We live in a society where sex is high on the agenda. Our media especially can be swamped by images, pictures and illusions to sex. If however you have experienced sexual abuse then sex can be a source of pain, confusion and trauma. Living in a highly sexualised culture means you can feel an outsider to say the least.
But behind all the rhetoric we see on our TVs and magazines what is our personal understanding of sex? It is worth looking at where our original feelings about sex were formed to understand how they influence us today:
How Did You Get Sex Education?
Think for yourself a moment and how you feel about your sexuality and how that sexuality was formed as a child, teenager and young adult. Where did you get your ideas about what sex was all about.
- Did you have any sex education as a child from school or from your family?
- Did it equip you with your life choices?
- Was there any trusted adult you could talk to if you needed more help? As a child? As a teenager?
- What about in your family – was it openly discussed or was it a taboo topic?
- Was it discussed too much – did it feel intrusive or inappropriate?
- What about your family’s attitude towards nudity and bodily functions?
- What kind of discussions were there around sex in the playground?
- Were your friends and peers supportive to you? Did you feel left out?
Whether you are currently having sex or not though your sexuality is still a fundamental part of you. That is why, because it is so delicate and important, if it is violated the effects can be so devastating.
But what should sex really be about?
An Expert View
The author and therapist Dr John Gray in his book “Mars and Venus in the bedroom” says: “Great sex reminds both men and women of the tender and highest love that originally drew them together…. The alchemy of great sex generates the chemicals in the brain and body that allows the fullest enjoyment of one’s partner. It increases our attraction to each other, stimulates greater energy, and even promotes better health.” (Source: Mars and Venus In The Bedroom: page 13 by John Gray; Published by Vermillion 1997)
Sex then is supposed to be about a shared experience – a re-empowering and a source of comfort and strength for two people who are deeply involved with each other. An act of giving and receiving.
Sex Can Be Confusing
If you have been abused or even if you haven’t most of us go through some confusing feelings about sex. Sex could be a source of comfort, and whilst there is nothing wrong with enjoying the good feelings sex gives us, sex can be used as a way of running away from difficulties and used as a temporary pain relief. This could be by having frequent partners or perhaps using the internet to access pornography and can become very addictive.
Conversely, if you have suffered abuse or had negative or painful sexual experiences sex may be something you want to avoid at all costs and may even bring up feelings of fear and repulsion.
Yes and No:
Many people have very mixed feelings about sex and intimate relationships. One part of them wants the contact and the intimacy and the other part doesn’t – they are caught in a cross-current of different emotions or ambivalence when it comes to intimate relationships.
Why We Can Feel Confused
There are several reasons we feel confused or ambivalent about sex and sexuality if we have experienced sexual abuse:
Damage of Betrayal
Sexual confusion comes alongside the damage of betrayal by the abuser. This is especially true if you have been abused by someone close to you who you knew well and you had an intimate relationship with. Statistics show this is the most likely the case. As you can imagine being fond of a person and possibly loving them is so confusing if that person goes onto damage you so dreadfully.
Unwanted Body Responses
It is important to understand that young people’s and children’s bodies can and do respond to stimulation. Although it may be very hard to think about, victims of abuse experience sexual feelings during the abuse. These sexual feelings are then regarded by most victims are shameful and embarrassing because the very thing that was so despised brought some degree of pleasure. Sometimes abusers will even claim the victim “co-operated” with them, weighing down the victim even more with shame, and confusion. It is critical to remember though, if you have experienced these feelings, that even though your body may have responded this in no way means you initiated or colluded with the abuse. You were violated and the entire responsibility of the abuse lies solely at the door of the abuser.
However, the result of these conflicting feelings around sex can mean that intimate or sexual relationships are marked with both desire and disgust and a strong sense of false guilt.
Children need attention
If you come from a home or circumstance where you have had little attention or affirmation then you may have enjoyed the attention given to you by the abuser. This is only natural and once again enjoying the attention means does not mean you are in any way to blame for the abuse. It only means that the betrayal you have experienced is even more painful and the abuser is even more to blame for choosing such a vulnerable young person or child for their own selfish gain.
The betrayal experienced as a child can be carried on into adulthood where legitimate sexual pleasure or even just a flirtatious incident is connected (often unconsciously ) with shame and betrayal.
All this leaves us with very confusing feelings about sex, intimacy and relationships.
Past Memories Intrude Today And Confuse
Present sexuality can be intruded with memories of the past. So pleasurable experiences can be overwhelmed with the pain of the past damage.
This is often a form of flashback which can take the form of:
Feelings: a sudden feeling of rage or sadness for example
Body Flashbacks: Your body starts tightening or feeling nausea
Pictures: A sudden image enters your mind from nowhere
This is can be an extremely distressing experience and it can be tempting to run away from the situation in an effort not to have to engage in the Flashback. But actually the way out of these past memories suddenly creeping in so to find a safe space to talk about them and also to do practise Grounding techniques (see Help For Flashbacks). Once you start to do this you will start to find that you will be controlling the memories – they won’t be controlling you.
Relationships With Partners Are Confused:
Relationships with partners are often fraught with problems for people who have experienced abuse. The classic result of ambivalence and mixed feelings is giving off confusing messages to partners. This will often take the form of responding to a partner and then withdrawing from the relationship.
A Katy Perry Song “Hot N Cold” sums this behaviour up very well:
“Cause You’re Hot then you’re cold
You’re yes then you’re no…..
You don’t really want to stay
But you don’t really want to go!”
The person seems to be saying “I want you but I don’t want you”. This could be an incident at a party by flirting and then suddenly cutting it off or actually being in a relationship and pulling out of it – often with very little warning. Or even a cycle of responding and withdrawing and responding and withdrawing. This is obviously extremely confusing for partners and causes a lot of pain and hurt.
The Way Out of Confusion
Perhaps the most central way out of the pain and confusion of the past is to share it with someone else and not keep it as a shameful secret. It can be extremely difficult how hard to even thinking of revealing the details of what happened to another person. However, the healing of the physical violation of our bodies starts with physically speaking it out. Carolyn Spring (An abuse Survivor and writer) says “When we remember, when we say it, when we tell it, then suddenly our body stops remembering.” We can then focus on relaxing and enjoying the good feelings our body was created to give us. (Source: The Body Remembers by Carolyn Spring www.tasc.co.uk)
As well as this you need to tackle the false guilt you may be carrying. To do this you need to talk through your feelings and fears with a trusted friend or a counsellor. You can then work to the place where you firmly place the responsibility of the abuse at the abuser’s door and recognise that you were the totally innocent party.
Additionally, it is important to receive ongoing support and help to sort through the damage the abuse may be continuing to impact on your close relationships; for example cycles of responding and withdrawing. Having people around you to support you and your relationship means that you have someone to turn to when your fears creep in. Try not to make any rash decisions about your relationship without talking to someone you trust first.
It can also be critical to talk to your partner and explaining what you are feeling and how your past does make relationships challenging for you. If they don’t know what is going on they may take your responses when you feel ambivalent or confused as a very personal rejection. Explain it is not about them and their attractiveness. Keep communication going and try and bring them into your world and keep them included rather than as an outsider. This will help them understand and support you.
Building A Healthy Sexual Relationship
If you have been abused or even if you haven’t – when you start dating a new partner in the area of sex as in other areas of the relationship – communication is key. You both need to consider, talk through and agree on timing, respect and safety.
Respect is critical
It is always good to be clear and set boundaries about what you are happy with before you get into an intense physical situation. Then are both clear in your own minds where each situation is going to go. If there are areas that you don’t want to go to then your partner needs to know that. If your date does not respect your physical boundaries – seriously question the relationship and if you should continue in it. If you are in a permanent relationship you should consider getting support for yourself.
Don’t take risks
Don’t forget that good sex means you need to be prepared. Always use a reliable contraception unless you are planning to have a baby and if you are at all unsure of the status of your partner – make sure your sex is safe.
It is also worth thinking about the timing of when to have sex. Too soon can mean that you miss a lot of the person you are dating. Great sex is fantastic but it can hide emotionally what is going on in other parts of the relationship. If the sex is good it is easy to assume you are closer to the person than you actually are.
During the years that “Into The Light” has been running, the groups have themselves come up with some very practical measures about how you can take control in relationships when the trauma of sexual confusion starts to kick in.
These are a few of the key points that we have found helpful:
- If you are in a relationship explain to your partner that sexuality is a difficult area for you as a whole – its not about them and their attrBuild good physical boundaries that you are both happy with and you feel safe with. Do this before you start getting physical with each other – often there is not time once things get heated
- If you are in an embrace or kissing keep your eyes open so you stay focused on who you are with – and your mind can’t be tricked into putting the abuser’s face there.
- Get your partner to keep talking to you – to speak your name when you are physically involved this again will help you to stay in the present.
- If you go into a Flashback work with your Partner on Grounding Techniques.
- Go slowly … Let trust build.
- Unite – become allies in solving this problem together rather than just blaming each other.
- If sex is very important to your partner – see this not as a threat but as a vision of what sex can be for you too.
- If your partner does not respect your physical boundaries treat this as extremely seriously and seek help.
Things To Think About:
- Where were your first impressions of sexuality formed?
- Was it a positive experience?
- Have you ever felt desire and disgust at the same time?
- Do you feel comfortable with your sexuality?
- Do you take safety risks with sex?
- Have you ever felt you have compromised your sexual boundaries with a partner?
- Are you able to say what you enjoy with your partner?
- Would you consider seeking professional counselling in order to enjoy sex more?