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Sex after sexual abuse

"Am I Normal?": She was assaulted in a past relationship. Now she wants to know how to find pleasure again


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Tracy Clark-Flory
March 23, 2012 4:00AM (UTC)
Send your "Am I Normal?" questions to tracy [at] salon.com.

I’m a straight woman. My sex question pertains to having pleasurable sex after experiencing ongoing sexual abuse within the context of a past relationship. The abuse took place years ago, but now when I have sex (which is rare), my mentality is always "please let this be over," even though it is not at all painful.

You, friend, are normal. I usually build to such a proclamation, but in this case, it seems important to acknowledge right off the bat. Your reaction to what you’ve experienced is not only understandable but very common. It’s typical for survivors of sexual abuse to disassociate during sex -- in simple terms, to separate themselves from the physical act -- or avoid it entirely, and it sounds like both apply in your case. Therapist Wendy Maltz says your email makes it sound like you experience sex as something being done to you, “as opposed to really engaging fully as an equal and mutual partner in the experience.”

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But pleasurable sex is possible for you.

The most important thing is “making a connection between the present day sexual problems and the abuse of the past,” says Maltz, author of "The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse" (which is being reissued this summer). So you’ve already taken the first step, and it’s one that many people never get to on their own. The next crucial step -- and maybe you’ve taken this one too, you overachiever -- is talking to a therapist who can help you sort through what you've experienced and how it’s affected you, and not just in the bedroom.

The biggest challenge ahead of you, in terms of experiencing sexual pleasure, is redefining sex and your own sexuality. (No small task, I know.) Maltz says that ongoing abuse reinforces sex “as what you experienced in the abuse.” She explains, “Survivors often feel that they’re bad or an object or damaged goods, and you kinda have to shed that and separate yourself from what was done to you to see that your sexuality was there before the abuse.” As a result, oftentimes survivors approach “sex from a place of not feeling as empowered as their partner or desirous of what is happening,” and then continue to reinforce a dynamic reminiscent of the original abuse. “Developing a new meaning for sex and developing a new sexual self-concept” is key, Maltz says.

One way to do this is to “relearn touch” by experiencing physical sensations that you want and that feel within your control. Of course, the touch that you’re most in control of is your own, and that’s a great place to start. Maltz’s book details a range of exercises, some of which can be adapted for solo use, that focus on basic pleasurable sensations -- like hugging and massage -- which are sensual but not explicitly sexual.

Sex therapist and author Ian Kerner suggests that if you’re in a “loving relationship, with a caring partner” -- or if you enter into one in the future -- you can try “sensate focus” exercises, ideally with the help of a sexuality counselor. “In traditional sensate focus, sex is taken off the table, and then gradually reintroduced, one aspect at a time, which would help this woman take baby-steps back into the world of sex without feeling emotionally hijacked,” he says. “Sensate focus takes couples through a process of touching, connection, and awareness, during which each partner takes turns as giver and receiver.” By taking away the goal of actual intercourse, it lets the couple focus on “sensual experiences and the careful processing of emotion,” Kerner says. He describes this as “small loving interactions.”

As I said last week in my response to a woman seeking to revive her sex life after her husband’s stroke, this is great advice for anyone.

The key ingredient for partnered pleasure, though, is a trustworthy, caring and committed partner whom you can tell about your experience. “The partner needs to be clued in with what's happening and what she's experiencing so that the partner can kind of get on board and become a partner in healing,” says Maltz. Yes, it might sound sucky having to introduce this into a new relationship, but the right person won’t care -- or rather will care enough about you to go through this with you. Plus, Maltz says, “A lot of the couples I see who have gone through this process, they reach a level of mutual intimate understanding and enjoyment that couples that haven't had to deal with something this heavy often don’t get to.”

This is hard work, but it might help to think of it in terms of reclaiming your sexuality. “This is taking back what you were robbed of,” says Maltz. “Sexual abuse is abuse of someone's sexuality.” By finding sexual pleasure for yourself, she says, you’re “going to the heart of the wound and healing.”


Tracy Clark-Flory

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