For women, it’s 15 percent, about one in six, for men around two percent, one in 50. These are the estimated proportions of people who have survived childhood sexual trauma—everything from being fondled once by the boy next door to years of nightly rape by a father. Many people believe that childhood sexual abuse is so emotionally devastating that victims never recover and can never enjoy sex. In fact, healing is quite possible, and so is a deeply fulfilling sex life.

Of course, recovery isn’t easy. It typically takes years and requires professional therapy. Survivors typically become obsessed by their recovery process, which can drive their friends, lovers, and families crazy. That’s the bad news. The good news is that survivors eventually emerge from the dark tunnel of recovery into the light of healing, and often report that the process transforms their sex lives from awful to deeply nurturing and erotically fulfilling.

Here is the first of three posts on this subject:

Healing Is Possible

Women experience the vast majority of sexual abuse, so this discussion focuses on them. But male survivors have very similar experiences and recovery processes.

Laura Davis, of Santa Cruz, California, is the co-author of The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Her books reflect her struggle to recover from her grandfather’s abuse—and the joy she discovered in recovery: “When I had my first memories of the incest, I went from being a very sexual person to being totally erotically shut down. I had flashbacks every time I was touched, couldn’t bear to be touched, and changed my mind constantly: Yes, I want sex. No, I don’t.” After six months, this proved too much for Davis’ lover, and they broke up.

After her recovery, Davis built another relationship, and she has become a much different person sexually. She says she “enjoys being touched (most of the time), and considers sex a place for us to connect, heal, express love, and have fun.”

Staci Haines, of San Francisco, is another survivor. After years devoted to her own recovery, she now enjoys a pleasurable, fulfilling sex life, and has become a psychotherapist specializing in helping abuse survivors rediscover the pleasures of sex. She is the author of Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma: “Healing is possible,” she explains, “emotional healing and sexual healing. I tell survivors: You survived. You’re more powerful than what happened to you. Victimization is a terrible thing. Surviving it is very hard. But now that you’re an adult, you have the capacity to recover, to build the life—and the sex life—you choose.”

How Abuse Affects Survivors

For survivors, trust is a key issue. Someone who should have been nurturing and trustworthy was the opposite. Sex is based on trust. Survivors have a hard time with trust, which is why they have difficulty with sex.

Another important issue is survivors’ loss of control during the abuse. Their desires and personal integrity were ignored. They had no control over what happened to them. As a result, recovering survivors often need to assert total control over every aspect of their relationships and sexuality. This, too, makes sex difficult. Satisfying sex involves a combination of control and letting go, feeling simultaneously safe and able to surrender to erotic enjoyment and orgasm. Survivors’ need for control often interferes with this, and makes sex—especially orgasm—a challenge.

A third issue is “dissociation,” a natural defense mechanism for those who experience severe trauma. Survivors’ minds block out what happened to their bodies. Dissociation is not unique to child sexual abuse. Survivors of any trauma—war, a car wreck, etc.—do whatever it takes to escape the pain. To avoid their memories, many survivors withdraw physically and emotionally. When children dissociate before they’ve matured to the point where they develop other coping skills, dissociation may become the only way they can respond to the abuse. They grow up to be numb, dissociated adults. Davis once asked a survivor how she felt about her body. Her reply: “What body?”

Dissociation often includes an inability to experience physical pleasure. As one survivor explains: “I was afraid to feel pleasure. My body could contain lots of pain, but not pleasure.” Another confesses: “Physical pleasure didn’t feel good to me. I wanted to throw up every time I had an orgasm. All I could think about was my uncle.”

Some survivors feel repulsed by sex. Others become hypersexual and sexually reckless, for example, drunken hook-ups without contraception. And some swing back and forth, one moment craving physical closeness, but the next, freezing or fleeing. These reactions are all aspects of dissociation.

During sex, many survivors experience flashbacks, vivid memories of the abuse that make sex difficult, sometimes impossible. Flashbacks can happen any time, but typically occur during lovemaking, even if the sex is tender, loving, and completely consensual. “I frequently had flashbacks during sex. I remember one time my lover was standing in the doorway about to join me in bed. I knew he was the man I loved, a gentle, wonderful man. But all I could see was my father standing there. I knew my father had been dead a dozen years. But I saw my father.”

Another survivor: “My memories of abuse and my passion are stored in the same place. If I don’t make love, I don’t experience passion—but I don’t relive the abuse either. Whenever I open myself up to passion, my horrible memories come flooding back.”

Cincinnati researchers surveyed 832 women survivors of child sex abuse, aged 14 to 59. Compared with non-traumatized women, abuse survivors were more likely to have poor self-esteem, negative body image, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, drug and alcohol problems, and problematic sex lives—either withdrawal from sex or sexual recklessness.

As a result, it’s not surprising that many people, both survivors and the public, believe that child sexual abuse ruins women for life. In some cases, that’s true, with survivors becoming mentally ill or committing suicide. But in most cases, with time, therapy, and emotional support, survivors of childhood sexual abuse CAN recover, heal, and enjoy sex.

Next time: The Long Road to Healing

And then: How Men Can Help Sexually Abused Women Heal

References:

Davis, L. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (20th Anniversary edition). William Morrow, NY, 2008.

Haines, S. Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. Cleis Press, San Francisco, 2007.

You are reading

All About Sex

Men, Women, and Sex Problems Throughout the Lifespan

When sex problems meet stage of life, men and women are often out of synch.

Do Lovers' Sexually Transmitted Infections Prove Cheating?

Partners with sexually transmitted infections may have cheated—but maybe not.

Want More Intense Orgasms? Try This Simple, Subtle Exercise

Quick, easy, private Kegel exercises enhance the pleasure of orgasm