7 Things To Know About Repressed Memories & Sex

woman sitting in fetal position on a bench
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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 actually 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, onto today's topic: whether you might be repressing memories of sexual abuse if you sometimes feel weird during sex.

Q: “Sometimes, my orgasm gets blocked, and I wonder … could something else be behind it? Like, I'll feel good and turned on, but then and all the sudden, I lose it. I've heard stories of women with repressed memories of molestation. I don't think anyone in my family did anything like that when I was a child, but sometimes, I do wonder if maybe I'm just repressing it. How do you know if you’re repressing memories or not? Is there any way to figure it out?”

A: Thanks for the question! The topic of repressed memories is a very challenging one for the therapeutic community, so I’m glad to have the opportunity to address it. Adding orgasms to the mix can make it even more complicated, since there are so many different reasons for orgasmic blockages. Since you specifically asked about sexual abuse, I’m going to focus on that today. I'm sorry you're even having to question whether or not you've been abused. Here are seven things you should know about repressed memories of abuse.

1. This Is A Very Controversial Topic

The idea behind repressed memories is that certain experiences are so traumatic that the brain purposefully “forgets” or “blocks” the memory, as a protective mechanism. If you can’t remember it, it can’t hurt you as much. Even though the person doesn’t actively remember the experience, the memory still affects them unconsciously. That’s the gist of what you’re wondering in your question — whether the experience of having been abused in the past preventing you from reaching your orgasm as an adult.

Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer here. The theory makes sense, but researchers and therapists have been arguing about this for decades, without consensus. It has even led to a number of court cases, after a number of therapists claimed to have helped their clients “remember” memories that they didn’t actually have.

2. Memory Is Unbelievably Complicated

So why the heck is this such a difficult question? Look no further than the brain. The process of creating and recalling memories is so much more complex than most people realize. Our memories are actually incredibly susceptible to suggestion.

I’ll leave you to do the Googling if you’re interested in the science (I’d suggest this fascinating Wikipedia entry as a starter), but one quick example I can share lies in the topic of eyewitness accounts. You would think that being right there — being an eyewitness — to an event would mean you’d have clear, consistent memories of what you saw. But there has been a lot of research about the validity of eyewitness accounts, and time and time again, eyewitnesses have been proven to be remarkably unreliable and susceptible to influence. In particular, eyewitnesses can be made to “recall” details that they actually did not witness (a “false” memory).

This is not to say, by any means, that those who remember their sexual abuse are mistaken — just that memory is complicated and sometimes unreliable.

3. You Can’t "Make" Yourself Remember

I know this is a tricky topic, but the bottom line is this: there’s no way to force yourself to remember something that happened in your past. We don’t know for sure if people can remember memories they had previously suppressed, but we do have evidence that people can create memories that never actually happened (in other words, that there’s no way of differentiating a repressed memory from a false memory). Even people who do believe in repressed memories don’t have a foolproof method for recalling those memories.

So no, unfortunately, there’s not a concrete way to figure out if you’ve repressed memories of being abused. There's always a possibility that you have been, especially if you have little snippets of memories or a feeling of not quite being able to put your finger on something, but again, there's not a way to know for sure.

4. There Are Other Reasons For Orgasmic Blockages

Like I mentioned in the intro, there are plenty of reasons for your orgasm feeling blocked, including:

  • Feeling uncomfortable with your body. So many of us spend our entire days beating up our bodies, then we get into the bedroom and expect our bodies to respond perfectly during sex. How do you feel about your body? What about your genitals?
  • Feeling embarrassed about specific sexual acts. If you’re doing something that you don’t feel fully comfortable with, it’s easy for your orgasm to get blocked. For example, a lot of women get tense when they’re on the receiving end of oral sex. We’ve been socialized to be ashamed of our bodies, so having someone so up close and personal can feel overwhelming. It’s hard to let go if you’re focused on how you look, taste, or smell.
  • Getting performance anxiety. A lot of women put a tremendous amount of pressure on their shoulders to reach orgasm. If orgasm feels like an expectation, it’s a lot harder to get there. Are you pressuring yourself? Are your partners pressuring you?
  • Not getting the right kind of stimulation. Most women need repetitive, consistent stimulation, especially in the final moments before orgasm. If your partner keeps switching things up, or if they’re not giving you the type of stimulation you like in the first place, they may be blocking you from getting there.
  • Random chance. Sometimes orgasms just get blocked. Ever get the feeling of having to sneeze, only to feel it peter out at the last second? Orgasms can be like that too.

As you read through those possibilities, did you find yourself relating to any of them? Give yourself some time to consider each one. It’s very likely that they could be the causes of your orgasmic blockage.

5. It's Important To Pay Attention To Your Body’s Response

Do you ever feel jumpy when your partner touches you? Do you ever notice your heart racing or your palms sweating when you’re being intimate? Do you feel anxious or scared, or like you’re not fully present? Do you feel overly emotional? Try to separate yourself from your experience and take a more objective look at it. If your best friend described what you feel in the moment, what would you tell her?

These questions won’t help you determine whether or not you’ve been abused with any certainty, but they will help guide what to do with those types of reactions. If it doesn’t seem like you’re getting triggered, it may be more helpful to focus on other potential causes of orgasmic blockages. If it does feel like there are emotional, triggering reactions coming up for you in those moments before orgasm, it’s a clue that there’s something that has happened that has made your body equate sex with a lack of safety. This can happen because of abuse, since abuse is obviously an incredibly unsafe experience. It can also happen if you’ve pressured yourself to have sex or try certain things that you’re not fully comfortable with or ready for.

6. You Should Focus On Safety

Regardless of the specifics of any potential abuse, one of the best things you can do is try to focus on making sex feel more safe. Make sure you enthusiastically consent to any and all sexual activities you participate in. Only sleep with partners that have that same level of respect for enthusiastic consent. Make sure to check in with yourself throughout any interaction and keep asking yourself how you feel. Check out my past articles on managing sexual abuse triggers, and my online course, A Survivor's Guide To Reclaiming Your Sex Life After Abuse for even more tips.

7. It’s Worth Exploring With A Therapist

Try to give yourself the space, self-love, and permission to explore your history and your relationships with your body and with sex. This might include questions around your past sexual experiences, your past reactions, and other blockages you’ve noticed. This is best done with the guidance of a trained therapist. (Quick but important side note — avoid therapists that claim they can help you recall repressed memories, since as I mentioned above, there's no proven method.) If you do happen to remember something, you'll already have the support network in place.

Regardless of whether or not we’ve been abused, most of us have complicated relationships with sex, so there’s almost always something to explore. Try telling yourself, “I’m curious about my body’s responses, and I want to get to know my body better.” If you have had any difficult past experiences, a therapist can help you process them and learn how to feel more comfortable or safe with sex.

Wishing you the best of luck!

Images: Aliaksandr Liulkovich/Tetra images/Getty Images; Giphy