I’ve been really detached from my blog recently–barely posted at all in recent months. There are probably two reasons for that, reasons I’ll write about another time.
Today I’m here to share more learning from my survivors’ therapy group, the one I started with back in November. It’s been a really good experience for me overall and (most of the time) not triggering as I’d initially feared. I’m extremely grateful to have found the group.
For each topic we embark on, we tend to start out spending some time reviewing what research says about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on survivors over time. Of course, not everyone is the same, and not everyone experiences all the different impacts we discuss. Furthermore, a lot of the impacts may be challenges that people can face even if they haven’t experienced abuse, but they are particularly common among survivors. We take our time here and see how much of the research resonates with our own personal experience. I’ve found this part of the group to be very validating; it normalizes things I’ve done or things that happened to me, and it weakens the voice in my head that tells me I’m a freak. Later we move on to talk about coping with some of these challenges and what healing can look like.
So we’ve followed this pattern for a range of topics, such as family of origin, relationship to friends and co-workers, as well as romantic relationships. We’ve talked about trauma and how it affects memory. This topic has been very important to me; if you’ve read much of my blog and know how I’ve wrestled with doubt about my memories, you won’t be surprised to hear this. I am still processing what this means to me.
And we have also ventured into the tender topic of sexuality, which is what I thought I’d write about a little this evening.
Lisa, the therapist facilitating our group, emails us handouts for the therapy group a few days ahead of time. Naturally, given the pandemic, we have only met online. So at some point in late January, after we have done our initial grounding exercise and allowed each of us to check in with the group, we turned to the handout she sent us with a list of the effects of childhood abuse on adult sexuality. (In case you are interested, the list comes from the work on Wendy Maltz and her book, The Sexual Healing Journey.)
The effects on the list are organized into six broad categories:
- Attitudes toward sex
- How we see ourselves as sexual beings, sexual self-concept
- Automatic reactions to touch and to sex
- Sexual behavior
- Intimate relationships
- Problems with sexual functioning
So when researchers look at the attitudes of survivors toward sex, it’s common to find that sex can feel dirty to us, and/or it can feel like something very secretive. Often, we feel sex is a duty we are required to perform. Sometimes we equate sex with sexual abuse. And sometimes we believe that sex benefits men more than women (I believe this is an attitude that shows up in women who were abused by men. Our group is specifically for people who identify as women and who were sexually abused as children.)
When I look at that list and think about my own history, I feel as though I could have ticked all those boxes at one time or another, except maybe the idea that sex benefits men more. I don’t remember ever believing that. I no longer feel that sex is a duty or something I owe to anyone, but I did feel that way when I was young, with my first serious boyfriend and in my first marriage. Both of those partners also really pushed that idea, so maybe it came from them? But I think it went along with earlier experiences that taught me that others got to make demands of me, and I was supposed to comply.
I don’t consciously believe that sex is dirty or should be a secret (I want it to be private, but that’s different). But unconsciously, or maybe semi-consciously, yes, I think sex feels dirty. Or rather, I feel as though I am kind of dirty when I am being sexual. Or to get really specific, once I feel aroused, I have images and thoughts of abuse in my head, and these are intertwined with arousal, and this makes me feel dirty. And this connection between arousal and abuse is something I have wished to break for a long time but haven’t been able to.
As I write that, I remember that one of the big things I have learned during my healing journey is that hating or resisting something about myself never yields a positive change. Instead, it leaves me depressed, discouraged, and beaten down. Maybe I should think about giving compassion and acceptance to that part of me that connects arousal and abuse. But I can’t tell you how confusing and difficult that seems.
Deep breath. Moving on.
When talking about sexual self concept, it is common for survivors to think things like this about ourselves: I am an easy sexual target (yes). There is something wrong with me sexually (yes). I have no sense of being sexual at all (no). I don’t like certain sexual parts of my body (yes–but don’t all women say that? Especially after we have had babies, especially as we grow older?). I feel I will lose control if I let myself go sexually (Hm, yes, I think, in the past, when I wasn’t married.)
When we talked about this in group, I said that I sometimes feel as if I have had a stamp on my forehead that says, “Help yourself.” In the past, I have been the target of multiple abusers, to varying degrees, and it just seems as if there was something about me that they could easily spot. One of the other women in my group agreed that this resonates a lot for her, too.
Lisa said she thinks it happens a lot, re-victimization that is, not because something is wrong with us but because our past experience of having boundaries violated, or not being sufficiently protected at home, of having to keep secrets, adds up and makes us more vulnerable to new abusers. She says predators often have subtle little ways of experimenting to see if they can breech your boundaries, if you or others will stop them. They develop skills in spotting girls who are likely to be “safe” victims. She helps us see that it is their predatory strategies and ability to locate the vulnerable, not the stamp on our foreheads, that helps explain repeated victimization.
(Not to say we have zero responsibility for what happens to us. Of course we might engage in dangerous behavior or use substances or make unhealthy decisions as well. But recognizing that trauma can provoke unsafe behaviors isn’t the same as saying it’s our fault. I imagine you all know this really well already. I suppose I am just writing it to keep reinforcing it in my own mind.)
You won’t be surprised at all that survivors are often triggered by sex and have automatic reactions. These include things like flashbacks during sex (yes for me, but a few times, not regularly), mind and body separating during sex (yes, a lot), arousal provoking anxiety (I guess so; arousal has often provoked dissociation for me), associating negative emotions like fear, anger, shame, or even physical nausea with sexual touch. Sometimes we get aroused when we don’t want to feel that way.
I’ve written about this before. I really want to be able to keep my mind and body in the same place during sex, and I find it very difficult. For a while I kind of gave up, but after thinking about our work in group, I may start trying again.
Next, some common ways that abuse affects the sexual behavior of survivors. We might need alcohol or drugs before we can really enjoy sex (not required, but I do think alcohol helps quite a lot). We might feel confused about how and when to be sexual (I could write a long post just about this one, sadly). We may have sex when we don’t really want to (yes). We may use sex as a way to pick ourselves up when we feel low (hm, maybe, but not for a long time). We might feel unable to say no to sex (yes, or at least I used to feel that way).
I’m curious, just now as I think about this, if there is a difference in the average number of sexual partners that survivors have, compared to people who haven’t experienced abuse. Probably there’s no single pattern. Maybe some survivors avoid sexual relationships, while others have many because they feel they can’t say no or because they are searching for connection and intimacy.
Which ties into the next category, intimate relationships. Common effects in this category include things like difficulty attracting the “kind of partner that would be good for me to have.” (Yes, completely true for me. It’s a miracle and a big accident that I ended up with my very kind and supportive husband. He’s utterly unlike other men I have ever been involved with.) Also common: difficulties being emotionally intimate and sexual at the same time, fear of emotional intimacy, and the desire to get away from a partner after sex. It’s also not uncommon for partners to be unhappy with our sex life. I should probably ask my husband more about that, but I am afraid to. I mean, I know he will say something like he only wants more sex if I want more sex. But if I really, really pushed him to talk at a deeper level, I think I am afraid of what he might tell me.
The last category is sexual functioning problems. These are things like difficulty becoming aroused or achieving orgasm, or sex that is just not very pleasurable or a low interest in sex. That’s not really been much of a problem for me, except that ever since my hysterectomy and vaginal surgery almost five years ago, I’ve had scar tissue that makes intercourse more uncomfortable and which is just one more barrier to relaxing into sex.
It’s useful for me to review this list again. It makes me think that yes, I have faced many of these challenges. But not all of them really apply anymore, and for those that do, most of them don’t seem insurmountable. There are things I can intentionally do for myself to make it easier. And then there is the hard thing, the challenge of staying fully present.
The realization I had as I was writing this post, that resistance doesn’t serve me well, that I seem to heal only when I accept myself as I am, hm, that brings up a lot of new questions and even a sense of possibility. I mean, I don’t know how it will help to accept my dissociation. It seems like if I just give in to it, I will never be able to be present. And yet in the past, I’ve repeatedly seen that accepting things reduces my distress and leaves me with more energy to make positive choices. I wonder if there is any way I can get this to work in the area of sexuality?