- By: Wendy Maltz, LCSW
I hate sex. It feels like invasion of myself and my body by someone else. Life would be great if no one ever expected me to be sexual again.
“My penis and my heart feel disconnected. I use sex as a way to blot out pain when I’m feeling down. Masturbation is a lot easier than having sex with my wife. She wants a lot of kissing and hugging and I’m uncomfortable with all that closeness.
Like Tina and Jack, many survivors of sexual abuse suffer from a variety of sexual problems. And it’s no wonder. Sexual abuse is not only a betrayal of human trust and affection, but it is, by definition—an attack on a person’s sexuality. Our sexuality is the most intimate, private aspect of who we are. Our sexuality has to do with how we feel about being male or female, and how comfortable we are with our body, our genitals, and our sexual thoughts, expressions, and relationships. When you were sexually abused — whether you suffered a gentle seduction by a loved relative or a violent rape by a stranger — your view and experience of your sexuality were effected by what happened to you. The good news is that a variety of effective healing techniques now exist to help survivors overcome the sexual repercussions caused by abuse. What are the sexual problems caused by sexual abuse? The ten most common sexual symptoms of sexual abuse are:
- avoiding or being afraid of sex
- approaching sex as an obligation
- experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
- having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
- feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
- experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
- engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors
- experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
- experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
- experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties
What is sexual healing? Sexual healing is an empowering process in which you reclaim your sexuality as both positive and pleasurable. It involves using special healing strategies and techniques to actively change sexual attitudes and behaviors which resulted from the abuse. The process of sexual healing often includes: gaining a deeper understanding of what happened and how it influenced your sexuality, increasing your body and self-awareness, developing a positive sense of your sexuality, and learning new skills for experiencing touch and sexual sharing in safe, life-affirming ways.
Sexual healing can take several months to several years, or more, to accomplish. It is considered advanced recovery work and thus, best undertaken only after a survivor is in a stable and safe lifestyle and has addressed more general effects of sexual abuse, such as depression, anger, self-blame, and trust concerns. There are different levels of sexual healing work that a survivor can pursue; from simply reading about recovery to engaging in a series of progressive exercises, called “relearning touch techniques.” These exercises provide opportunities to practice a new approach to intimate touch. While some survivors are able to progress in sexual healing on their own, others find it essential to enlist the guidance and support of a trained mental health practitioner.
Professional care is recommended because of the high possibility that sexual healing will stir up traumatic memories and feelings. You don’t need to be in a relationship to do sexual healing work. Some exercises are designed for single survivors. However, if you have a partner, your partner needs to become educated about the sexual repercussions of abuse and learn strategies for participating actively and effectively in the healing process. Here are some ideas for how to get started in sexual healing:
1. Learn About Healthy Sexuality.
A first step in sexual healing is to learn to distinguish abusive type sex from healthy sex. If you commonly use words like, “bad” “dirty” “overwhelming” “frightening” “hurtful” and “secretive” to describe sex, you need to realize that these are descriptive of “sexual abuse.” “Healthy sexuality” is something very different. It is characterized by choice, consent, equality, respect, honesty, trust, safety, intimacy, and sensual enjoyment. In the books that you read and the movies you watch, decrease your exposure to abusive sex images and increase your exposure to examples of sex in which partners are responsible and express love and caring for each other.
2. See Yourself As Separate From What Was Done To You.
We are all born sexually innocent. Due to sexual abuse or subsequent sexual behavior, you may erroneously believe that, sexually, you are bad, damaged goods, or merely a sexual object for someone else’s use. Let the past be past, and give yourself a healthy sexual future. You are not strapped to the negative labels an offender may have called you or to the way you saw yourself as a result of the abuse. Now you have choice and can assert your true self with others. Old labels will disappear as you stop believing them and stop acting in ways that reinforce them.
3. Stop Sexual Behaviors That Are Part Of The Problem.
You can’t build a new foundation for healthy sex until you’ve gotten rid of sexual behaviors that could undermine healing. Sexual behaviors that need to go, typically include: having sex when you don’t want to, unsafe and risky sex, extramarital affairs, promiscuous sex, violent/degrading sex, compulsive sex, and engaging in abusive sexual fantasies. If you can’t do it on your own, seek help from 12-step programs and other supports. It takes time to break old habits and learn how to channel sexual energy in ways that nurture the body as well as the soul.
4. Learn To Handle Automatic Reactions To Touch.
Many survivors encounter unpleasant automatic reactions to touch and sex, such as: flashbacks of the abuse, fleeting thoughts of the offender, or strange reactions to something a sexual partner does or says during lovemaking. While these reactions are common, unavoidable, even protective, results of trauma — years later –they can get in the way of enjoying sex. By developing understanding and patience you can learn to handle them effectively. When you experience an unwanted reaction to touch, stop and become more consciously aware of the reaction. Then calm your self physically with slow breathing, self-massage and relaxation techniques. As soon as you can, affirm your present reality by reminding yourself of who you are now and that you have many options. You may also want to alter the activity in some way to make it more comfortable. Automatic reactions will diminish over time as you become more aware of and responsive to them.
5. Familiarize Yourself With Touch Techniques.
You can use special touch exercises to help you relearn intimate touch in a safe and relaxed way. Different from traditional sex therapy techniques (which can be overwhelming to survivors), the “relearning touch” techniques provide a wide assortment of exercises from which to choose as you feel ready. You can do some relearning touch exercises on your own, while others require a partner. Detailed descriptions of the exercises can be found in my book, The Sexual Healing Journey, and my video, “Relearning Touch”. These exercises help you develop skills such as: feeling relaxed with touch, breathing comfortably, staying present, communicating with a partner, having fun, and expressing and receiving love through physical contact.
The exercises are progressive and follow a sequence from playful, non-sexual touch to sensual, pleasuring touch activities. When necessary, you can address specific sexual problems, such as orgasmic and erectile difficulties, by modifying standard sex therapy techniques using the new skills acquired in relearning touch. You can repair the damage done to you in the past. You can look forward to a new surge of self-respect, personal contentment, emotional intimacy. When you reclaim your sexuality, you reclaim yourself.
- Recognizing Abuse (reclaimingmynarnia.wordpress.com)
- Friend or foe? (thehindu.com)
- Preventing Childhood Sexual Abuse as an Historical Movement (psactampa.wordpress.com)
- Coping With The Trauma Of Sexual Abuse (sextehniques.wordpress.com)
Women who have been sexually abused and/or raped often struggle with having pelvic exams performed on them even decades after the trauma. Here is a great post they can print out and take to the healthcare provider showing a pelvic exam is often NOT justified.
There is a hidden battle brewing within the medical community about the misuse of physicians’ valuable time. Three female Doctors have come together to write a compelling journal article showing how the significant amount of time physicians spend conducting pelvic exams on asymptomatic women is unjustified. Doctors Westhoff, Jones, & Guiahi (2011) state “Overuse of the pelvic examination contributes to high healthcare costs without any compensatory health benefits“.
Physicians use four justifications for conducting pelvic examinations, but Westhoff, et al. (2011) reveal how the justifications are no longer relevant in light of current research, advancements in technology, and new guidelines put in place to reduce harms of over screening for cervical cancer. The four justifications used by physicians to conduct pelvic exams on asymptomatic women, together with the counter-arguments against them by the research authors, can be summarized as follows:
- Justification #1: Screening for cervical cancer.
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Anyone who has suffered from the trauma of abuse of any kind knows that one of the scariest feelings is that of having no control. Feelings of grief, sadness, and loss are common. With help and time those feelings tend become easier to resolve internally than the feeling of fear. Fear is debilitating. Fear is paralyzing. And with abuse, fear comes in many forms.
Adult survivors of abuse commonly report one of their biggest fears as losing control of their lives. This is so common because of the survivor‘s primed physiology. When an individual is physically threatened…..or perceives that they are….. the body’s complex biology kicks into gear releasing hormones and other chemicals which we typically refer to as the fight or flight syndrome. A component of that syndrome with particularly negative consequences is that of repetitive thought. Put simply, your brain lays down a specific neuronal connection associated with the event that is easily activated over and over again. Many survivors feel like they are “losing their minds”, an expression of this repetitive thought process over which they feel they have no conscious control. Out of desperation, trying to silence these thoughts, many survivors turn to mind numbing substances both legal and illegal. Sadly, this typically creates more problems than it solves in the long run, even if the survivor achieves a measure of temporary relief.
So as a survivor, or a member of that person’s support system, how can one take back that sense of control? How can you stop the cycle of unhealthy repetitive thought? Is there a way to reclaim some measure of control without creating additional havoc? In my experience, there absolutely is a way. Nobody is going to tell you this will be easy or without some pain, but the payoff is worth it. And believe it or not, one of the first steps is to learn to let go.
As a survivor of abuse, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to take inventory of the people in your life. It’s proven through many studies that like attracts like, so if you find yourself surrounded by people with negative energy, your thoughts are then pulled into negativity. Identifying the people in your life that are not positive and supportive, then taking the necessary steps to let these people go, will be one of the best steps you can take towards living your best life. Another critical step is to reach out for help. Not one of us lives in a vacuum, even if we wish we did, and finding someone you can talk to without fear of judgement or criticism is vital.
There are many new fields of trauma therapy available that help you regain control and release your fears. These include techniques such as energy psychology, visualization, meditation, mindfulness, and self-hypnosis. Research the different forms of therapy available to you and find the one that fits best. With time and support, you will find a way to let go of those negative thoughts and move on. Keep on going forward, you are worth it and you matter the most.