We're always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, today's topic: how to improve your relationship with sex after you've been sexually abused.
Q: My only experience with sex was being molested as a child. Since then, sex hasn’t exactly seemed appealing to me. I’m slightly curious about it, but I’m worried I’ve already lost my chance to ever have a healthy or enjoyable relationship with sex (much less a healthy relationship with another person). Is there any hope for me? Is there anything I can do to change my associations with sex?
A: Thank you for reaching out. First of all, I am so, so sorry that this happened to you. One in four women will experience sexual abuse of some kind, and one in six men will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18, which is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating. Your fears and apprehensions make a lot of sense, and they’re shared by millions of women and men.
There’s no way for me to tell you exactly what your future with sex will look like, but I will be honest with you and say that sexual abuse can make sex more complicated. You’ve experienced trauma, and your body needs some extra love and tenderness in order to realize that sex can be safe. That being said, you absolutely can have a healthy and happy sex life after experiencing abuse. Let’s talk about the steps you can take now to create a better relationship with sex.
1. Get Support
The single best piece of advice I can give you is to start therapy as soon as you can. I’m obviously biased since I’m a therapist myself, but sexual abuse isn’t something you should have to deal with on your own. It really helps to have a trained professional guide you through sorting out your feelings and processing your experience. Some therapists are upfront about the fact that they’ve been abused themselves, so they can understand some of what you’re going through. You deserve to feel supported instead of alone.
If you can’t afford the full fee of the therapists in your area, try looking for therapists that offer a sliding-scale (meaning that they’ll lower their fees based on your income). Or look for psychology graduate schools, which usually offer low-fee sessions with trainees. You can also join sexual abuse survivor support groups, either online or in-person. I also highly recommend the book, Healing Sex, A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma.
2. Think About Your Goals & Boundaries
Right now, you’re conflicted about what you want from your sex life. Part of you wants to avoid it altogether, but part of you is curious. This is completely normal and understandable. The person who molested you stole your control over your own body, and as a result, you may feel confused about what kind of relationship you want to have with sex.
At this point, you may find it helpful to start thinking in terms of goals and boundaries. You’re thinking long-term, but I want you to think short-term, like in the next six months. Goals are the things that you’d like to start working towards at this point in your life. Boundaries are the things that don’t feel safe just yet. Dividing things up in this way might help you take care of yourself as you start the healing process.
For example, you may set goals for yourself of starting to date or learning to masturbate. Or your goals may be more abstract, like, "I want to learn to love my body" or "I want to remind myself that I deserve to have a good sex life." You may set a boundary for yourself of not kissing anyone until the second date, not having oral sex, or not having any sexual contact whatsoever.
Keep thinking about the kind of relationship you want to have with sex at this point in your life. What feels right for you right now? The point of this step is to regain control of your sex life, and to drill home the message that from here on out, you get to decide what feels right to you. If you don’t feel ready to work on any of this at this point in your life, that’s perfectly fine too! You get to choose.
3. Improve Your Mind-Body Connection
One of the most common things that happens to a person when they’re being abused is that their brain and body tend to dissociate from each other. A lot of people report feeling like they were “somewhere else” mentally when the abuse was happening. That disconnection can stay present for a very long time, and it can feel like your brain and body are operating independently of each other. Your brain rationally understands that you’re not being abused anymore, but your body can hold onto the trauma. For example, you might find yourself jumping when someone touches you, or tensing up when someone gets too close.
Therapy will help with the mental and emotional aspects of the trauma, but you can also work on improving your mind-body connection. Take up a mindfulness or meditation practice. Find some sort of physical movement that feels good for you, like running or yoga, and practice being more present in your body. Watch your body as it's moving, and try to notice the sensations in different parts of your body. Take slow, deep breaths, and feel your whole body expanding and contracting. You can even try talking to your body!
4. Create Your Own Positive Sensual Experiences
Right now, your only associations with sexuality are negative ones. Your body simply hasn't had the opportunity to learn that touch can be pleasurable. Fortunately, you can help your body learn the joys of sensuality by creating your own positive experiences. The first thing you can do is try putting your hands on different parts of your body, and playing with different types of touch. For example, start with your arm. Try caressing it, lightly scratching it, and massaging it. See if you can pick which type of sensation feels best. Try this with other areas of your body that feel safe to touch.
From there, think about each of your senses, and see if you can come up with other ways to engage them. Try lighting a really good-smelling candle, playing sensual music, tasting chocolate, or watching a sex scene in a movie. Some of these things won't be that exciting, but others may surprise you.
You can also try developing a masturbation practice, so you can send your body the message that physical touch can be pleasurable and safe. (If masturbation sounds too intense right now, please don't push yourself.) The goal here is to experiment with ways of playing with your body and your senses, and creating experiences that feel light, playful, or pleasurable.
5. Work On Yourself While You’re Single
I know you’re afraid of being able to have a relationship with someone in the future, but it’s actually a great thing that you’re single right now. Being single gives you more space to work on healing your relationship with sex, without any added pressure from another person. If you were to get into a relationship right now, you might end up feeling pressured to “fix” yourself quickly, or else risk losing your partner. You might end up pushing yourself to be intimate before you felt ready. There are plenty of supportive, understanding partners out there, but there are also people who are going to make you feel like their sexual needs are more important than your safety needs. Being able to address your history on your own timeline, without having to even consider anyone else, is a wonderful benefit.
Again, I’m so sorry that you’ve had this experience of sexual abuse. It may take you some time to fully process this experience, and it may continue to surface in surprising and frustrating ways. But don’t let this person steal your chance for joy and intimacy. If you have the desire to learn how to enjoy sex (and again, you don’t have to), you can get there.
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