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Navigating sex and sexuality after a long history of abuse and assault

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Sara asks:

When I was younger, (think 8 to begin with) my uncle kissed me on the mouth and told me that was the way I was supposed to kiss boys. It catapulted me out of normal 8 year old states of mind and left me obsessing about sex. I masturbated A LOT and had what I thought years later what might have been an orgasm at 11.

I thought that everyone was as sex obsessed as I was, which was probably due to the enormous amounts of media attention paid to having sex, trying to have sex, making yourself sexy enough to have sex, etc. It might also be useful to add that I was way ahead in school, so my peer group were at least 2 years older than I was, meaning that the boys around me were hitting puberty when I started this crazy sexual revolution...

CJ replies:

Sara continues:

...At first I was reading all sorts of tantra books and preparing myself for wonderful sexual experiences, but then the guys around me started taking advantage of my blossoming sexuality, and my first mostly committed relationship was to a guy who told me years later that he had been intentionally manipulating me because he wanted me to be a sex slave.

When I got into that relationship, my uncle turned up the level of his creepiness, and my parents thought it would be a good idea to punish me for various teenaged infractions by making me go live with him.

After I finally split up with the manipulative asshole (but not before he beat me, handcuffed me to a door and raped me), the people who were in my peer group were the people I had been introduced to through him, meaning they were interested in me only because my will had been broken and I made poor decisions based on the fact that I thought the only value I had as a person was that I could lay on my back and become a willing seminal receptacle, in some cases to 5 people in a day.

I was trained in oral sex and foot jobs, in "proper presentation" and in just what noises to make to give the appearance that I was having a good time, not just being degraded.

My "training" was so complete that I honestly believed that I was having a good time, that my own sexual satisfaction didn't matter because you don't need to receive physical pleasure in order to have a fulfilling sexual experience, that my partner's gratification was all that I required, that women all over were anorgasmic and it was just something that I had to deal with.

It didn't bother me to wake up from a dead blackout to find someone I barely knew on top of me, I actually took some pleasure in knowing that I had even been able to please whoever it was with such a minimum of effort.

Fortunately, I got my head out of my ass and am now making sexual decisions that aren't based on which person gave me the more expensive drugs that evening, or how much pleasure I can bring to someone while completely ignoring myself.

The problem is, I don't know how to not freeze up with the wonderful lover I have now.

He is caring and compassionate and emotionally available and supportive, and has been nothing but for the past two years.

But when he touches me, it still makes me feel the way I do about all the terrible things I let myself do back through my mid teens and early twenties. I don't like feeling that way about him, and I don't like the way it makes him feel to see me experience him that way.

For the first part of our relationship I was still putting on the show of undemanding sex goddess, and when he found out, he forbade my faking pleasure, because he said it cheapened our relationship and the sacredness of sex in general.

He asks me every time what I want from sex, and he has been able to bring me to orgasm, which is something I had written off as impossible, but I absolutely do not feel any sort of desire for him... until I do... and I don't know what changes or how to intentionally bring that change about.

I know that is an awful lot of back story, but I sort of need you to understand where exactly it is that I am coming from when I say I need help.

He wants me to suggest things to do to help our sex life, but I have no idea what sorts of things. He says lovers draw on past experiences for inspiration, but even thinking about my past makes me break down and bawl, which has ruined more quasi sexual encounters than I even care to acknowledge.

There was a post here that had a million and three questions from a girl who wanted to make her first sexual experience as good as possible, and she was brushed off with the idea that scripting sex makes it unnatural.

I understand that.

But I don't know where to go to get those sorts of answers, because I have no close female friends, and I can't afford a sex therapist, and when you look on the internet for sexual advice, it is always related to creams or toys of videos of tanned shaved women pretending that they are enjoying being pummeled by equally bored men.

I don't want you to write me a script for my sexual experiences, but I want to know how to find the answers for those sorts of questions, so that I can have at least some sort of positive sexual imagery in my head to draw on when my lover asks me to tell him what things feel good.

I don't know were else to turn, because the two years of crying myself to sleep almost every night after being asked to look at past experiences that are too painful to even have experienced once has really taken a toll on my lover, and yesterday he told me that he is having fulfillment problems and that he doesn't know where to draw his boundaries to make sure his own needs are met.

I know I am young and there are other fish in the sea and all, but this is a wonderful relationship and I hate that my sexuality is ruining it.

help?

I wanted to try to answer this question as soon as possible because it is clear that you’ve been ruminating over and suffering through these feelings for quite some time now. Let me first say that I commend your strength, resilience and bravery in sharing your story with me. The experiences you describe would definitely fall under the broad category of sexual abuse, and you did not deserve to experience such violations, nor were they your fault. I cannot remind you of that enough, nor can I type in large enough or bold enough a font when I say that healing is possible.

Author, activist, and educator Staci Haines (who wrote an amazing book that I’ll mention in a minute) once stated that “survival is a powerful act”. What I believe that she means is that sexual trauma is a betrayal on many levels—physical, emotional, spiritual—and can really do a number on us, making us question the good in ourselves and others. There is not always a lot of support for survivors in our culture, which bombards us with sexualized images and often seeks to establish unrealistic standards for anyone to live up to. That said, the decision to seek help and engage in the healing process then becomes an incredibly powerful and brave one to make. When we experience abuse or assault, our power is taken away. As you described, maybe you are even made to think you are doing something you want to be doing, when truly those who are perpetrating are using manipulation and power to control your behaviors and your sexuality. You have made it this far and I hope I can offer you something to help you move along in your own process. Vulnerability, which is an inherent part of intimacy, can feel like a real risk in many cases after experiencing sexual abuse; taking that risk can be a leap of faith.

So much of what we learn about relationships, sexuality, and intimacy comes from our experiences of family. It’s logical, then, that if someone from your family is acting in an abusive fashion, using power to control or manipulate you, that it can throw your sensibilities even further off kilter.

The difficult thing is that each of us will respond in our own ways to abuse and trauma. While there is no one “normal” or “right” way to respond to abuse or assault, many people do experience difficulty in reclaiming their bodies, desire, and notions of intimacy. Similarly to there being no singular way that someone can or should respond to being abused, there is no one right way to go about healing, no one technique that is 100% effective for every survivor. There is no concrete timeline even when we want to know—for ourselves—how long it will take to feel better. People in our lives may not always be the most patient; often times they will want us to be “over it” because they are uncomfortable seeing your discomfort and struggle. Sometimes they may not always have helpful words even when they have helpful intentions or come from a place of caring or love. For families, friends, and partners of those who have experienced abuse, it is also a journey.

You describe a series of exploitative relationships with men, first with your uncle, then with your peers in school, and then with the men your uncle “introduced” to you and brought in to be a part of the abuse. You seem incredibly insightful into your experiences—which is awesome—but one thing that I have learned (the hard way, of course!) is that logically being able to make connections between experiences and behaviors/feelings/emotions is not quite the same thing as having the feelings worked out. Unfortunately, one can’t necessarily think their way through healing trauma, which it sounds like you’re beginning to understand for yourself. I wish we could all have that power and that recognition of the issue would result in its immediate resolution, but sexual trauma really seems to be one of those things that you must wade through in order to remake connections and get back in touch with positive sexuality.

The symptoms that your describe now, and the way you discuss your current relationship and how you are experiencing both sexual and emotional effects of trauma, make a lot of sense given your previous experiences. Often times humans carry with them their previous experiences, and those experiences can color future interactions and how we relate to others.

One thing to keep in mind is that your sexuality is 100% your own. Although you have had the experience of others manipulating and controlling your sexuality, it seems that you are in a safer place now even if it might not always feel as safe as you’d like it to. Right now the shots are yours to call and you can make some decisions about what you want to do or not do, and who (if anyone) you’d like to do that with. I think that after periods of not having that control it can be a little overwhelming to realize that we do have a bit more agency over how we proceed from here. I am convinced that you have the strength to heal from your previous experiences, and you are not alone in that healing work.

First: let’s talk about your current relationship. From what I can read, it sounds as if your boyfriend is well-meaning and genuinely wants you to have a positive sexual experience. It sounds as if he is committed to providing a space for your to have a sexual voice and agency in your activities together, but it’s pretty clear that his methods really just don’t fly with you. Perhaps he’s asked previous partners to tell him more about what they like and what has worked for them, and maybe it’s been an effective way for him to communicate with others. But—this is key!—you’re not others and I hope that he can see that asking you to put yourself back into that space is not good for your mental health at this juncture.

One thing you might consider is really taking a few steps back, giving yourself the opportunity to sort of press the “reset” button for your sexuality. Regardless of what you’ve done or not done with your boyfriend in the context of this relationship, you’re not obligated to do anything that you’re not wholly feeling. Perhaps it might feel safer and better to start over and create some positive sexual experiences and images from which to draw for future encounters (whether with this partner or another).

How might it feel to interact with your boyfriend without “sex” as a goal? Holding hands, making out, cuddling, giving massages…all of these things involve intimacy but may feel less threatening or triggering to you. Perhaps you and your boyfriend can develop a “safe word”—something you can say if while you are in the middle of something you start to feel overwhelmed or triggered or just upset. The “safe word” can indicate that you want to slow down or stop (or there can even be one word or phrase for each).

Fantasy is also a way to explore your own sexuality and think about what or who you might like. Fantasy is not always based on what we have experienced—after all, many of us have sexual fantasies before we have our first sexual experiences! Fantasy is in part about letting ourselves feel safe within ourselves and listening to and considering our desires. Not all fantasies need to become realities, but they can nonetheless enrich our sexual landscapes.

Journaling might also help you focus on where, if anywhere, your desires are focused, and what you might like or what you absolutely know you do not like. You could journal about your fantasies, desires, or about interactions you’ve had with your partner that either felt good or maybe could have gone better. It seems like sometimes in the moment you’re getting really overwhelmed, so taking a few minutes to jot down some ideas or reactions may help you get more in touch with your own response patterns, and also give you fodder for conversation with your partner if you feel that would be helpful.

Also remember that sexuality is so much more than “sex”, however you choose to even define the word “sex”! I really like the Circles of Sexuality Model, which is a way of constructing our sexuality that really emphasizes how sexuality is more than just genitals and acts; it is essential to our very being as humans. You can read an explanation of this model here and perhaps do some exploration to see if there are any aspects of sexuality that feel safe or good to you. Perhaps you can emphasize those, or work towards feeling confident in your sexuality outside of the realm of sexual behaviors. Your relationship with yourself is hugely important in your relationship to others. In creating positive sexual experiences do not overlook masturbating and solo exploration as a means to have controlled and comfortable sexual interactions. Before you can communicate what you want out of sex or what feels good for you, you may need to explore that on your own! If that doesn’t feel spicy enough for you, perhaps your partner could watch you pleasure yourself and that is another way he could learn or be taught about what you like or want.

Most of all I just hope you can recognize that there is no “right” path to take, and no timeline for when you need to reach a particular milestone or goal. Some folks who work in the field of sexuality assert that keeping a pleasure-oriented view of sexuality (meaning that you are exploring and reacting to your own desires without a particular end point in mind) yields more satisfaction than keeping a goal-oriented perspective (acting out a sexual script with a set end point and outcome as the measure of success). Shifting to a pleasure-oriented view of sexuality may help you do more exploration and build positive feeling sexual experiences. There does not need to be a particular goal (intercourse, orgasm, whatever) unless you and your partner are putting it there for yourself. Recovery and healing are processes and the stress of trying to live up to a standard can often do more harm than good. Patience with and compassion for yourself are also hugely necessary! You did not, as you wrote, “let yourself” have these negative experiences! Remember that abuse is about power and control, and sexual abuse uses sex and sexuality as a means to gain that power and control. You have the right to—and the ability to—heal.

I know that you said that you cannot afford a sex therapist, but outside assistance can often be really helpful for folks who have experienced abuse or assault. One place to start may be with a therapist or counselor who is well-versed in sexual abuse and assault. Look online to get more information about your local programs, who typically provide free support, or try going to RAINN to connect with free and confidential phone counseling or even online counseling via a secure instant messaging system. Your local sexual assault center may also be able to help with referrals to local therapists who can work on a sliding scale, or who are otherwise willing to negotiate fees for those who need assistance.

Support is also key for your partner! It’s understandable that he has his own needs and limitations, but his ability to communicate and be patient with and responsive to your needs may be enhanced if he were to participate in a group or other support for partners of those who have experienced abuse. Your local sexual assault counseling organization may also provide free counseling for partners, or be able to direct him to a group for partners. While your boyfriend sounds as if he is trying, he may just need some gentle reminders that you may not be able or want to communicate in the way he is asking you to. Additionally, it can be so difficult to watch someone you care about struggling with her or his healing process. Many partners wish that they could take that pain away even though that is really not possible. He likely has his own feelings and his own process of traveling this road with you and if at all possible I think he would also benefit from support.

As you continue to examine options for your own healing, one book that might be helpful in trying to regain a sense of self and reconnect with positive sexuality is Staci Haines’ recent release, Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. There’s also a DVD that she put out which shows some of the exercises but I can’t personally speak of its quality, though I suspect that it’s probably helpful. The book, however, is (in my opinion) really wonderful. So much of what we read about healing from sexual abuse or trauma focuses on saying no to sex. Indeed, saying no to unwanted sex or sex that would otherwise happen under circumstances that you do not like is incredibly important…but so is learning to say yes to the people, acts, and situations that you would like. This book truly comes from a sex-positive place, understanding that the experience of sexual violence or abuse does not need to mean that someone will never enjoy sex or their sexuality again.

Haines takes a mind-body approach, which I think can be really helpful in examining past trauma. Our bodies have ways of remembering and experiencing even when we think that our minds have everything under control. Another trauma expert who uses a mind-body approach is Peter Levine, who wrote the book, Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. The book offers a step by step progression of exercises that can help relieve and resolve some of the somatic effects (meaning the effects and sensations in your body, like headaches or anxiety) associated with trauma. That book came to mind when I read your question because Levine maintains that you do NOT need to spend a lot of time thinking about the actual trauma in order to work through the symptoms of it. The exercises do not ask you to recall instances of abuse, for example, so some people find them less overwhelming than a treatment that asks you to think about or describe the abuse.

Of course there are many theories of healing trauma and reclaiming your sexuality after experiencing abuse. This is just a starting place to give you a few suggestions about what you might be able to do on your own and/or with your partner. I would really encourage you to visit the RAINN website, though, and check out where you might be able to get connected with counseling or support. There is no need to be walking alone on this path and there are many of us our here who would like to help and support you in your journey. I'm rooting for you!

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