association between your body and the abuse needs to be broken. Your body doesn’t deserve to be thought of this way.

Many survivors hate their bodies, and feel betrayed by their body’s response during abuse. Some survivors refer to their body as “the body”, distancing themselves from their bodies in order to not feel pain.

Being in touch with and living in your body is key to enjoying your sexuality and sex. But often that means going through a lot of body and emotional pain first. This happens because our bodies hold tension and feelings from the abuse as well as our responses to the abuse. This tension needs to be released so that you can feel your sexual feelings and enjoy them.

Some ways to become more in touch with or connected to your body:

  • Breathing exercises. For example, close your eyes, and focus your awareness on the natural rhythm of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. If you get distracted, keep bringing your focus back to your breath.

  • Body awareness exercises. For example lie down and become aware of what you notice in different areas of your body, such as tension, feelings, associations, visual images, and memories.

  • Relaxation exercises. For example, lie down and tense up one area of your body, holding your breath at the same time. Hold your breath for the count of ten, then let your breath and tension go. Continue like this with all areas of your body.

  • Notice how you feel in your body when you are feeling sexual. This includes different kinds of sexual feelings – for example, when you feel attracted to someone, when you feel sensual, when you are aware of yourself as a sexual being, when you are sexually aroused, and when different areas of your body are sexually aroused. Breathe into those feelings and areas of your body. Spend time with those feelings on your own and with a partner. Learn to ride the waves of all your feelings, including sexual feelings.

Dealing With Triggers During Sex

Survivors are often triggered during sex or while anticipating sex because of its association with abuse. Working on separating the sexual abuse from your body and your sexuality will help you to become less triggered by sex. Focusing on being present in your body and in your immediate environment will also help you to remained rooted in the present.

Some suggestions for dealing with triggers during sex:

  • Identify that you are triggered. If you feel any of the following feelings during sex and it’s not related to how your partner is treating you then you are probably triggered: scared, numb, dissociated, dirty, ashamed, ugly, self-hating, panicky, and very anxious.

  • Know that when you are triggered, you have a choice. You can decide to put the feelings or memories aside to be dealt with later, or you can deal with them at the time. Sometimes this doesn’t feel like a choice, but there are ways to contain, separate from, and manage triggers so that you can put them aside and deal with them later. Ways to separate include self-talk, reminding yourself where you are and who you are with, letting yourself know that you are safe, asking for a safe hug, and doing whatever you need to do to feel present again. For instance, you can visualize placing the trigger away for another time by creating an image that represents the abuse and visualize putting that image in a safe place until you are ready to deal with it. You can talk about the trigger and then tell yourself that you want to put it aside for now and be in the present. You can focus on the present moment by looking around the room, noticing what you see, smell, hear, and touch.

  • You may choose to go into the trigger by being aware of how you feel, and what you see, hear, smell, and remember. You can let yourself go through the natural rhythm of the trigger. As with any feeling, triggers have their own rhythm of increasing feeling and tension, and then subsiding and decreasing in intensity.

  • It may be enough to acknowledge to yourself and/or your partner that you are triggered, and what it’s connected to if you know, and then return to the present moment.

  • If a certain sexual act triggers you, a good guideline for minimizing the effect of that trigger is to approach the sexual act gently and slowly for a short period of time, and then stop for a while or completely, and come back to it later. Each time spend a little longer on the activity, building up your ability to stay present and to feel the feelings in your body.

Taking Charge of Your Own Sexual Enjoyment

Many survivors wait for others to initiate sexual contact with them or to ask them out on a date. They may fear initiating sexual contact or contact that could potentially become sexual. There are many reasons for this; you will need to discover your own. Some common reasons include: a fear of behaving like the abuser or being seen as behaving like a perpetrator; a fear of being rejected and vulnerable; a fear of standing out, being noticed, or being the center of attention; and a fear of being seen as sexually unattractive, undesirable, or unlovable.

Knowing why you are afraid to initiate sexual contact or to ask someone out on a date can help decrease that fear. Working on your specific issues. For example, finding ways to feel better about yourself, your body, your sexuality, and your attractiveness and lovableness. You might want to set small attainable goals such as asking someone out to a movie without having to worry about initiating sex. You could practice touching people in a friendly, casual fashion – not just people you are attracted to, but rather working your way up to that. Role play asking someone out or initiating sex. This can help prepare you and give you the words you’re searching for. Just talking about the problem with someone can help, too.

Many survivors feel they must accept whatever their partner does to them sexually, rather than take an active role in their sexual enjoyment. Knowing what you want, what turns you on, and asking for that is crucial to your sexual enjoyment. Only you can really know what feels good and exciting to you.

Many survivors have to overcome a great deal of shame and guilt about their sexuality and their bodies in order to feel comfortable asserting their sexual needs and desires. Most survivors have learned to do the opposite; they’ve learned to endure, be quiet, please others, and to not be powerful by asking for what they need.

You can become more assertive by discovering with yourself what you enjoy, talking with your partner about it, starting to ask for what you want in other areas of your life, and gradually asking for something that you want sexually. Some survivors find it easier to hold their partner’s hand and guide them rather than talk about what they want. Some like to show their partner how they like it by doing it themselves in front of their partner, and then letting their partner take over. Whatever works for you is just fine.

Sexual Healing Is Possible

It’s definitely possible for survivors to feel better about their sexuality and sex. The key is to break the association between your sexuality and the sexual abuse, and to create a new experience – one that is safe, fun, and pleasurable – for yourself as a sexual person. You don’t need a partner to do this, although eventually you may want to include someone in your sexual journey. At times, it may feel like it’s taking a long time, but try not to get discouraged. Being patient and compassionate with yourself will help your sexual healing.

© Kali Munro, 2001 (reprinted with permission)

Kali Munro, M.Ed., Psychotherapist    (416) 929-4612


Disclaimer:   I am not a health care professional. I am an abuse survivor. The resources on this site are for information and education only. Information on this website is meant to support not replace the advice of a licensed health care or mental health care professional. Please consult your own physician for health care advice.

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