Sexual intimacy, as an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, is a personal and sensitive topic. For that reason, I’ve done my best to avoid writing about it for the past couple of years. In fact, it seems like nobody wants to discuss it, truth be told. You know what that says to me? A conversation is long overdue.
If it’s important to let others know they’re not alone, then here I am, ready to rip my life wide open just to let you know that you—yes, I’m talking to you, out there—you are not alone. You may not find any helpful advice on this page, but I promise to be honest about my own experiences, and hopefully, that will be enough to start a dialogue.
Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that affects boys and girls from every culture across the globe. In North America, statistics show that approximately 1/3 girls and 1/5 boys will be sexually abused before reaching adulthood. To put it in context, among a population of some 350 million human beings living in North America (a rough estimate indicates about half are male and the other half are female), we can deduce that more than 58 million girls and approximately 35 million boys are—or will become—sexual abuse survivors, and those numbers continue to rise steadily.
Nearly 100 million innocent human beings victimised by the same demon.
The effects of childhood sexual abuse are wide-spread. The road from victim to survivor is long and arduous, full of bombs and hidden detours, fraught with darkness, grief, and a bone-chilling cold that often threatens to turn our bodies to ice. Frigid. Even when we do manage to pull ourselves out of the pit to lead relatively normal lives, triggers turn up every now and again, just when we least expect them, caught up as we are in the extraordinary ordinariness of a mild fall morning: a scent in the air, thinning grey hair and a bulbous nose, a door slamming closed, or a scratchy wool sweater brushed against a thigh… Stops. Us. Short.
A survivor of sexual abuse by multiple offenders, I grew up acutely aware of my own sexuality, but even more than that, on some level, I truly believed that a big part of my life’s purpose was to please members of the opposite sex. I was not raped as a child, thank God, because it was difficult enough to experience at the tender age of seventeen; however, I was subjected to unwanted touching, indecent exposure, and exploitation, from an early age. I learned my role well after a number of years and several uncomfortable incidents. By the time I became sexually active, I mistakenly understood that it was my job to make him happy, whoever he was, whether I really wanted to, or not.
As a teen and young adult, my sense of personal value often hinged on whether or not the boys in my peer groups found me attractive and desirable. I was a huge flirt, fairly promiscuous, always trying to be the centre of attention, usually succeeding. I allowed myself to be used, often knowingly, because I didn’t think I deserved any better. I wanted to be loved, but felt nobody could really love ‘someone like me,’ so I sold myself short, time and time again. Looking back, I can see that I was little more than an actor performing a role, constantly hustling and bustling to keep folks interested.
I was pretty hot stuff back in those days, I guess, but my appreciation for sex was always just an act, for show, even if it was an Oscar-worthy performance. I was hardly ever present, and at some point during each event, I’d rise above to watch from somewhere on the ceiling, as my body contorted below, doing all kinds of strange things without me. I’m more able to stay connected these days, but there are times when I still feel that familiar tug of soul-leaving-body. Sex and I have always had a complicated relationship.
On one hand, it was my go-to, a temporary way to feel connected and consequential, a sure-fire method for chasing away the deep pain and loneliness that so often crept up unexpectedly, hands outstretched, ready to choke me to death. On the other hand, it validated all the ugly thoughts I had about myself—I was a dirty, disgusting, unlovable little slut—and made me feel like crawling under a rock to die. I was pretty good at sex, uninhibited and the rest, but the fact is, I’m not sure I ever liked it half as much as I pretended to. I definitely don’t know how to feel about it now, even though I’m a full-grown woman, a strong, independent single mom with four children.
Sex is a loaded gun. At least it has been for me.
Intricately linked to deep-seated feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, guilt, fear, and shame, sexual intimacy is a veritable minefield of triggers, which lead to an increase in stress, anxiety, depression, flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, irritability, hypertension, hypervigilance, and excessive emotional responses. Welcome to the totally mind-fucking symptoms of PTSD! It’s far from ideal. Physical intimacy often comes at a high cost for many survivors of childhood sexual abuse and , quite frankly, isn’t always worth the risk.
(Currently in the process of updating this essay, so please forgive any continuity errors…)
Somewhere along the way, sex became just another thing I had to do, not something I actually I wanted. It wasn’t until I finally met and married a man who loved me for me, not for how I made him feel, and never pressured me nor expected anything sexually, that I began to finally notice how deeply triggering sex could be. Although I know my husband loves me, a lingering kiss can leave me reeling for days, and not in a good way. I cringe when he says, “You’re so pretty.” Substitute “beautiful” or “sexy,” it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. Even though the words are spoken by someone who cares about me, and not by one of my abusers, in the end, my mind rapidly boils it all down to the exact same thing: a quality that I have no control over has captivated his interest, and because of that, I know he’s going to want something—and not just any something.
He’s going to want sex.
Defensive, resentful, and ultimately protective, I often reject my husband’s advances before he’s able to actually make them. A tender look, a gentle pat on the bum, or an embrace that lasts a bit too long is enough to warrant a reproachful glance and a few more inches of distance between us. It’s nearly impossible to get aroused when you feel gross, inside and out, before, during, and after sex. I don’t know how he stands it, being made to feel like some kind of pervert-freak for wanting to sleep with his wife, but he does. Waits for me to make the moves.
Even then, it’s a crap shoot as to whether or not anything will happen because, as soon as I start to get aroused, I hear voices in the back of my head:
Look at you, disgusting slut. You’re really enjoying this, aren’t you?
I told you this is all you’re good for…
If I do manage to tune out the voices, get through the layers of perma-frost and carry on in spite of myself, there are still hurdles to cross. In bed, words like “dirty” or “nasty” are total game-changers. Instant numbness from head to toe. Flashbacks come and go. Between the sheets, I have to constantly remind myself my husband’s not one of my abusers, he’s the man I love, the father of my children, my best friend.
Luckily, orgasm isn’t difficult, once I get past everything else, but truthfully, masturbation is the easiest way to climax. Alone, my sexual energy isn’t leaking out all over the place. Another survivor recently confided she used a form of mindful masturbation to heal her marital sex issues, so I think that’s an option for some. Unfortunately, after sex with my husband, no matter how good or right it feels at the time, I tend to feel completely filthy, used and discarded. Forget afterglow. Rather than pillow talk, post-coital conversation at our house typically goes something like this:
“Why are you ignoring me now? Guess you got what you wanted, eh?”
“I’m not ignoring you, babe, I’m just going to the bathroom. I’ll be right out.”
“Whatever. Put me back on the shelf until the next time you want something. As usual.”
Sometimes I feel like a failure as a wife, because I know my husband deserves to have a healthy sex life and I just can’t offer it to him right now, but then I remember: I deserve it, too. With patience and love, we’ll work it out, even if it takes a lifetime. I know he’s not going anywhere, despite my best attempts to drive him away in fits of PTSD-driven madness, and he won’t let a few harsh words change how he feels, since he knows where they come from. But it does put a strain on our relationship. I won’t lie. Sex and love have been weaved together in a tangled web in my mind for a very long time. Childhood sexual abuse has affected every single aspect of my life.
I know I’m not alone, friends.
As awkward and terrifying as it is, this is one of the conversations we need to be having, not only for survivors, but for those who love us, too.
Consider this an icebreaker.
(Essay updated in October 2016)