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I'm a sexual abuse survivor: how do I get okay being intimate again?

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Anonymous asks:

I'm 15 years old and was sexually abused for two years in the past. How do I get over my intimacy issues?

The last boyfriend I had, anytime we were physically intimate, my chest would get really tight, I'd often start to shake, and I'd go into this blank zone where I'd just stare at the ceiling and my body would be completely unresponsive. It was really scary. Sometimes he would notice and ask me if I was alright, and I would just kind of nod numbly so I wouldn't disappoint him. Since that relationship, I've dated a little, but now it's gotten to the point where even kissing makes my stomach roil. I've had to stop seeing them so I wouldn't be put into a situation where they would try something physical. I cannot bear the thought of anything remotely sexual, and I feel like it's rapidly becoming an unstoppable downwards spiral.

I want to enjoy intimacy, not be terrified and repulsed by it. It's odd having my sisters gush over how good it feels when I just want to throw up. I feel really abnormal. I also feel like I'm never going to have a working relationship because what guy is going to want to be with a girl like me? It's frustrating, because I'm perfectly okay with all the other aspects of a relationship (of course I'd like to have someone to hang out with and cuddle with and all of that), but I'd just like it without the sex part.

What should I do? Is there any way I can fix this? I'm currently in therapy, but I still don't feel quite ready to open up and tell my therapist about my intimacy issues. It's easier this way. I hope you can help, I don't know what to do and I certainly don't want to get any worse!

Heather Corinna replies:

Clarisse: the very first thing I want to say, and want you to try hard to hear, is that you are not abnormal, nor are you some kind of basket case. You're simply someone healing from a serious injury.

With at least one out of every four women being raped or sexually abused at some point in your lives, we're not looking at a majority of women dealing with this issue, but we are looking at many, many, MANY women who have to heal from sexual abuse and assault and work out how those wounds impact all kinds of relationships, obviously including sexual ones. As well, childhood sexual abuse -- and given your age, that is clearly what we're talking about -- can be even harder to deal with than other types. That you're here and you are talking about this at all, seeing impediments to your healing and seeking to work through them, is an achievement in and of itself. This is hard, hard stuff, and it takes a strong person to deal with it.

What kind of guy would want to be with a girl with these issues? Well, the kind of guy who likes and cares for the person you are. Look, at LOT of people in the world have deep wounds from one thing or another, and even people who aren't traumatized often have emotional baggage. We have relationships together in spite of that because one thing intimate relationships are about is providing one another comfort and support. Close relationships are never just about two people somehow having no barriers to intimacy: they're about investing the time, over time, to gradually become closer. Certainly, if someone wants to take a swim in the shallow end of the pool, a partner coming back from a heavy trauma isn't going to be the partner for them, but at the same time, that person probably wouldn't be so swell to be in a relationship with, either. People who truly want real intimacy are up to the challenges that that intimacy presents, including the wounds of their partners and themselves. Plus, when you're through this -- and even now -- an abuse survivor tends to be a very strong, compassionate person. Those are incredible qualities in a partner.

That said, one thing I'm seeing in your previous experience is that you kept having sex anyway, even when you were dissociating, and even when that is not what you wanted to be doing. That's a real mistake, and doing that IS often going to impact your trauma by adding even more trauma to the plate. What you're describing in what's happened before are a couple of things. That "blank zone" is called dissociating. Your mind is going somewhere else to try and protect you from something which is traumatic for you, and that's part of post-traumatic stress. But when that's happening, and we have a choice in what we're doing, the clue that gives us is that we shouldn't be doing whatever brings that on, because we're not yet in a space where that's really wanted or healthy. And in all truth, if you have a partner who is continuing with sex at all when that's going on, that's not a good partner to be with: when one partner is totally zoning out, the other partner should simply be stopping what they're doing, since a partner not-fully-present is clearly a partner not really wanting to be sexual. As well, you should only ever be engaging in sex when it's something YOU want as much as your partner, and not just to keep them from being bummed out, but because you want to be having sex for sex's sake.

It sounds to me like right now, it'd probably be best to take a break from dating, unless you're dating someone who also wants to, or is fine with, having any kind of sex be off the table for the time being, and who absolutely understands -- even if you aren't comfortable telling them why at first -- that that isn't somewhere you can go for the time being. If even kissing turns your stomach, it's just not a cool thing to do to yourself to put yourself in a spot where you have to deal with that. You can't force yourself to be fine with something that just isn't right for you now, and it IS okay that you're not feeling okay with it. What you're describing, again, is totally normal for sexual abuse survivors. It might be best if for right now, until you can get a better handle on this, you stick to friendships, and only pursue dating when you're more comfortable with physical intimacy and romance. You're really young: it's not as if you have to worry that somehow romantic love or sexual relationship opportunities are going to pass you by. They're not: you've plenty of time for that, and until the time is right for you, it's not going to be something that makes you feel great anyway, so why go there?

I think some of that downward spiral you're feeling was due to putting yourself in sexual situations, or situations where there was some expectation of sex, when you're just not there right now, and not yet at a point where you have some of the tools you need to manage sexuality after abuse. If you cut yourself a break, don't beat yourself up for not being there, and just go at a pace that really feels right for you, I do think you'll feel a lot better, and start to see some real improvements.

It's great you already have a counselor, and I think it is time you brought this stuff to the table with your therapist. You say things are easier this way, but clearly they are not, because you're obviously struggling with them pretty hard. I suspect the reason why you don't want to talk about this is because you think you feeling like this is somehow abnormal, but it's really not. In fact, if your therapist knows about your sexual abuse, I can assure you that he or she is likely already assuming you are having these issues, since most sexual abuse survivors will deal with exactly what you are right now. If you have not told your therapist about your abuse yet, I'd also strongly encourage you to do that, or seek out a different therapist if you're not comfy being open with this one. If you just can't, then I'd suggest you do find someone you can talk to about this who is versed in these issues. We can't heal from abuse trauma when we can't talk about it. If that person isn't your therapist, you might look into what rape counseling services or support groups are available in your community (often, those with them offer them for free or at a sliding scale), or even just come gab with other survivors at our message boards or call a rape/sexual abuse crisis hotline and talk that way. The RAINN hotline is free and available 24 hours a day. It's: 1-800-656-HOPE.

One other thing I'd suggest is that if your sisters know about your abuse that you simply ask them for now to please do you a kindness and not go on and on about how wonderful sex is. It's obviously great they feel that way, but it's of course tough for you to hear about right now, and you deserve consideration and sensitivity in this respect. It's not some huge sacrifice for your siblings to make to just tone down the sex talk around you while you heal some more and work your way through this. It's also not some kind of bizarre request on your part. If you'd broken your leg, it wouldn't be weird to ask people talking about how awesome it is to dance to do you a favor and chill out since you're stuck on your chair in a cast, after all. Right now, you have an injured sexuality, so you're just asking for that same kind of consideration.

There is a wonderful book out there I often suggest for sexual abuse survivors grappling with partnered sex and sexual relationships by Staci Haines, called The Survivor's Guide to Sex. I couldn't encourage you enough to go and seek out a copy, as I think it will be very helpful for you, even if -- and I think that for right now it's best you do -- you take a break from sex and dating for a bit. Hopefully, you will have other supports and resources, but even if you do, it's a great companion to those other resources.

Okay? Hopefully, some of that will help you get a foothold on starting to get over the hump with this. Do know that as terribly frustrating as it can be, healing from sexual abuse and assault does tend to be something that takes a good deal of time and effort, and which also has stops and starts. Sometimes, things will seem like they're becoming more okay again, and then we'll feel like we got thrown back a few paces. That's obviously not wonderful, but it is realistic, and is how healing tends to go for most people. But when you do put in the time and effort, and do everything you can not to push yourself overmuch into things you aren't ready for, and allow yourself the time and space you need to heal -- as well as the simple acceptance that you were done serious harm, recovering takes time and that none of this is your fault or anything to beat yourself up about -- things really will start to get better.

Please also know that your sexual abuse is unlikely to prevent you from having enriching romantic and sexual relationships in the future.

Most of us CAN do that, most of us DO have those, and when you've had some more time to heal, it's very unlikely that kissing and even various kinds of sex are going to remain things that are not enjoyable for you. It's just about only seeking them out when you've done some more healing, gotten some good coping tools under your belt (including being better able to seek out potential partners who can deal with this and partnered sex with sensitivity and real consideration for both of you), and when that is what you really want, for yourself, not just for a partner or because you think you have to do that to be normal. "Normal" people, for a whole host of reasons, nix sexual relationships or sex for periods of time often. We don't have to have sex to be "normal," and if having sex when we don't want it, when we're not into it, and when it isn't enjoyable is normal, then being normal isn't a good thing to be.

written 21 Dec 2007 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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