CSA #5 : Sex

This fifth post on this blog series about Childhood Sexual Abuse will cover content around sex. We ALL need to heal around this. This information will be specific to survivors but may translate to life for many of us.

This information I’m giving is just one fraction of what is out there. I am in no way an authority on this topic. This writing is the tip of some possibilities. This content is so complex. These are just SOME of the things that could possibly come up. My intention with these writings is not to tell you what is or is not true, but to spark a dialogue and ask “what does this mean for you?” I am definitely not an expert in Childhood Sexual Abuse, I am saying “here is one piece, where will you go with this? Let’s get ourselves talking about it.”

Big Spectrums
Many of us grow up with conflicts around sex, no matter what the history. For people with a sexual abuse history, these conflicts can be compounded and feel more complex. These conflicts are a natural response to being an abuse survivor. Sometimes there are specific experiences that are activating (I don’t love the word “trigger”). For example, if a coach always pinched your butt after a game, you may not want your lover pinching your butt. And in the same way, sometimes there is not a specific act or event, but just a general difficult feeling about sex. Reclaiming one’ sexuality can be slow and challenging work. I know I’ve wondered things like “is it worth it” ?! But I always come back to the knowing that we all deserve more. It is our birth right to have access to ourselves in a full way that brings pleasure.

What If It Felt Good
Some survivors feel pain or numbness around sexual acts, but some feel pleasure. If good feelings are entwined with fear, shame, betrayal, sexual pleasure may be associated as a “bad” act. Some may not feel any pleasure at all while making love, and others may feel intense pleasure along with conflict or distress. When the body’s natural responses are exploited, it can create a lot of confusion. It is a terrible thing when the body’s response is taken advantage of, but sexual pleasure is not a “bad” thing, nor are they inherently destructive or dangerous. As an adult, it is safe to feel good!

Time Out
Taking a break from sex is not necessary for everyone, but sometimes it can be clarifying. If there is fear, disgust, lack of desire, or if one is unable to say no to sex, it may be an opportunity to set boundaries with yourself an get to know your body without engaging with another. If there is any out of control sexual behavior, a break is a chance to examine and change those patterns. This break may last a month or years, depending on what is wanted.

Saying no is healthy and needed! Just as important as saying yes. I always use the metaphor of having one half being like having half of a sandwich. I want the whole sandwich! Yes and no are equally as important. We all have the right to say yes to what we want, and no to what we don’t want. To heal sexually, we all must learn to say no to unwanted sex. If you’re in a committed relationship, an extended period of a “break” from sex can be stressful because it changes things. Compromises are helpful to consider your partners’ needs as well as your own (perhaps there can be an offer for something else that is pleasurable that doesn’t involve sex). If someone pushes themselves to have sex before they are truly ready, it will not help the relationship be healthy.

Self to Self
Self pleasure is always a great place to start. Self pleasure doesn’t have to be genital. Giving oneself touch on the whole body, taking a bath, cooking, self massage for sore muscles, the list goes on. Over time more feelings and sensations will come in as one is ready. The object is to get to know oneself and be present in that. If spacing out occurs, pausing and coming back to the moment and being aware of what happened helps to notice those signals for when love making with another person eventually comes into the picture. Sex is about connection, and in this case it is with oneself. Self pleasure definitely does not have to be about orgasm (though it can include that). Touching oneself without striving for orgasm can bring relief to some and be challenging for others. The whole point is to discover what is right for each of us. When it comes to sexual healing with oneself or another person, if there is rushing / pressure / coercion that is a signal to pause and reconsider when the motivation is true.

With A Lover
Sex in the movies gives us a crappy role model to work with. If we can see sex as an experience in loving, loving another and loving oneself, an experience of honesty / pleasure / intimacy, there is much more breathing room.  Most sexual healing requires some level of commitment between partners. A sensitive, attuned, and understanding lover is difficult for many people to find, not just survivors. But it’s worth it to wait for the right people to walk through this with. That being said, everyone walks into a relationship with something to resolve with the other. No one is perfect. Working out relationship issues with a professional (psychotherapist) can always be a helpful place to start or get support alongside of a romantic connection. Talking about sex in a safe container goes a long way. Going slow can also help this process. Jumping right into sexual contact is a product of this culture, and not something that is necessarily the right role model.

This is a huge piece in any relationship. When emotions and non-verbal communication starts flying, it can be hard to remember to check in. Asking and sharing feelings as they arise (or shortly after if its too intense in the moment) can be very helpful in helping one another figure these pieces out. If one person feels afraid, it can be helpful to say “I feel scared” or to ask “what’s happening for you right now?” and give an opening to them.  There may be sexual acts that feel okay or good and others that do not. If one party becomes disconnected from their body or their feelings, coming back to the present before continuing anything will make sure you’re on the same page. If one party starts to space out or leave the moment, stop / slow down / look at one another / talk / remind each other of the present moment. This is the respect of honest communication in the most vulnerable moments, which is a huge repair. The same goes for flashbacks. Sometimes a painful memory (this can be a body based memory too) may come up during sexual time. Some people may need to be alone / not touched, and some may need to talk. One couple chose a word that they both know signals that there is a flashback happening. One person can ask the other for support staying present, if they want to continue and stay there with their lover. Everyone has a right to feel pleasure in the experience and sometimes that means a reality check.

Lovers as Allies
To see one’s lover as an ally may be a way to be unified in a challenge. When needs are different between two people, it can be easy to start to play the blame game and make the other person wrong. While it is always relevant that each person gets to have their feelings and experiences, it’s also helpful to see one another as caring partners in a mutual challenge. One couple decided if sex felt off / not pleasurable to either of them they would stop. That permission gave room for the survivor to start saying no all the time and the other partner felt defensive, stating “you’re always saying no! what am I doing wrong?!”  This couple had to start over and build things up from scratch. It’s not always easy.  There is no amount of desire / libido that is “normal”. Some people have sexual feelings throughout the whole day and some are much less frequent. Difference in sexual desire and response is an issue in many relationships, not just ones with survivors. Sometimes survivors have much less or no desire for sex. It can help to think of desire as an intellectual, emotional, or physical level. One may want emotional closeness but not sexual / physical while the other wants the physical but may not be as comfortable with the emotional closeness.  A helpful exercise for this is to make a list of things you (and your partner does this too) of all the things that are desirable on each level (intellectual, emotional, physical) and then compare with what society / culture says is desirable. Notice what’s different and focus on what’s most important to you internally.

The Reality of the Others’ Needs
Everyone wants an all-understanding and giving lover who is completely patient while recovery happens. The reality is that while no one should force themselves to be sexual, the other person will have needs. If they go continually unseen or unmet, any relationship could fall apart. The important aspects are:
– be willing to listen to one another
– validate the others’ feelings (even if there’s frustration, impatience)
– put yourself in their shoes and find the understandable part
– don’t condemn someone or blame them for wanting sex, it’s okay that they do!
– be consistent and clear with your limits as much as you can
– communicate honestly and let your person know you are committed to working together
– validate the good things. Appreciate them with your words when they help
– take breaks from dealing with sex. Too much processing of any one topic is bound to be too much, especially one as tender and charged as this one

Many survivors have sexual fantasies that incorporate an aspect of abuse, and often this can be connected to feeling shame. Helping them to know they’re not to blame for the quality of their fantasies and that they didn’t create them can be a good reminder. The context in which we first experience sex affects us deeply. Often there is an imprint of sexual arousal or pleasure twisted with humiliation, love, desire for a big power imbalance, shame, danger, secrecy, and a forbidden thrill. Acknowledging, giving permission for, and reminding anyone who wants a change here that change is possible, can be soothing.

This Takes Time
This takes time in all of us.  This is one of the most heated issues in society right now, as the next generation helps us to keep shifting, and there is more attention being brought to rape culture. Even still, what we are swimming in is profound. This sexual healing can be gradual. One may hit a new level of satisfaction, have a period of stability and happiness, and then hit a new challenging time when a deeper layer is opened with sexual life and difference in relationships. One’s experience of sex and intimacy will change as the nature of relationships change or a new person comes in. As more emotional intimacy comes in, this will change sex. Although there may be painful moments and questions about “where is the progress!” , sex can be a powerful surge toward creation. All creative practices require complete attention and presence, and all have great intensity as they bring something new to existence. If you share this opening with a lover, there is risk, thrill, affirmation, and trust. With or without a lover, reclaiming sexuality is worth it !

If you want to know what’s coming or what I started with, these are the topics I have / will cover in entirety with this series:

  • The effects in current time. Click here to read this post on the effects
  • Gender and sexual orientation stereotypes. Click here to read the post on gender and sexual stereotypes
  • Click here : For partners Part A
  • Sex
  • For kids & for families
  • How CSA can affect pregnancy, birthing, postpartum, and everything in between
  • The institutional piece (often missing from the CSA conversation)

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for the last few posts (I’m about halfway through) and then I’ll be starting a different blog series topic next ! With love, Alicia


About Alicia Patterson

Alicia Patterson is a Psychotherapist / Dance Movement Therapist, Birth Doula, Energy Worker, Dance and Yoga Facilitator in the Boulder / Denver area.
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