Having Healthy Sex and Relationships After Sexual Abuse

Sexual trauma, abuse and violence impact a surprisingly large number of people — maybe even you or someone you know. One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under age 18 will experience sexual abuse or assault by an adult, reports the anti sexual-violence organization, RAINN.

Accurate statistics about child sexual abuse are difficult to determine, because it is not often reported, says the National Center for Victims of Crime. According to the Child Maltreatment Report 2010 by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 9.2% of victimized children were sexually assaulted.

One of the most tragic outcomes of sexual abuse and assault is the negative impact on the sense of self and how healthy relationships work.

Sexual abuse, especially in childhood, is deeply devastating. Not only do some victims endure violation from those they depend on to survive. They are often forced to hide the truth. Their mental, emotional and physical growth must adapt to accommodate repeated terror, isolation, duplicity, and unwanted, unavoidable arousal that their bodies and minds are not yet developed enough to understand.

Another of the many grave casualties for the trauma survivor is the meaning of consent. How do you enjoy healthy sex and intimate relationships if earlier trauma triggers terror or confusion around sex?

Yet I see an amazing and inspiring desire to heal, also present in survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Survivors have every right to heal and get the help they need to move beyond the trauma of abuse and enjoy healthy sex and relationships.

No matter what roadblocks or difficulties you may experience, they are not your fault. No matter what shame or pain you still endure, you can heal and move forward to find healthy love and sex.

Eliminating Confusion, Clarifying Consent

It’s important to know the difference between sex and abuse. See this first post in our series to clear up confusion around sex, unwanted arousal and abuse. Knowing about consent is vital to help survivors of sexual abuse view their past experiences with clarity. Once you can see the difference between sex and abuse, you can recognize how your healthy desire for intimacy comes from a different universe than the power grab forced on you through an abusive sex act. Sex is consensual and it’s something that you want!

Unwanted arousal during unwanted sexual contact has nothing to do with choice or healthy desire. If your body responded in a sexual manner to sexual abuse, you experienced arousal non-concordance. This is a physiological response that is biologically built-in to your body — not a sign of desire, choice or consent. Arousal in no way means that you wanted it or enjoyed it.

Sex is a decision in your brain, something you want of your own free will, and you can enjoy!

A healthy sexual encounter will include these things:

  • You have consented to the sexual encounter
  • Your brain is saying you want it because it’s your free choice
  • It is likable, pleasurable or enjoyable

Moving Past Abuse Towards Sex

Sexual abuse may trigger strong negative emotions linked to sexual desire or behavior for trauma survivors. When something is scary, it triggers the brain’s fight/flight/freeze response — specifically the amygdala, which we can’t consciously control to just be different – we have to feel differently.

As we know from research, neurons that fire together wire together. This means fear and negative feelings can become triggered, automatically “hard-wiring” to sexual responses because of past abuse. This is why trauma survivors often experience disgust, pain, discomfort during sex, or terrifying flashbacks from the past — even when they are safe with someone they choose in the present day.

Healthy Relationships for Trauma Survivors

A healthy relationship — one based on love, compassion and caring — is one place a trauma survivor can learn positive ways to experience sexual pleasure, desire and consent. Healthy relationships for trauma survivors can be tremendous places to heal; see: Healthy Relationships Matter More than We Think.

Safety and secure attachment in a relationship enables healing, and allows you to enjoy good sex with your partner! When you are in a committed, loving relationship and your partner is aware of your history of trauma you can learn how to communicate what you need to feel safe.

Asking for what you need — especially asking your partner to honor your need for emotional safety — helps you understand that your partner is there for you. You can describe what you need to feel safe so that you don’t get triggered.

When you understand that abuse and sex are not the same, you can start to explore being vulnerable and experience feeling safe sexually. Healthy relationships — with love, caring, and enjoyable sex — can grow when you and your partner can say what you need, and build trust in each other. All of this is possible!

It’s very important to know what you need to feel safe and enjoy sex, and be able to share that with your partner. Some needs you may want to share with your partner may include:

  • Choosing to have the lights on
  • Choosing to have sex in a certain place
  • Scheduling sex with your partner, so it’s expected
  • Leading up to sex with a routine you enjoy, whether that involves you and your partner having a meal together or cuddling with each other, or something you like to do on your own that helps you feel grounded and safe. Perhaps you like taking a bath and putting on something that you feel beautiful and comfortable in
  • You being the one to initiate; your partner letting you take the lead and going at your pace
  • Asking your partner not to come up behind you, kiss your neck, or do or say certain things that may trigger you

You and your partner may need to try many things to see what works for you. Your own preferences may vary based on your unique experience. What’s important is taking time to figure out what you need to feel safe, and to openly share these ideas with your partner. This will help your partner really be there for you during sex, which will ultimately make for a stronger, more connected relationship.

Working with a good trauma-informed therapist will also help on the road to healing, by teaching you how to feel grounded and safe—and notice that you are not in danger—as you embark upon healthy, trusting relationships.

We Must Have Connection to Live and Thrive!

Humans are wired for connection. Couples are each other’s best co-regulators. And if past trauma is preventing you from building healthy, loving connections, there is so much hope for the future. When trauma survivors begin to develop self-compassion, healing can occur.

This is the road towards a healthy relationship with yourself, healthy relationships with others, and a healthy sex life that is pleasurable, safe and wanted.

More Resources:

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About the Author

Robyn E. Brickel, M.A., LMFT Robyn E. Brickel, MA, LMFT is the director and lead therapist at Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, which she founded in 1999. She specializes in the therapeutic treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples, families and groups. Robyn E. Brickel offers treatment and psychoeducational services for many life issues and transitions, such as: A history of trauma and/or abuse, including Dissociation; Addictions, as well as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) issues; Body Image issues and Eating Disorders; Self-Harming behaviors, including Emotional intensity and instability; Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders; Challenged family systems; Chronic illness; Co-dependency; Dysfunctional relationships; Life transitions; Loss and bereavement; Relationship distress; Self esteem; GLBTQ and sexual identity issues/struggles; Stress reduction. She is an LMFT, as well as a trained trauma & addictions therapist who has helped countless clients make and maintain positive changes in their lives. To learn more about Robyn E. Brickel, visit her website.

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