Sex

Childhood Sexual Abuse: How Men Can Help Women Recover

One man in six is involved with a woman who has survived child sex abuse.

Posted Oct 17, 2016

Media coverage of childhood sexual abuse often focuses on Catholic priests violating altar boys. That’s terrible. But child sex abuse affects only about two percent of men, one man in 50. Among women, the figure is 15 percent, one in six.

Many people believe that child sex 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. If you’re a man whose lover was sexually victimized as a child or teen, here’s how best to support her recovery.

First, review your own sexual history. Our culture generally expects men to orchestrate sex and lead women through it. But sometimes the leading is too pushy, too demanding, and may approach coercion, or be coercive. Involvement with a survivor of child sexual abuse is an opportunity to explore your own sexual past, and atone for anything you may regret.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often can’t stand to have sex or just go through the motions without joy, connection, or orgasm. Laura Davis, author of Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child, explains, “Partners always tell me they can’t stand being sexually rejected when they had nothing to do with the abuse. I ask them: ‘Do you want to make love with someone who isn’t there? Someone totally disconnected, and just going through the motions?’ They always say, ‘I guess not.’”

Men can play a key role in the recovery process. When men embrace this challenge with knowledge, love, and patience—a great deal of patience—the relationship becomes more deeply intimate, and ultimately, more sexually fulfilling for both lovers.

Here’s how men can help:

  • Abuse teaches women that men are sexually out of control. Stay in control of yourself.
  • Learn about child sexual abuse. Read the books in the References. Try a support group. Try therapy yourself.
  • Understand the risks. It’s very difficult to deal with a survivor as she works her way through the therapy involved in recovery. Your relationship may not survive the process. That’s sad, but fairly common.
  • Go slow. Understand that she has to be in control of sex, possibly for a long time.
  • You can’t heal her or “make” her enjoy sex. She has to heal herself and rediscover erotic pleasure for herself. Your job is to offer emotional support. Ask her how she feels and then listen. Really listen. You can’t orchestrate her recovery. All you can do is get out of the way, not erect any more roadblocks to healing than she already faces.
  • She needs to know that you care about her more than you care about sex with her. Tell her that often.
  • Brace yourself for a long period during which the survivor is maddeningly self-absorbed.
  • Be honest about your own feelings. No doubt during her recovery, you’ll feel impatient, frustrated, and sexually rejected. It’s OK to feel that way. Say so. But don’t blame her. Blame the abuse.
  • It’s OK for you to want sex and ask for it. But during her recovery, she has to be the one in control.
  • At times, you may become the target of her rage. This is typical. Try not to take it personally. Of course, it’s very difficult not to. Try.
  • Explore nonsexual sensuality. If the survivor can’t deal with genital sexuality, experiment with all the ways the two of you can be physically close that the survivor can enjoy, e.g., cuddling, embracing each other, massage, bathing together.
  • Gently encourage her to masturbate. If she doesn’t feel comfortable with partner sex, you might masturbate together watching one another. You might also take her vibrator shopping, or buy her a vibrator or two.
  • When she feels ready to explore partner sex, develop signals for flashbacks and dissociation: If she signals, stop what you’re doing and ask how she wants to proceed: stop, just be held, whatever. Honor her wishes.
  • Survivors often have to stop in the middle of sex. Let them. Say: I’m here for you. I’m listening.
  • When she has flashbacks, ask: Who are you seeing? What are you feeling? You’re safe here with me. I won’t do anything you don’t want.
  • Help the survivor to stay in the present. Flashbacks happen. Reassure her that her memories are real, but that they’re not what’s happening now.
  • During sex, check in frequently. Ask: Is this OK? Do you need a break?
  • Get support yourself. Talk with friends. Join a support group. Try therapy.
  • Ask for days off from dealing with the abuse. Initially, many survivors can talk about nothing but their abuse and recovery. That’s natural, but ask for periods when she doesn’t discuss it—one day a week, a few evenings, whatever works for the two of you.
  • Your best tools to help survivors include compassion, flexibility, resourcefulness, humor, knowledge of your own needs and limits, and patience, lots of patience, tons of patience.

References

Davis, L. Allies in Healing: When the Person You Love Was Sexually Abused as a Child. William Morrow, NY, 1991.  

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.