Following last week’s blog theme on ‘Healthy Relationships’, I was asked to cover the theme of Sex after Sexual Abuse.
In addressing this request, I will cover the context of sex in a healthy intimate relationship as well as how sex impact survivors of sexual abuse. For the purpose of this blog, an intimate relationship refers to one where two (or more) consenting adults are engaging in a romantic relationship such as dating, courtship, marriage or somewhere in between.
What’s Intimacy? Why is it Important?
Everyone deserves a healthy relationship and intimacy is at its very core!
An intimate relationship is a deep, strong, physical and/or emotional connection between two or more people, usually based on some social commitment such as love.
Although the term ‘intimate’ usually refers to sexual activities in a relationship, it’s actually made up of many other factors, with sex been just one of them. So, contrary to many beliefs, sex is not the only factor required to sustain a strong relationship – no matter how good it is on its own! In fact, sex last about 7 minutes on average (minus foreplay)!
To clarify, sex can have many benefits on a person’s health and wellbeing. Sex is also very important to sustain a healthy relationship – not just for reproduction purposes but also its associated pleasure and sexual expression can increase a couple’s bonding, particularly where the parties’ sexual desires are being met. Some even uses spiritual sex to connect on a higher level with their Source (to be covered in future topics). However sex on it’s own may not produce these deep desired results without some of the other key elements of intimacy. The passion, attraction and desire of what each person want in a relationship, is just as important to building a strong relationship as the physical expression of these feelings. Intimacy is what connects it all togather and make it meaningful in creating strong bonds.
Without intimacy, we may never be able to experience what deeper connection feels like in an adult relationship.
Many of us spend our lives searching for love and when we find it, we notice something’s missing. We search for the missing part without even realising what we’re looking for. But unless we really dig deep below the surface within ourselves, we’ll never experience true intimacy.
Intimacy and Survivors
For sexual abuse survivors, it can be very challenging to have intimate relationships moreover a healthy sex life. This is because of the trauma from the actual sex crime that was committed against our bodies and without our consent. The impact of this can be triggered each time we consent to having sexual activities.
One in every 4 women and girls will be sexually abuse at least once in their lifetime.
Sexual abuse affect the core of its victims including our ability to build sustainable and intimate relationships.
A Survivor’s Story
Between the ages of 5 to 15 years old, I was sexually abused, raped and assaulted by four different men. I never broke my silence about these abuse until I was in my late 20s.
I moved out my mother’s house in my teens and ended up having many failed sexual relationships. All of them were short term – over a few months maximum and none of them had any deep connections.
A few of the guys treated me like a princess and gave me everything I asked for but something was missing. I didn’t know what that “something” was but it didn’t stop me from seeking it from “bad guys” who clearly didn’t care about me – if anything they caused more pain and drama in my life. I didn’t know I was looking for love in the wrong place nor did I know why I found these guys more interesting and fun to be around – even if the excitement was only temporary!
“Although they treated me like an object – even hit me, I would’ve done anything to secure their love.”
One by one these relationships ended and I kept searching. Although I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I started to feel that sex could make me powerful. It distracted me from what was really going on inside and it’s the one thing I was certain they wanted from me. So I let them played my games and the winners got “the prize”.
The trouble was, I wasn’t very good at playing games with men I was attracted to or men I felt I owed something to. They could easily get a piece of the “prize” without having won my games and of course, they would treat me like I’m nothing. I’d feel so dirty and ashamed seeing them in the streets that I’d avoid them at any cost.. I blamed myself for this.
However the men I didn’t care about, I would use to get anything I wanted with the hopeless promise of them getting sex in return. This is called bupsing. Bupsing was my main source of income in my teenage years. I made these men run around playing my games and I sat back and enjoyed the power it ignited inside me. Although I never intended to sleep with any of my bupses, I fell short sometimes. The way I accepted it was as least I gave permission to having sexual activities with them – unlike what had happened to me in my childhood!
Intimacy and Consent
Consent in this context is an agreement between the parties involved to take part in sexual activities.
Without consent, the sexual activity can be deemed as sexual abuse, assault or rape. This include oral sex, genital touching, vaginal or anal penetration.
It’s vital we know that the person we’re engaging in sexual activities with – is able to give consent (i.e not a minor or someone that’s completely drunk/drugged up). It’s just as important that the capable adult has actually given their consent – so it’s about the communication here – verbal or otherwise – but it must be present each time. And giving consent to one activity isn’t consent for further activities. For example:
Kissing on a date isn’t consent to take someone’s clothes off.
Or having sex with an ex in the past isn’t consent to have sex with them again in the future.
We’re also allowed to change our minds at any time during or before these activities and our decision should be respected – not questioned or overlooked!
Without explicit consent, such as a “yes”, we could find ourselves in doubt about whether or not consent has been given. This should never be ignored – and communication is vital here again!
Silence is not Consent. Consent is not a mystery.
We may ask the other party(ies) involved, “is this ok?” And it’s important for each of us to be able to say whether or not we WANT to engage in the sexual activity.
Consent is about boundaries. Each person have the right to have the final say over what happens to their body. Survivors like me, who were sexually abused or rape, lost our right – at the time- to give consent to what was happening to our bodies. This not only traumatised us, but also shattered our ability to create healthy boundaries upon which we can facilitate deep intimate relationships.
After the sexual violence I experienced in my childhood, I felt alone, damaged, used and abused. I certainly didn’t get any support to cope with what had happened. So, combined with many unhealthy short-term relationships, I’d lost hope in my ability to create anything good or healthy and so the void within me depend.
Financial gain became my main motivator in entering sexual relationships. I didn’t value sex and I definitely don’t remember enjoying it most of the time. It was a weapon that I had learned to use and I’d believed that if I don’t use it for my benefit then it can be used against me.
So, even though as an adult, I consented to sexual activities, the intimacy was definitely missing which was a big part of the reason why they weren’t meaningful or enjoyable. In fact, I often felt disgusted and blamed myself after the activity was over – similar to how the sexual abuse made me feel.
I share this level of details not to make you feel sad or to keep reliving my past, but it’s important to speak about this deep impact of sexual abuse so you, me and many others will know we’re not alone and hopefully this will inspire more of us to start/continue on our healing journey. There is much to unmasked!
Based on my experiences, one of the key impact on a survivor’s sex life after been sexual abuse is that we generally end up in unhealthy relationships which can include other forms of violence and/or abuse taking place. Other potential impacts on us survivor include, but not limited to:
It’s important for us survivors to have an understanding of what the impact on our sex life can be as it can help us to see how we’re being affected.
Healing Is Well Overdue
After abuse has taken place, it’s normal for us to feel disgust, shame, blame and guilt towards ourselves– but none of it was our fault – it’s not our shame! So spending time to get to know ourselves again, loving, caring and looking after ourselves will remind us how loveable, worthy and able we are to having deep bonds and connections that sustain a heathy relationship.
If you’ve experienced anything similar to the story I shared above, please be reminded that you’re not alone. Help is available. There are many organisations that offer support to men and women who have been victims of sexual abuse and rape. These organisations can be easily found on the internet. or check out my last blog for contact details for some of these organisations.
The work I do empowers women and girl survivors of sexual violence – particularly from the African and Caribbean community – to take responsibility of their own healing journey.
Importance of Communication
Many of us may feel worried to share deep rooted secrets about our past with our partners. We may try to maintain our secrets but find it too challenging to do so in an intimate or long term relationship. We may think if we tell them, it will ruin the relationship. That they won’t love us because we’re not loveable.
I was the same. I was so scared of telling some of my exes what had happened. I wanted to connect with them on deeper levels; I wanted to be understood but I was too scared of being judged or looked at as damaged goods. I was looking at myself, through my own traumatised eyes and deflecting my thoughts as theirs – judging their responses before they even got a chance.
My natural survival responses became my very own barrier to finding and sustaining real love in a relationship. I didn’t know how to get pass the huge blockage, so I ran, and kept running.
However being on my healing journey for over 10 years now, I found that the thing we find most challenging and often run away from – is the very thing we need to do to get pass the blockage.
Having open and healthy communications about our past is vital to our self-care and building intimate relationships. For me, I’m able to allow myself to feel free and supported. I’m grateful for the qualities that exists within my husband as it makes it so much easier to fully disclose to him about my past – at my pace – without feeling judged. This later created the platform for me to speak out to the world and share my story without worrying about being judge by other people.
From this experience, I’d say the top tips on communication in this context:
1) It’s vital to be open in a loving and supported relationship
2) It’s important to tell our partners so they can support us but we should do this at our own pace.
3) It’s natural that our partners may not know all the right things to say – they just need to reinforce that they are there for us whenever we’re ready.
4) It’s important we don’t feel pressurised to talk about what happened to us and
5) It’s vital we have the final say over when and where we want to engage in any sexual activity (if at all).
If there’s little or no trust in the relationship, most of us won’t fully enjoy the experience of having sex, particularly as survivors of sexual abuse. Apart from all the thoughts going through our minds during the actual activity, our bodies may also be very numb – therefore unable to relax and feel the deep and sensitive connections that comes with expressing our emotions and desire to want to be with that person.
Rebuilding trust within ourselves, then learning to trust others is a key part of our healing journey. It helps us to set healthy boundaries and be able to trust the environment we’re in. This creates the platform for us to also trust the people we care about and those who care about our wellbeing too.
Being accepted fully as we are, can be healing in itself, particularly in the context of a healthy relationship. There’s no pressure to be a particular way nor is there any pressure on the other party to know everything.
Managing a healthy sex life
It’s important for us survivors to feel in control of our bodies and not feel pressured into having sex, even if it’s with a partner we trust. We must be able to go at our own pace, taking as many breaks from sexual activities as we want.
We must try and be aware of and avoid triggers such as specific position, activities or smell – that further traumatised us. If we notice something is triggering certain negative emotions whether before or during sex, we must STOP! It’s probably best to have this conversation with our partner in advance so it doesn’t get too as uncomfortable for them when/if we stop half way through.
Based on the work I do, here are my key ingredients for survivors to maintain a healthy sexual relationship:
- Equality of power (inequality of power may influence consent ie father & daughter; teacher & student, doctor & patient or even between husband and wife where one relies on the other to provide their basic needs or support their standard of living).
- Mutual respect for self and each other. Not afraid to say no without having our decision questioned or overlooked.
- Being able to trust the person we’re in a relationship with to feel vulnerable and yet, safe.
- Safety: feeling safe in our environment and where necessary – use protection to prevent anything being transmitted such as STIs, STDs or getting pregnancy.
- Being able to engage in sexual activity at our own pace. Eg, if we feel ourselves drifting away during sex, we should be able to slow down and use our healing tools to try to remain present.
I would also recommend masturbation for any woman who has suffered sexual abuse and here’s why:
- We’re consenting to it. The experience is happening within our control so we can try to allow ourselves to be free, relaxed and trusting to our own touch.
- It helps to break negative association with sex and creates a healthier and more enjoyable relationship with sex.
- It reinforces that not all sexual activity leads to the kind of trauma we’ve experienced, enabling us to compartmentalize healthy sex vs unhealthy sex.
- It makes us feel more free and connected in our body.
- It creates the platform for us to be in the moment and feel the tender, soft and sensitive emotions at work within us.
- It allows us to explore what works for us eg where, when or how to touch our most sensitive parts.
- It allow us to show our partners how we like or don’t like to be touched.
Not everyone will like masturbation and that’s ok. But for those of us that do, it plays a huge role in helping us to rewrite what sex means to us and accepting our body as our own. This allows us to feel good within our bodies to the point where we can allow ourselves to enjoy and value sex.
Thank you to all my Facebook friends who joined in the conversation
Because this is such a huge and sensitive topic that we all need to talk about more, I let my Facebook followers know I was covering this topic and this is what some of my amazing friends had to contribute:
Have regular body dates with self to explore and get to know our bodies on our own terms.
Lots of self-love routines. Getting selfish for a change
Journey to identify who you really are sexually and embrace your natural sexuality.
Crystal Jade Egg and Yoni steams
See a therapist to get more understanding of sexual trauma as well as your own survival responses which maybe sabotaging your ability to experience pleasure today.
Find a safe place to process the anger as you may have stored a lot especially if you were required to keep silent about it
Gentle massages can help you to reconnect to your body.
Reiki or Sekhem energy healing works wonders in removing blocked energy, especially recommended for Sacral Chakra.
Soul retrieval to bring back part of the soul essence that may have disconnected at the point of the trauma.
Read Patrick Carnes book on Sexual Self Hatred – has a lot of information about understanding and reclaiming our sexuality with amazing tools to help.
Read The Angry Vagina by Queen Afua
Read Everything is Sex! Magic is the Forgotten name for Love
Partners of Survivors
I couldn’t finish this blog without reaching out to partners of abuse survivors – “our partners”. We know it’s a very challenging journey for you too. Many of our partners have had to seek therapeutic help to overcome some of the trauma they’ve experienced in supporting us. Some of our partners loose themselves in depression trying to help us. It’s not an easy journey for us or our partners. But we shall overcome together, especially by practicing these 5 tips:
- Have clear boundaries of what’s expected from both sides
- Respecting each other’s boundaries will create more trust in the relationship
- Create a safe and open environment for either of you to speak about anything on your mind – without judgement or defence. This can be very tricky so getting professional help maybe best in many cases.
- Offer each other support
- Seek professional help if/when it’s require
One of the biggest misconceptions being a partner of someone who’s been abused is that you have to know everything. BUT you can’t possible be expected to know everything. You can do your research and learn enough general information- but you won’t be expected to know overnight exactly how the trauma affects your partner. It takes open communication over a period of time. This may give you a better understanding of who your partner is and what works for her vs what doesn’t i.e. her triggers. That’s the most important thing.
Asking too many questions may seem pressurising for her. Any parts of the trauma she talks about should be at her own pace. You can only support and encourage her to talk about it and let her know you’re there if/when she’s ready.
Reassure her through your actions and words that you’re not there to use her for sex or just to pleasure yourself. Let her know what sex with her means for you. Reassure her that you’ll never let her do anything she don’t want to do. That you want both of you to be open and honest to each other about what we’re feeling.
The journey of a survivor is a long road ahead. There’s many barriers to overcome but we don’t have to do it all at once. The more we overcome, the more free we feel inside. It’s a natural part of life to build relationships and deep intimate relationships is a healthier platform for us to engage in sexual activities, particularly for us, survivors. The benefits are very fulfilling. I say this confidently as a happily married woman survivor with a healthy sex life. There is light at the end of our tunnel.
Until next time, your loving and peaceful SiStar✸
Tamar Nwafor | Mother | Wife | Survivor | Multiple Business Woman