As a sexual abuse survivor, can I only connect to people sexually?

I was sexually abused, so I was wondering will I only want to find someone who I'm going to stay with for sex?
Heather Corinna replies:

I want to first tell you a few things you should know are true.

Whatever it turns out your sexuality and relationships are like, whatever it turns out you want from them, they're about much, much more than your abuse. Because we've been abused doesn't mean either or both of those things will be all about our abuse, or that our abuse will be the biggest influence on them. What our sexuality is, what our relationships are and are like, sexual and non-sexual, are about us as a whole person, not just one part of who we are or one thing that happened to us in our lives.

You are as capable of as many different kinds of relationships as everyone else, and of having whatever kinds of relationships it is or will be that you, yourself want and choose. A healthy, happy sex life and intimate relationships -- of whatever kind -- which you enjoy and want are just as attainable for you as they are for people who have not been abused.

If you do not want relationships that are only about sex, if you do not want to stay in any relationship only because of sex, you don't ever have to have those or do that.

Lots of people have things in their life history which make navigating their sexuality difficult or confusing, not just sexual abuse survivors. Sexuality is rarely easy or uncomplicated for anyone.

Some people want and choose to have relationships sometimes that are only or mostly about sex. That is not something exclusive to sexual abuse survivors: it is something some people want sometimes while others do not, including people who have not been abused and people who have been.

Lastly, perhaps most importantly, I want you to know that the person or people who abused you do not have power over you anymore. Your power is back where it belongs now, with you, in your hands. It's yours, all yours, only to share with someone if you choose to. Your abuser or abusers didn't take it away from you for good: they didn't and still don't have that ability unless you choose to give it to them now. In fact, people who abuse are making clear to us that they're intimidated by our power, that they feel less powerful than us, which is why they try and take it from us by temporarily overpowering us. But it's yours: they can't and don't own it. Only you can and do, much-more-powerful-than-them you.

I also want to make sure you know that sexual abuse isn't sex for a victim. It can be for the person who is doing the abusing, but it's not for the person on the other end, which is why it's an abuse. Sex, real-deal sex, is something that we do alone or with others that's about our unique wants, desires and our pleasure -- physical and emotional -- and when other people are involved, that's about mutual, shared wants, desires and pleasure. Consensual, healthy partnered sex, unlike sexual abuse, respects everyone involved and is about people giving each other things and sharing things, not about anyone seeking to take something from someone.

I don't know what, if any, sexual relationships -- that have also been wantedly sexual for you, not just the other person -- you have had so far, if any. So, I can't know if you have yet experienced the difference between consensual, wanted and mutually pleasurable sex and sexual abuse. If you haven't, trust me when I tell you they're radically different. If you have, you hopefully already know that. If you have sought out sex with others and it hasn't felt radically different than your abuse did, that's something I'll talk about in a little bit.

Because you have been sexually abused, will you only want relationships that are just about sex?

Probably not, just like most folks who haven't been sexually abused won't tend to only want those kinds of relationships through their whole lives even if they may or do want those kinds of relationships sometimes. Most people want and have a range of different relationships with different people: like family, mentors, friends, acquaintances, lovers, partners, neighbors, co-workers, people who you collaborate with on things like creative projects, sports, hobbies or community-building and relationships where some of those roles overlap.

What kind of relationships you do and don't want or have, at any time of your life, is going to be about way more than the fact that you were abused. It's going to be about the whole person you are and want to be -- and whoever those other folks are and want to be -- your whole life history, about what kinds of connections and opportunities you discover with others, about the place you're in in your life at any given time, about the way you feel about people and yourself, your own ethics, ideals, life goals and values, about what kind of time and energy you have: about a lot of things.

Just like everyone else, you may find there are times in your life when the way you connect with someone else is only or mostly sexual, and then that you also want a relationship with them that's only or mostly about sex. You may find there are times in your life where you want an expressly sexual relationship. Or not. You may want those things sometimes, or with some people, but not at other times, or with other people.

If at any time you want to find someone with whom to have a relationship that's mostly or only about sex, and that's what feels most right for both of you, that's okay. Everyone has that right. If what you want and what feels right are relationships in which sex is only one part of a relationship, that's okay, too. Everyone also has that right. Even if what you want and what feels right are relationships that aren't about sex at all, even ever, that is also okay and everyone also has that right.

That said, there are some things that can come up are this when we've survived sexual abuse you can make yourself aware of and just keep in mind.

A lot of people present sexual abuse survivors as being more sexual than other people, or as seeking out sex-only relationships more. However, that's often about stereotyping people, is sometimes even about victim-blaming and abuse enabling (about repeating or mirroring attitudes abusers have), and can have a lot to do with people paying much more attention to our sexual behavior than to the sexual behavior of people who have not been abused or who have, but don't call what happened to them abuse or who didn't tell anybody. It also has something to do with people thinking far fewer people have been sexually abused than those of us who actually have been, and with some people mistaking repeated abuses or rapes for consensual sex. I talk about all of that here if you want to read up on it in depth.

It may be you find you feel curious about experiencing sex so that you can know and experience the difference between that and abuse: if so, that's okay. Lots of people are curious about sex and what it is for a whole host of reasons, and that reason is no less valid than any other. Looking to answer that question is also certainly understandable. It's an important question, and while we can answer it without having or experiencing sex to some degree, we can want to tangibly explore, feel and experience that answer. It may also be that you feel scared of very emotionally intimate relationships, especially if the person or people who abused you were people you trusted. That can happen, too.

It can also happen that for anyone who has had control and power taken away from them around their bodies and sex -- which is the case for anyone sexually abused, but can also be something people experience because of other things, like not being able to identify or present their gender as they feel it, having been abused in other ways, or for those who were shamed around their bodies or sexuality -- that you want to seek out situations where that's in your control. If and when you find that's something you want to do and feels right for you, as long as the other person also gets to have control and power over their own body, that's okay, too. That's also one of those things we know is not at all just about sexual abuse survivors: many people, if not all people, explore power and empowerment in their sex lives.

If you're asking this question because you have felt, so far, like sex-only relationships are the only ones you're in, or like you can only connect with other people on a sexual level, there are some things I'd check in with yourself about. I'd also do some checking in if you've been having any kind of sex with people and find that sex feels the same as your abuse, or that you feel in it like you felt when you were abused.

Sometimes, when we've been sexually abused, especially before we're gotten any real help with and done a lot of work on healing, we might feel like our only value is sexual, and so seek out sexual relationships when that isn't what we really want because we figure that's all we're good for. One of the ways sexual abuse can impact us is to kind of hijack our sexuality some, especially for a while right after abuse happens, or to make us feel like since someone (the person or people who abused us) decided we were an object for sex that they were right. Sometimes sexual abuse can also confuse us, making it seem like the way abuse is is the way sex is or is supposed to be, especially if our abuser or abusers told us what was happening was sex, not abuse, said it was good, not bad, or told us it was what we wanted, even though it wasn't what we wanted at all. Just know that none of that is true: those are all things someone decided or said who was not a healthy person and whose judgment you can know was clearly seriously flawed, since they abused you, something healthy people in a sound state of mind just don't do.

If it ever feels like you're feeling that those kinds of things are true and that your only value is sexual, like that's the only way other people will connect with you, or any sex or sexual relationships you're part of remind you a whole lot of your abuse, it's usually a good idea to back it up, step away from sexual relationships for a while, and do some more work on your own healing first, without sexual relationships for a bit, and to also stick to relationships where you feel able to be a whole person and feel cared for as all of who you are, not only one part. In order to have healthy sex lives, one thing all of us need is to really value ourselves as whole people, not parts, so anytime we're not, that's something we want to work on and put our time and energy into, whether we feel that way because of abuse or because of something else.

There are some things you can ask yourself to check in around this if you are feeling like all you are good for or can have are sex-only relationships, or like that's all you want, but you don't feel right about it.Is that what you really want, for instance? It's okay if it is (and so long as it's also something the other people only want, too), but you want to be sure it really is so that you don't wind up putting yourself in a position where, yet again, you feel like things are happening outside your control or which you don't want or feel good about. Obviously, if you do want those kinds of relationships and it does feel right, you'll want to make sure you also feel able to navigate and manage them well, as they can be pretty tricky, especially when you're young.

If sex-only relationships are something that you feel you'd not want to actively choose, but find yourself falling into, or feel like those are the only relationships available to you, then you want to work to make different choices so that you're not doing anything that doesn't feel right to you and that isn't what you want. That's true about sexual choices just like any other kinds of choices in life. Whatever area we're making choices in, we want to always try and think about what we really want for ourselves and what feels right, deep in our guts and in our heads, and lead with that. If something doesn't feel right or makes us feel bad about ourselves, it's usually because it isn't right for us and isn't good for us. Remember that we're not always going to have the opportunity to have the kinds of relationships we really want at a given time, that's just life, and that when our only options are not what we want, having no relationship is better than being in something we don't want, like or feel good in.

I'd strongly suggest that if you've not yet gotten any good, ongoing help healing from your abuse that you seek that out.

Healing is a lifelong process, and while it usually gets easier over time, it's pretty much always hard, if not impossible, without help and support. It also often won't get easier as quickly if we try and go it alone. We can lean on that help and support to work things out like this, or to give us a hand if and when we find that we're winding up in things or doing things we don't think we really want or which don't leave us feeling good.

What that help and support is isn't always the same thing for everyone. Counseling from someone trained to help trauma survivors is an excellent option. So are support groups where you can listen and talk to other survivors, reading other survivor's stories or using books or workbooks to help yourself, doing creative work to heal, like using art or writing as therapy, some kinds of bodywork, like therapeutic massage or bodyworking, like getting involved in a kind of physical activity that can hep us get back in touch with our own bodies and help us feel strong and whole in them, like dance, or something we can learn for self-defense like a martial art. You can use any combination of those kinds of things, and more, to facilitate and help you heal, and I'd suggest picking at least one or two.

I want to also remind you that you're still only in your mid-teens, which makes you very young in the big picture of your whole life and your whole sexual life. Not knowing what you want or might want sexually typical just because of your age and in a lot of ways, is a given at this time in your life, with or without a history of abuse. So, you might also just want to try and accept that since you can't predict the future, there's no way of knowing right now what kinds of relationships you'll want or have throughout your life. That's something that you, like anyone else, will just feel out, experience and figure out as you go. But what you can know is that all of that is going to be up to you, and whatever it is you find that you really want and feel good about is going to be okay.

I'm going to leave you with a bunch of links to look at, but I'd also like to suggest a couple books I think you might find helpful. Those are, It Happened to Me: A Teen's Guide to Overcoming Sexual Abuse by William Lee Carter, How Long Does It Hurt: A Guide to Recovering from Incest and Sexual Abuse for Teenagers, Their Friends, and Their Families by Cynthia L. Mather and The Me Nobody Knows: A Guide for Teen Survivors by Barbara Bean.

I also want to make sure to link you up to our message boards, where you're welcome to talk more with me if you like, any of our volunteers, and where you can also talk to other survivors of abuse and find great peer support. It's so easy to feel all alone in this, but you're not alone, and you don't have to be. You also don't have to be silent or go without talking about your abuse or your process in healing. Pandora's Project is another excellent online resource where you can get more information and talk with fellow survivors.

Here are those links for you:

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