There is mature but not graphic content to this post, please be aware!
Sadly, being abused by someone often leaves us with difficulties around areas like touch, proximity, and trust. Trying to separate terrible feelings linked to abuse from our desire to be physically intimate with another person can be a challenge. Many of us feel damaged, painfully aware of our difference and try to somehow make up for it. We can get ourselves into some really miserable situations if we don’t decide that we have the right to heal from the trauma in whatever way is best for us, and in our own time frame. Feeling guilty and under pressure with a partner is a quick way to end up accidentally replaying the abuse and re-enforcing to yourself all those terrible underlying messages such as ‘women can’t be trusted’ or ‘men are brutes’, ‘my needs don’t count’, ‘I’m horrible and no one would ever want me’, and so on.
The first aim from my perspective is rather like the Hippocratic oath. First, do no further harm. That means trying to stay well away from anything that replicates the initial trauma in that you feel like you are powerless, beholden, or trapped. Without being allowed to say ‘no’ -to anything, at any point, and to change your mind (more than once!) it is very difficult to find your own powerful ‘yes’. Many of us get tripped up and feel that we owe a partner, feel sorry for them being stuck with us and all our issues, or fear that it’s not fair to change our minds at any point. My feeling is that we always have the right to say no, that this is the most critical personal power we need to make touch now different from abuse. The right to change your mind is also important, sometimes having a ‘no’ respected is the very catalyst you need to feel safe and sexy and suddenly ‘yes’ is on the cards! One day you may declare that you don’t want to have sex again for another 2 years to give yourself time to heal. The next you may be feeling free and fun again. Intimacy should not be built on obligation, anxiety, compulsion, or anything but that strong internal ‘yes’. It is not for anyone else, to repay favours, to try to stop someone from leaving, it is not something you can owe to anyone, or something that should ever be demanded of you. The first and most important foundation is that you get to opt out.
Does that mean introducing manipulative games and with-holding into your relationship? If those dynamics are present, I’m sure that an idea like this will be used in ways designed to be hurtful. If a casual partner refuses to agree, I would walk away. If a long term partner turns the idea of having rights over your body into a massive power struggle I’d be very concerned. Does this mean that you have all the rights and your partner none? Not at all – they have exactly the same rights as you do. Getting involved on this level, particularly if you are struggling with an abuse background, requires a level of maturity and sensitivity. If they also have an abuse background, and people with similar experiences often do attract each other, then yes, it’s going to be a bit of a dance to work around all the different triggers and I would expect quite a few days with cold showers in them. Within a good framework where there is trust and respect, a lot of love, care, tenderness, fun, and healing is possible.
You may wish to discuss your history and concerns with your partner/s. They may find this hard to hear about, I’d recommend keeping these conversations out of bed, and they may need support themselves to learn about and cope with the abuse. A tiny word of caution too, you don’t want to find yourself with someone who copes with your history very well because they care very little for you or have a sadistic streak. It might be rocky to be with someone who finds it hard to hear that you’ve been hurt, but it could be a better road in the long run. Try to be understanding that it’s a painful topic for anyone to hear about.
So, with that foundation, what next? How do you stay grounded? How do you stop bad memories intruding? What if you have a panic attack? How do you manage ambivalence? I’m not an expert in this field! Here’s some suggestions from my experience, reading, or things I’ve learned from other people.
It’s okay to be ambivalent. This is the pretty normal reaction to trauma and abuse. You may be excited by and appalled by sex, touch, and intimacy. Both feelings and reactions are real and legitimate. Over time and with appropriate expression, I hope you will be able to separate them and help them to become more distinct. What do I mean by that? When we feel something strongly, it often becomes diffuse, undifferentiated, spreading outwards in a cloud and attaching to many unrelated things. A woman abused by a man may hate and fear all men for a while. A man betrayed by a friend may distance himself from all friends. A child frightened by a person of another race may fear all people of that race. Sex and abuse often feel profoundly tangled in together, over time and with processing they become more separate so that you are able to feel interest in the one and loathing for the other as distinct, separate feelings for different experiences. Give yourself the right to feel all the feelings that you do, and to give them safe expression, and help yourself to untangle the experiences and treat them as separate.
That distinctness between the experiences can be the key to staying grounded and preventing the intrusion of bad memories. If you have clear memories of your abuse, you may be able to quite easily find ways to make sex different from it. This might be in really big ways – never with the lights on/off, never partly clothed, never with loud music, etc. Or it might be something quite small that you use as your anchor. This is something that you mentally come back to as often as you need to remind yourself that the abuse is not happening now, that it is over in the past and this is a new good experience. It might be music, incense, something you can see or touch, a bracelet, anything that has absolutely no link to the abuse or abuser/s. It’s even better if it’s something that has a strong link with your life now, with feeling safe or strong or sexy or loved.
If memories are causing you troubles, you may be an eyes open person for awhile. It might be important to keep eye contact, to stay face to face so you are connected to the person you’re with right now, instead of memories. Body memories can also be difficult, where sensations can be triggered. If this is causing you difficulties, try having a think about ways to manage the triggers. You may find it’s best to avoid sensations in those areas if possible – not being touched on your wrists for example, or certain postures – not having another person’s body on yours, or conversely you may find you can overwhelm bad memory sensations with new positive ones.
If the abuse you experienced is hazy in your memory, was threatened rather than acted out, or occurred in a relationship that moved between sex and rape at different times, it may be more difficult for you to avoid certain things and the undifferentiated distress may cause you a lot of troubles. If you feel guilty or like you shouldn’t let it affect you, this will probably make your distress even worse. Another challenge, particularly for those abused as children, is when your development has been affected by abuse, and certain things have become sexualized that you would not have chosen to react to in that way, such as being powerless. This kind of ‘programming’ can be resilient and distressing, but over time your voice is far more powerful than anyone else’s and you do have the power and the right to choose what you will act on and re-enforce within yourself. Some people gain a sense of power over these things by choosing to bring them into a new relationship, exploring in safe ways the themes of power, or being trapped, for example. Others choose to leave them behind and find new things to make part of their sexual world. Another challenge is if self-harm and abuse have become entangled for you, and you punish and humiliate yourself through putting yourself in situations where you will likely be sexually abused, or where you find yourself replaying the abuse. Sex can be powerful and we can play out in it all kinds of other issues and drives. Try to disentangle it from those that harm you. Be very careful of the harm that re-enacting powerlessness, fear, being silenced, and not having the right to control what happens to your body can do – not only to you, but also to your partner.
If you have a panic attack – it’s not the end of the world. It does help if your partner knows that one may happen, and better yet, has had experience with how to best comfort and reassure you during one! It could be very distressing for them to think they’ve hurt or upset you if they don’t know that you may have a reaction. You may have all kinds of reactions – shaking, crying, needing to be hugged, not being able to bear touch, needing to be spoken to and reassured that you’re safe and loved, to be able to run away until you feel calmer… It doesn’t mean you’ve failed, or that anything’s wrong with you. You may on the other hand feel numb, disconnected, spacey, you may become dissociative, feel like you’re floating or have flashbacks. None of these will actually harm you, although they may be very uncomfortable or embarrassing. They may mean that you’re moving too fast, or that you’re exactly where you should be. Only you can work that out. If you expect to have a huge reaction and don’t – that’s okay too! It doesn’t take anything away from how bad your experiences of abuse were.
Intimacy is also related to how we feel about ourselves. Many people who’ve been sexually abused feel very disconnected from their own bodies, and have a pervasive sense of shame. If you hate how you look and feel, it is difficult to inhabit your own body to enjoy the sensual feelings of intimacy. You need to find a way back in, a link to yourself where you see your own body as yours, on your side, where you are able to befriend it, love it, nurture it, and enjoy it. While they can be very confronting, a mirror may be your friend here, a place in which you can try to see your body with compassion instead of loathing. The sensuality of everyday life – the feel of soft materials, the tickle of grass, the warmth of the sun, these can be safe ways to start to re-engage your senses and inhabit your body. Physical exercise or dance might help you to take care of it and enjoy it.
Some of us get confused and find sex difficult to comprehend while abuse or rape seems ‘normal’. It might be that you are still in contact with the abuser or have positive feelings for them or good memories of their kindness and care. This can be a kind of Stockholming. It might be that you used abuse as proof that someone somewhere had found you attractive, to shore up your low self esteem. You may only feel certain that you are desired if the other person is dominating you. There is another way, and it’s not dull or boring or lifeless. It’s about respect and safety and freedom and love. There’s a kind of depth and innocence and darkness to it that makes abuse feel sordid rather than reassuring. It’s worth going looking for.
Lastly – all sex is not the same. There’s many different kinds. Some are fun or even funny, light hearted and silly. There’s different experiences, emotions, degrees of connection, some takes all night and starts with the finger tips, there’s the rumbly tumbly hair in your face kind, and the looking deeply into each other’s eyes kind, and the quick the flatmate will be home in a minute kind, warm summer nights or stormy autumn afternoons or freezing cold winter mornings snuggled under the blankets kind. Keep this in mind if the idea of ever being able to enjoy sex again feels like an impossible dream. Perhaps some of these kinds of sex have been less tainted than others, are less risky, have less triggers and memories waiting to surface. You reclaim any territory by starting with the easiest bit, and making slow progress, first this and then that, not by trying to take on everything at once and getting totally overwhelmed. Maybe something in particular will be easiest to be inspired by first.
If you’re struggling with issues in this area, I’d recommend looking for some information and support. You are not alone! There are many, many people out there trying to work their way through these issues. If nothing here has been helpful, perhaps you’ll find some suggestions better suited to you in some books about recovering from sexual abuse. SHineSA are also available for information, free counselling and health checkups, I would absolutely recommend them. Many of us are pretty short on good sound information about the complicated world of sex – safe sex, pregnancy, anatomy, what are myths, and without good information sex can be intimidating and confusing! You may find that expanding on your knowledge is helpful. If you are really worried about something sexual, or wanting to but not enjoying sex I would recommend doing some reading or seeking out some counselling. Sexual problems can feel overwhelming and impossible, but as you work things through and learn more, hopefully you’ll be able to put all the right ingredients together to reclaim an enjoyable sex life. It is possible! Good luck and take care.
I’ve written a series about emotionally safer sex with more skills and suggestions – start with Safe sex 1: Checking In. If your, or your partners abusive experience was recent, you could also try reading 5 hours after an assault, Supporting someone after trauma, or My experience of sexual health counselling. None of these have graphic abuse accounts or descriptions of sex.