How to Regain Control Of Your Sex Life After Sexual Abuse: A Sex Therapist's Guide

Understandably, those who have experienced the dark side of sex can sometimes forget that sex does have the potential to be incredibly joyful and pleasurable.

May 21, 2014 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

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Remember to breathe. 

 
Trigger warning: This article is about sexual abuse. Please exercise caution in deciding whether, when, and where to read this piece. This advice isn’t going to apply to everyone, and I unfortunately can’t address every aspect of the healing process. I strongly recommend seeking personalized support if that’s an option for you. 
 
I love being a sex therapist because I get to help people discover how much fun sex can be. Unfortunately, sex also has some really dark shadow sides. Human beings are capable of hurting each other in the most unimaginably awful ways. What’s even worse is how frequently abuse occurs. We’ve all heard the numbers -- one in every three or four women will experience sexual abuse in her lifetime. I’ve worked with a lot of sexual abuse survivors. 
 
Sexual abuse of any kind or degree has the potential to dramatically affect your sex life. Being sexually abused can lead to fearful response patterns, chronic pain conditions and health issues, a low or nonexistent sex drive, and a feeling of disconnect from your body. It can eradicate your ability to enjoy sex altogether.
 
Understandably, those who have experienced the dark side of sex can sometimes forget that sex does have the potential to be incredibly joyful and pleasurable. See if you can tap into even the slightest ounce of hope that you could develop a better relationship with your sex life. Think about possible goals. How do you want your sex life to be different from what it is now? What do you want sex or intimacy to feel like for you? Some of your goals may feel obvious, but the simple process of setting them can be an act of reasserting yourself.  
 
One of the ways I start working with a new survivor is to talk about the messages that get sent to your body when you’re being sexually abused. The messages vary based on your particular situation, but many of the underlying themes are the same:
 
●You’re not in control
●Your desires aren’t important
●Sex is emotionally and/or physically painful
●You’re not safe
 
I see my job as helping women acknowledge the particular messages they received, and working on sending their bodies and minds a new and improved set of beliefs about sex. Here are four of the most common dynamics that I’ve seen, and what you can do to regain control of your sex life: 
 
You may have developed triggers around sex.
 
Triggers are words, experiences, actions, sounds, gestures, or even smells that can send you into a heightened state of agitation. The effects of triggers can range from making you feel emotional to making you feel like you’re back in the abuse. 
 
One of the most helpful things you can do is to start to identify your triggers. What makes you scared, nervous, upset, or uncomfortable? Is it when your partner touches a certain part of your body? Is it when you’re having sex in specific locations or positions? Is it a particular sexual act?
 
Once you identify some of your triggers, you can start taking active steps to avoid those situations. My clients have reported that even the act of brainstorming a game plan or declaring certain things off-limits helps them feel more in control. For example, you can tell your boyfriend, “it’s really important for me to be able to make eye contact with you during sex. Can you help support me with that?” 
 
You can also identify a trigger in the moment, like reminding yourself that you tend to feel jittery when someone whispers in your ear. Being able to say to yourself, “OK, this is a trigger” takes away some of the intensity and helps you feel more present.
 
You may have learned to dissociate during sex.
 
Dissociation is the experience of feeling separate from your body. Many women report feeling dissociated during their abuse. You may have felt like you were floating up by the ceiling, standing right next to yourself, or far, far away. I tell my clients that dissociation is actually an amazing defense mechanism. Your psyche knew that it was unsafe to be in your body during the abuse, so it got the hell out of there. Unfortunately, dissociation persists long after the abuse is over, and makes it difficult to be present enough to enjoy having sex. 
 
To start reversing your dissociative tendencies, first learn more about how you dissociate. Which triggers cause you to leave your body? Where do you go? What does it feel like to dissociate? 
 
Once you start building up awareness of your dissociation patterns, you can start slowly building tolerance for being in your body. Focus on breathing slowly and deeply during intimate moments. Get up and shake out when you feel yourself starting to disconnect; movement can counteract the feelings of paralysis. You can also try touching your body, to remind you that you’re in your own skin. Put your hand on a part of your body that feels safe, and practice remaining present for increasing periods of time.
 
You may have learned to hate your body.
 
When you learn that your body is not a safe place to be, it’s hard to feel a lot of love for it. It takes a while to change your relationship with your body, but one way to start improving it is to try finding your body’s happy places and safe spaces. Perhaps you feel very present in your own skin after taking a walk on the beach, or maybe you feel safe and snuggly in your bed. Learn the things that feel good for your body, and do them on a regular basis. 
 
You may have learned that you don’t have a choice when it comes to sex.
 
This is one of the biggest struggles for my clients. Even if your partner knows about the abuse, you may still find yourself feeling like you’re obligated to have sex with him. A lot of my clients report having a hard time saying no, either because they feel like they’re not allowed to, or because they never learned how to feel comfortable saying it. 
 
The first step is to start getting in touch with your authentic desires. You have to stop forcing yourself to engage in sexual behaviors that you don’t actually want, and start sending yourself the message that your desires are important. You get to decide what you do and don’t want to do. 
 
If you’re in a relationship, I suggest taking a temporary break from intercourse. This can be a difficult thing to ask your partner for, but it gives your body the opportunity to relax and start learning what it actually wants. You can also create a period of time where you get to do all of the sexual initiation. Knowing that all contact will be on your terms helps promote a sense of safety and agency.
 
Next, you’re going to want to practice getting more comfortable saying no. Try saying “no” more confidently in your life outside the bedroom. Reread the part of my first article where I discussed good rejection technique. Practice touching your body and trying to sense when it’s saying “no” or “yes” to touch.
 
When you start having sex again, it’s important to keep emphasizing your agency. Make the conscious decision about what you want to do in the moment, and use a little self talk to remind yourself. For example, “I want to kiss him right now, so I am going to kiss him,” or, “I’m choosing to give a hand job because I want to bring my partner pleasure.” 
 
Perhaps the single most important piece of advice I can give you is to be kind to yourself as you work towards rebuilding your sex life. You’ve gone through a horribly traumatic experience that no one should EVER have to go through. Take care of yourself as best you can.