My experience of sexual health counselling

A few years ago, I took myself off to see a counsellor at my local sexual health clinic. I was anxious as all hell, looking for some support while I grappled with my sexual orientation and dysfunction after previous distressing sexual experiences. What I thought was going to be a brief fix to my anxiety, sending me on my way with some reassurance, has turned out to be some of the most useful and powerful therapy I’ve done. This is completely at odds with everything that says that people with DID need intensive therapy by experts in dissociation and multiplicity. To be honest I manage a lot of that side of my life pretty independently. But help in some areas, such as sexual health, has been invaluable for me.

I didn’t see the counsellor very frequently, often we had a month or two between appointments, but the conversations have changed my life. I developed a routine for sessions, I’d follow them with a trip to the Shine SA resource library and borrow books about bisexuality, sexual dysfunction, sexual development, sexual health in seniors, feminism, gender, and culture, essays about being the children of gay parents, and so on, then I’d head over to a café to sit and ponder the session, write in my journal and sometimes cry into a my chai latte.

What I’ve learned is that sex isn’t a side issue the way we think it is. It’s treated as a specialist topic, quite separate from other issues such as trauma recovery or mental health. But for me, it’s not an issue off to the side of my life, it’s part of my foundations. My experiences and beliefs about sex impact my sense of self, my approach to life, my ideas about relationships. Conversations about identity, power, communication, relationship, love, consent, and desire have had a profound impact upon most aspects of my life and health.

I started with thorny confusion about things like: I think I’m into women, but what if I’m wrong? What if I start dating, some lovely woman falls in love with me, and I break her heart? What if my attraction to women is caused by abuse? What if I’m just trying to piss off my father? …Or conversely, what if I only think I’m attracted to some guys because I’ve been culturally conditioned to think that’s normal? Or because of abuse? (if abuse can make a straight person think they’re gay, can’t it also make a gay person think they’re straight?) Does God hate me? Is this about lust or love? Can it be both? Does what happened to me ‘count’ as abuse? Does my history mean I might abuse other people? How do we define abuse? How do we engage as sexual adults when we’ve been traumatised as children? Does abuse really destroy you forever? Is it possible to have a great sex life after trauma and abuse? How do I navigate coming out late in life?

I have never been able to discuss most of these things with other therapists. Even those who specifically work in the area of trauma and child sexual abuse have not been comfortable discussing sexual matters explicitly and matter of factly. We would talk in generalities, but never openly. Usually the therapist would look deeply uncomfortable and change the topic.

In this therapy, all things were discussed, without shame. There was space for frank discussion, it was respectful, appropriate, and very real. I remember one session starting with the therapist looking me in the eye and saying “so let’s talk about masturbation”, as I blushed with embarrassment and laughed with relief that here, the taboos could be spoken of. (obviously we had a rapport at this point) What use is therapy, if not for the discussion of things you can’t speak about?

These conversations have touched on crucial issues that have helped me to understand so many other areas of my life, such as key experiences that drive my intense self hate, my distress and confusion about the exercise of power, and my tangled and painful sexual development and struggle to reconcile myself to my sexual orientation. More importantly, they’ve helped to free me from them.

A while ago, I said thank you and goodbye. I was sad and grateful and looking to the future. I have navigated coming out as bisexual, and found myself a comfortable place under the umbrella term queer. I have started dating and fallen in love with a beautiful and complex woman, Rose. I have gently ended seven years of celibacy and discovered it is possible to have a wonderful sex life despite having an abuse history and issues with trauma. I have learned a vocabulary I am comfortable with to think, read, and talk about sexual matters. I have overcome sexual dysfunction. I used to suffer from vaginismus, an involuntary flinch reaction due, in my case, to traumatic experiences. While I still don’t like them, I can usually handle medical interventions such as gynaecological exams. I no longer sob with some undefinable, overwhelmingly intense grief every time I masturbate. I’m learning to embrace the diverse gender identity within our system. I have a context for pain and confusion in my childhood. I have begun to understand the cost of family secrets and cultural norms that I inherited, to find ways to face and understand legacies of shame and fear. I no longer think that I was a monster as a child. I am beginning to understand just how little we do understand about sex and sexual development. I am facing my demons and finding some frameworks that make sense. I am looking to the future and thinking about how I engage the world as a parent.

I’m not finished. I’m still living with trauma. I’m still living with the devastation of a family divided by abuse, shame, secrets, and fear. I’m still living in a culture that treats sex as a commodity, that confuses love with narcissism, that struggles to understand consent, that traps victims of abuse in a place of disconnection, silencing, and the expectation of permanent dysfunction, and groups all offenders, those fearful they could be offenders, sadists, the abused, children, criminals, people in breakdowns, pimps, into one box marked ‘inhuman, evil, kill on sight’. I still have questions, losses to grieve, things to understand. But I don’t look at the world, or myself through the old frameworks any more. On the one hand I have a powerful legacy of trauma, distress, self hate, and confusion. On the other hand, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me and never was. I don’t need to hate myself or to fear sex.

Our ideas about child abuse are often inadequate and ill informed. In the same way that I hear so often often from people struggling with multiplicity who “are not a real DID” (their words, not mine), we don’t have a good understanding of the diversity of people’s experiences that cause pain and suffering. Each creates its own ‘Gap’. There are those who experienced the horrible, sordid stories we are familiar with, who understand how effortlessly lives are split into day and night, the things we speak of and the secrets we keep. There are those who’s stories sit further down spectrums of torture, victims of organised crime or isolated with inventive sadists and debased in ways that defy our sense of hope in humanity. There are also those who experienced harm in contexts that left them wondering if they had any right to claim refuge under the term ‘abuse’, cousins on the farm making grotesque comments about animals mating, a teacher who stood too close and arranged too many private conversations and spoke about his sex life but never touched, an aunt who left porn lying around the house. There are also people who’s harm was not exposure to sexual contact but to silence and fear and shame about anything sexual; menstruation, nocturnal emission, infatuation. People who have never been sexually abused but who have been told they are ugly and repulsive for years, who find this makes sex an experience of painful exposure and deep shame. People who were told they were lucky because they were only ‘almost raped’, or because they were beaten instead of molested. People who struggle to make sense of their experiences and untangle their unique combination of terror, numbness, excitement, shame, curiosity, self loathing, comfort, and loneliness. Some stories have a familiar anguished simplicity to them, the brutality of a more powerful person taking from a more vulnerable. Others are paralysingly complex, people who found some comfort in the sexual experiences when the other parent was so terrifyingly violent, or children who re-enacted sexual abuse in games with each other without realising their gravity. We tend to want to rank traumas but my experience has been that anything that makes you feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you, any story you can’t share and own, anything that makes you hate yourself, has the power to kill you.

There are not many in my past who did wrong with the intention to harm me. Some of my bad experiences for example, were by a peer, then also a child, who had themselves been terribly abused. Sadism is present in my story, but it doesn’t dominate it. Most of my ‘monsters’ were themselves profoundly damaged and abused, which is in some ways easier to process and understand, and in other ways harder. Part of my pain was stories told and secrets that were shared that needed keeping still, and part of it was also being forced to observe sexually abusive behaviour between other people in my personal life. Self hate and a profound conviction that I was evil, and myself a monster, stemmed not only from abusive experiences, but from confusion about my own culpability as a young child, from appalling frameworks that made it impossible to develop any interest in sex without being framed as a monster, creep, unfeminine, dirty, or unholy. Frameworks where being queer, multiple, having a complex relationship to gender, and being attracted to other women were all seen as sickness, sin, and depravity. Frameworks where I was not allowed to control my own body, not allowed to say no to touch that made me uncomfortable, where I must play a role and obey social convention. Frameworks where my body belonged to someone else for their pleasure, where the stakes were astonishingly high and the risks of failure to be perfect and behave as I was required to could not just impact my life but damn my eternal soul. (this is not to suggest that all religions have harmful attitudes towards sex, or that all non-religious cultures are sex-positive)

Like my experiences with bullying, the incidences of contact we think of when we talk about child abuse are not really where the most damage was done to me. There was a much more mundane, insidious harm. The cultures of ignorance, secrecy, shame, confusion, and victim blaming is where I suffered. These cultures can harm people without any direct abuse ever taking place. When we make all the conversations about trauma, and a narrow definition of trauma at that, so many people with struggles miss out on support and resources. I remember once asking a psychologist I was seeing if I could attend the ‘sexual abuse support group for women’ he was facilitating. He told me that my none of my experiences of trauma really qualified as abuse, and that would make the other women feel uncomfortable. It’s been cold comfort to later piece together the complex jigsaw of my life and determine that some of my experiences certainly did fall within that definition.

Like many of us with bad experiences, I’m still grappling with how to translate my knowledge into something that is an asset rather than a poison for my own children, into wisdom and courage instead of paranoia and shame. How can we bear it, those of us who know exactly how vulnerable children can be, and how dark the world but can get? I cannot go forward with the belief that I can control everything and prevent terrible things from ever happening. I can hope that my familiarity with this particular underworld may have sharpened my senses. I put my faith in all the learning that tells us it is not so much the act of being touched that does such harm, it is the lack of support and love, it is the world shattered by secrets, it is the stories we tell to and about children who’ve been hurt, and the stories the abusers tell them, and the stories children tell to themselves. Terrible things sometimes happen to children. This knowledge makes me want to scream at a pitch that will shatter the world. But people also heal, and they heal very well when they know that the world can be terrible, when they can speak about their pain, and when they have love and support and skills to navigate trauma. Many, many cultures in this world who have been destroyed by war, famine, poverty, crime, earthquakes, and the horrific sex crimes that often accompany crisis and social breakdown would attest to this. Resilient cultures mourn and rebuild. I will try and figure out how to be part of a resilient culture, and how to support my children to be resilient. I will try to make sure the frameworks are good, healthy, sex-positive ones. Between the rage and the terror, I will try to accept my limitations in making the world a safe place for my children. I will fight and be aware and do everything in my power, and then I will try to have faith in our capacity to grieve and heal.

I am less afraid. I can speak now. I can read books, search the net, look for information when I’m lost and confused. I’ve found that I’m not alone. Conversations about sex happen everywhere in my life now, and there’s so many people struggling. People with abuse histories, with disabilities, mental illness, with orientations, identities, or desires that mean they don’t fit in the majority, people with anxiety and confusion about sexual health, desire, love, consent. The need is so much greater than me, which is why I started writing my series about emotionally safer sex. I’ve not been struggling and confused because there was something wrong with me. I was struggling and confused because the whole world is conflicted. Mixed messages, terrible advice, wild assumptions, misinformation, disconnection, disappointment, grief, and confusion are everywhere. We confuse privacy with shame, bragging with honesty, coercion with romance, obsession with love.

In sexual health counselling, I found what I needed to be able to engage with this part of the world, and this part of adult life. I don’t have all the answers, but I have a place to stand. The most useful part of this counselling for me, when I drown in shame, confusion, and silence, is the very clear memory of someone speaking with me with compassion, without disgust, without fear. Conversations that untangled sex from shame, and desire from destruction. My hope is that, in some small way, sharing such a personal experience with you will help you also to find this place within yourself, or to be a gentler and more loving support to someone else who hasn’t found it yet.

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