Get Real! I’m a Sexual Abuse Survivor; How Do I Get OK With Being Intimate Again?


Anonymous asks:

I’m 15 years old and was sexually abused for two years in the past. How do I get over my intimacy issues?

The last boyfriend I had, anytime we were physically intimate, my
chest would get really tight, I’d often start to shake, and I’d go into
this blank zone where I’d just stare at the ceiling and my body would
be completely unresponsive. It was really scary. Sometimes he would
notice and ask me if I was alright, and I would just kind of nod numbly
so I wouldn’t disappoint him. Since that relationship, I’ve dated a
little, but now it’s gotten to the point where even kissing makes my
stomach roil. I’ve had to stop seeing them so I wouldn’t be put into a
situation where they would try something physical. I cannot bear the
thought of anything remotely sexual, and I feel like it’s rapidly
becoming an unstoppable downwards spiral.

I want to enjoy intimacy, not be terrified and repulsed by it. It’s
odd having my sisters gush over how good it feels when I just want to
throw up. I feel really abnormal. I also feel like I’m never going to
have a working relationship because what guy is going to want to be
with a girl like me? It’s frustrating, because I’m perfectly okay with
all the other aspects of a relationship (of course I’d like to have
someone to hang out with and cuddle with and all of that), but I’d just
like it without the sex part.

What should I do? Is there any way I can fix this? I’m currently in
therapy, but I still don’t feel quite ready to open up and tell my
therapist about my intimacy issues. It’s easier this way. I hope you
can help, I don’t know what to do and I certainly don’t want to get any
worse!

Heather replies:

Clarisse:
the very first thing I want to say, and want you to try hard to hear,
is that you are not abnormal, nor are you some kind of basket case.
You’re simply someone healing from a serious injury.

With at least one out of every four women being raped or sexually
abused at some point in your lives, we’re not looking at a majority of
women dealing with this issue, but we are looking at many, many, MANY
women who have to heal from sexual abuse and assault and work out how
those wounds impact all kinds of relationships, obviously including
sexual ones. As well, childhood sexual abuse — and given your age,
that is clearly what we’re talking about — can be even harder to deal
with than other types. That you’re here and you are talking about this
at all, seeing impediments to your healing and seeking to work through
them, is an achievement in and of itself. This is hard, hard stuff, and
it takes a strong person to deal with it.

What kind of guy would want to be with a girl with these issues?
Well, the kind of guy who likes and cares for the person you are. Look,
a LOT of people in the world have deep wounds from one thing or
another, and even people who aren’t traumatized often have emotional
baggage. We have relationships together in spite of that because one
thing intimate relationships are about is providing one another comfort
and support. Close relationships are never just about two people
somehow having no barriers to intimacy: they’re about investing the
time, over time, to gradually become closer. Certainly, if someone
wants to take a swim in the shallow end of the pool, a partner coming
back from a heavy trauma isn’t going to be the partner for them, but at
the same time, that person probably wouldn’t be so swell to be in a
relationship with, either. People who truly want real intimacy are up
to the challenges that that intimacy presents, including the wounds of
their partners and themselves. Plus, when you’re through this — and
even now — an abuse survivor tends to be a very strong, compassionate
person. Those are incredible qualities in a partner.

That said, one thing I’m seeing in your previous experience is that
you kept having sex anyway, even when you were dissociating, and even
when that is not what you wanted to be doing. That’s a real mistake,
and doing that IS often going to impact your trauma by adding even more
trauma to the plate. What you’re describing in what’s happened before
are a couple of things. That "blank zone" is called dissociating.
Your mind is going somewhere else to try and protect you from something
which is traumatic for you, and that’s part of post-traumatic stress.
But when that’s happening, and we have a choice in what we’re doing,
the clue that gives us is that we shouldn’t be doing whatever brings
that on, because we’re not yet in a space where that’s really wanted or
healthy. And in all truth, if you have a partner who is continuing with
sex at all when that’s going on, that’s not a good partner to be with:
when one partner is totally zoning out, the other partner should simply
be stopping what they’re doing, since a partner not-fully-present is
clearly a partner not really wanting to be sexual. As well, you should
only ever be engaging in sex when it’s something YOU want as much as
your partner, and not just to keep them from being bummed out, but
because you want to be having sex for sex’s sake.

It sounds to me like right now, it’d probably be best to take a
break from dating, unless you’re dating someone who also wants to, or
is fine with, having any kind of sex be off the table for the time
being, and who absolutely understands — even if you aren’t comfortable
telling them why at first — that that isn’t somewhere you can go for
the time being. If even kissing turns your stomach, it’s just not a
cool thing to do to yourself to put yourself in a spot where you have
to deal with that. You can’t force yourself to be fine with something
that just isn’t right for you now, and it IS okay that you’re not
feeling okay with it. What you’re describing, again, is totally normal
for sexual abuse survivors. It might be best if for right now, until
you can get a better handle on this, you stick to friendships, and only
pursue dating when you’re more comfortable with physical intimacy and
romance. You’re really young: it’s not as if you have to worry that
somehow romantic love or sexual relationship opportunities are going to
pass you by. They’re not: you’ve plenty of time for that, and until the
time is right for you, it’s not going to be something that makes you
feel great anyway, so why go there?

I think some of that downward spiral you’re feeling was due to
putting yourself in sexual situations, or situations where there was
some expectation of sex, when you’re just not there right now, and not
yet at a point where you have some of the tools you need to manage
sexuality after abuse. If you cut yourself a break, don’t beat yourself
up for not being there, and just go at a pace that really feels right
for you, I do think you’ll feel a lot better, and start to see some
real improvements.

It’s great you already have a counselor, and I think it is time you
brought this stuff to the table with your therapist. You say things are
easier this way, but clearly they are not, because you’re obviously
struggling with them pretty hard. I suspect the reason why you don’t
want to talk about this is because you think you feeling like this is
somehow abnormal, but it’s really not. In fact, if your therapist knows
about your sexual abuse, I can assure you that he or she is likely
already assuming you are having these issues, since most sexual abuse
survivors will deal with exactly what you are right now. If you have
not told your therapist about your abuse yet, I’d also strongly
encourage you to do that, or seek out a different therapist if you’re
not comfy being open with this one. If you just can’t, then I’d suggest
you do find someone you can talk to about this who is versed in
these issues. We can’t heal from abuse trauma when we can’t talk about
it. If that person isn’t your therapist, you might look into what rape
counseling services or support groups are available in your community
(often, those with them offer them for free or at a sliding scale), or
even just come gab with other survivors at our message boards or call a rape/sexual abuse crisis hotline and talk that way. The RAINN hotline is free and available 24 hours a day. It’s: 1-800-656-HOPE.

One other thing I’d suggest is that if your sisters know about your
abuse that you simply ask them for now to please do you a kindness and
not go on and on about how wonderful sex is. It’s obviously great they
feel that way, but it’s of course tough for you to hear about right
now, and you deserve consideration and sensitivity in this respect.
It’s not some huge sacrifice for your siblings to make to just tone
down the sex talk around you while you heal some more and work your way
through this. It’s also not some kind of bizarre request on your part.
If you’d broken your leg, it wouldn’t be weird to ask people talking
about how awesome it is to dance to do you a favor and chill out since
you’re stuck on your chair in a cast, after all. Right now, you have an
injured sexuality, so you’re just asking for that same kind of
consideration.

There is a wonderful book out there I often suggest for sexual abuse
survivors grappling with partnered sex and sexual relationships by
Staci Haines, called The Survivor’s Guide to Sex. I couldn’t
encourage you enough to go and seek out a copy, as I think it will be
very helpful for you, even if — and I think that for right now it’s
best you do — you take a break from sex and dating for a bit.
Hopefully, you will have other supports and resources, but even if you
do, it’s a great companion to those other resources.

Okay? Hopefully, some of that will help you get a foothold on
starting to get over the hump with this. Do know that as terribly
frustrating as it can be, healing from sexual abuse and assault does
tend to be something that takes a good deal of time and effort, and
which also has stops and starts. Sometimes, things will seem like
they’re becoming more okay again, and then we’ll feel like we got
thrown back a few paces. That’s obviously not wonderful, but it is
realistic, and is how healing tends to go for most people. But when you
do put in the time and effort, and do everything you can not to push
yourself overmuch into things you aren’t ready for, and allow yourself
the time and space you need to heal — as well as the simple acceptance
that you were done serious harm, recovering takes time and that none of
this is your fault or anything to beat yourself up about — things
really will start to get better.

Please also know that your sexual abuse is unlikely to prevent you
from having enriching romantic and sexual relationships in the future.

Most of us CAN do that, most of us DO have those, and when you’ve
had some more time to heal, it’s very unlikely that kissing and even
various kinds of sex are going to remain things that are not enjoyable
for you. It’s just about only seeking them out when you’ve done some
more healing, gotten some good coping tools under your belt (including
being better able to seek out potential partners who can deal with this
and partnered sex with sensitivity and real consideration for both of
you), and when that is what you really want, for yourself, not just for
a partner or because you think you have to do that to be normal.
"Normal" people, for a whole host of reasons, nix sexual relationships
or sex for periods of time often. We don’t have to have sex to be
"normal," and if having sex when we don’t want it, when we’re not into
it, and when it isn’t enjoyable is normal, then being normal isn’t a
good thing to be.

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Follow Heather Corinna on twitter: @Scarleteen

  • progo35

    Hi, Clarisse,
    I’d say that as Heather suggests, you should take a break from sex, first of all. The last thing you need in your recovery process is worry about STIs or pregnancy on top of the trauma that is currently associated with sex. You are so young-wait for a while until you are older and more mature and can be with somebody who is also mature enough to consider the adult responsibilities that come with sex, particularly sex with a partner who has been through a sexual trauma. Value yourself by only having intimate relations with someone that you know is committed to you as a person, which comes with adulthood.
    One thing I would also suggest is that you seek out a group therapy situation if possible. I attended one when I was 21 to deal with some early childhood issues and I felt that it really helped me-talking to other girls/women who have survived the same thing will help reiterate the truth that you are normal and are experiencing normal symptoms.
    God bless you and be with you in your healing process.
    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • sayna

    Ms. Corinna is the advice columnist here and frankly, she has better advice than “you’re just young and immature”.

  • heather-corinna

    Sidestepping the feelings of conflict between these two posts, it seems sage to mention (since I will often get comments directed to the writer of the question) that those who wrote in with these questions are not at all likely to be reading them here, as they asked them at Scarleteen and read their answers there, not here where they are reprinted.

     

    In other words, those leaving comments for the OPs are not likely to ever be heard/read by that person.

  • progo35

    Regardless of whether the person involved will read my response, that is my opinion on the subject, and I feel that it was good advice. I had/have no idea who is reading it and I did not feel it would be acceptable for me to give an opinion on this girl’s situation without addressing my comments to her, just in case she is reading this. I don’t see why that would bother anyone, particularly since this is a very sensitive matter that we are discussing here. The personal nature of the situation is why I didn’t say, “in my opinion, she should…,” because I felt that that phrasing would be too impersonal.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

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