Consensual sex after abuse
I find it surprising, that sex has never really been an issue or a problem for me; you would think that following a childhood, littered with harrowing sexual abuse, that there may be some issues regarding consensual sex, as an adult. Up until a year ago, I felt like I had a healthy sex life with a healthy libido and I believed I was completely, sexually compatible with my partner. Last February, I commenced therapy to finally deal with and unpick the effects of childhood abuse and suddenly sex and sexual desire changed. I noticed that I was actively avoiding sex altogether, but this was not always the case under the influence of alcohol.
My partner is a very good man and I feel lucky to be with him. We went to school together and we initially met when we were both 11 years old. We both left school and went on to have substantial relationships with others, before reconnecting via social media and getting together when we were both 27. He is the kindest, most considerate man I have ever met, who tolerates a lot from me. When my health suffers and my fibromyalgia flares, he is able to take the reins of the household and the children, and he keeps everything running and ticking over smoothly. We have fallen into a pattern, of him returning from work and me venturing to the gym most days, in a personal attempt to keep the weight off and the fibromyalgia at bay. With the nature of my business in private tutoring, my work pattern often involves unsociable hours and weekend work, which falls outside of the school week. Both with gym classes and work, my partner looks after the children, despite working a full time job himself. He is also fabulous around the house, an amazing daddy and a truly wonderful man.
Despite saying all that, I do not tend to rely on my partner for emotional support. I feel like he does not really understand the nature, or the magnitude of the impact, my experience of abuse has had on me. He is very good at practical and logistical support, especially when I have been lost in my own head, buried in my therapy journey. I have tried really hard to include him in that process, by disclosing to him and reading him every article, unsent letter and poem I have written, but how can you understand the complex nature of such a deep level of trauma, when you have experienced nothing on the same scale? I understand that it must be hard to see the person you love, in pain and not knowing what to do to help them. I don’t blame him for this. It is just the way it is. And I love him very much, regardless.
I am partner to a normal red blooded male, who has healthy sexual desires. I have a very considerate lover who knows how to satisfy me, and sex is good; that is not the issue. I am now having trouble with every aspect of sex. The issue appears to be the thoughts, feelings and memories I have and often have to block, to be able to engage in consensual sex with the man I love. Alcohol helps to quieten those thoughts, and I guess lessens my inhibitions. I am holding on to the fact that I have a deep rooted longing to fully partake in this safe and adult relationship, but it is not always easy for me. Sometimes it is just too hard, trying to stay in the here and now, in this adult relationship, through the eyes of the damaged child, I drag with me, through life.
My other half suffers from sleep apnoea and suspected restless leg syndrome and as a result quite often, he is asleep on the sofa in the evening by 9p.m. On the occasion when he is still awake at 11p.m., in my head I find myself questioning why he is still awake; I have a voice that says to me he is expecting some kind of sexual action. I want to strongly state that there is never any pressure for sex from my partner, but I feel the pressure none the less. This is only a pressure I put on my self to be normal, to live a normal life, to have a normal relationship. The pressure to be normal definitely stems from a lifetime of feeling so distinctly different.
I am quite a tactile person and sometimes I need physical contact; the closeness and reassurance that comes from just a simple cuddle; this is often enough to calm the loud critical voice that resides in my head. At these times, there is nothing remotely sexual going on for me, but I think sometimes my partner takes my need for closeness and affection, as the green light for events to progress. Maybe I give off the wrong signals, but why can a cuddle not just stay as a cuddle? Is it because men are from Mars and women are from Venus? Is this normal relationship stuff, or is this because of the ‘fucked up’ mess that is in my head, as a result of the sexual abuse?
Almost from the start of therapy the thoughts before, during and after sex became an issue. All of a sudden, before sex was even initiated or suggested, I found myself dreading the idea. During sex there was an increased occurrence of flashbacks, memories and triggers that I could not control, avoid or escape from. These transported me to a dark place in my head that was very distressing, despite the fact sex was/is often slow, safe and gentle. After sex, I felt dirty, used and guilt combined with shame returned; this was not the case before therapy began. I’m not sure if my partner had noticed these changes within me; he clearly noticed my difference in libido and the frequency of sex. He knew the nature of the therapy I was working through. He was, and continues to be, very patient.
There were times where I felt very rejected by my partner, because he attempted to initiate sex less and less. I knew I had been busy writing and processing difficult stuff, but he did not try to to be intimate with me for extended periods of time. I was feeling particularly vulnerable and exposed as a result of opening up in therapy and releasing the deepest secrets from my Pandora’s box. However, the lack of attempt at intimacy, did nothing but show me that he no longer wanted me, which made me feel, even more unsafe. I was having a real hard time even thinking about being intimate, but why did he not want me? Was he just giving me time and space to work through my experiences? Or did he really not want me? These were the types of thoughts that were going through me head, much of last year.
I tested the level of safety, strength and validity within my relationship in the middle of therapy, as a result of feeling fear surrounding therapy ending. I started to look for evidence to support the irrational thought, that my partner did not love me, and I started to convince myself that this was true. (It was a result of feeling insecure and unsafe, although I could not see this straight away). I looked for things to back up this brutal, critical voice. I doubted my partner’s commitment to me and I felt no sense of warmth or intimacy, at a time I felt I needed it most (even though the thought of intimacy was extremely difficult). The truth is, I shut down a little emotionally, overwhelmed with the released emotions that hit me.
My therapist suggested writing my partner a letter, to take with him to hospital (he had a 48 hour sleep study to partake in), so that I could re-open our lines of communication; he could read it again and again and respond to my fears in a comprehensive and proper manner. Even though sending him to hospital, with a letter hidden in his bag made me feel very vulnerable, I did it, and the response and conversation which followed as a result, saw us reconnect. He gained some understanding of the place I was at. I was wrong about a lot of the evidence I had created in my head and I can see that now. The thoughts that I convinced myself to be true, were in-fact very far from the truth. We had really emotionally connected sex after that letter, which is rare and has not been repeated since.
As I remembered more and more in therapy, I became aware that there are indeed certain elements of sex that make me very uncomfortable and I have a much reduced tolerance of them. Feeling like I can not freely move my head, has always been very triggering for me and is something my partner and I had to discuss, sometime before therapy began. I remember an occasion where he was forcibly kissing me in the heat of the moment, but the fact I could not move my head, was very distressing; at the time I did not know why; now I understand that this goes back to feeling overpowered, helpless and pinned down as a child, forced to do things no child should.
Very recently I have become aware, that I only really engage in sexual activity because I feel like I should; after all, part of my role is to keep my man happy right? I have had quite a busy start to this year and a few activities and events that have taken me away from the home. More than usual, I have been away from my home, my children and my motherly duties, leaving my partner in charge. Upon my returns, I have found myself consenting to sex, but not because of an urge or need within me. Sex has become an expression of my gratitude, for allowing me to be able to go off and do these things; almost like a thank you, when I believe a simple thank you is not enough. However, my partner only sees that he did something for me and I did something for him; he has no idea about my messy head regarding sex and sexual contact currently.
There is a strong sense of owing that I feel, an unspoken debt, and it is as though sex has become a method of payment; a transaction based on a perceived expectation (who views sex as a transaction?). In my head, attached to this perceived expectation, are dark thoughts and a degree of disconnect happens in order to engage in sexual activities. I find myself in situations where my partner can ‘take what he wants, just like my dad did’. My rational brain knows that this isn’t the case at all, but my emotive brain gets swept along. I get myself into these situations ‘where I feel like I can’t say no, just like I couldn’t say no when I was a child’, when a screw driver was held to my throat and I was over-powered and paralysed by fear.
It did not feel desired by my abuser and I think this is relevant. I distinctly remember the focus of the abuse my dad conducted, being about inflicting pain in a sexual way and this was not always followed with his own sexual gratification (that I knew of). When I get a sense of desire from my partner, it is almost like I don’t know what to do with it; it’s alien to me. I want to be desired, and then I freak out a little as a result. Having said that, making myself feel more desirable has grown in importance. Being kind to myself and valuing my body, helps me with my sexual functionality. Simple things like painting my nails and having a relaxing bath, help me to connect with and tap into, my sensuality and feminism, which is often more important than foreplay (to me). The person who abused me stole all the control and maybe the acts of personal kindness are my way of reclaiming it.
On the nights when ‘he’ entered my room, or the dangerously snatched moments where he felt he would not be caught, or at any time I have replayed those events, I used to feel like I was ‘out of body’. It was like watching what was happening to me from the outside and almost like I was telling someone else’s story. I think I separated me, from the harsh reality of the trauma to keep the essence of my soul safe? A large part of me, didn’t want to take ownership of the story. Since therapy began, I have been back in my own body and I became engrossed in telling my story. Now, at last, I think, I have accepted that those unspeakable things, happened to me. The fact that the brain and body tended to disconnect from each other before, makes perfect sense to me now, as mentally I was somewhere else when abuse was happening. Rationally I understand that the abuse is over and I am safe now, but I think the body holds on to the trauma in some way. As a result of this progression in therapy, it has become harder to disconnect the head, from engagement of, to initiation in, sexual activity.
The mindfulness course I completed, helped me to make huge re-connections, between the brain and the body, as I was able to stay in the moment, in the here and now, more effectively. One huge connection for me, was about the way that I eat and the reasons for that; I eat very quickly, I don’t like holding food in my mouth and I want food out of my mouth as soon as possible. Food is very functional for me and I don’t really enjoy the experience of eating at all. The raisin exercise (as explained in my article entitled ‘mindfulness’) resulted in flashbacks and memories firing off the whole time, combined with a real physical pain in my throat and under my chin. I found this activity particularly distressing because it took me right back to the abuse I had suffered. I hated this task. I felt like my body was really making me remember the abuse. Thinking about the task, I realised that I have no problem with chewing gum, or my tooth brush being in my mouth and I think the difficulty I have, is specifically related to swallowing. This relates to the feeling of obstruction and not being able to breathe as a result of enforced oral rape. (Directly relating to this point, I am able to give my partner oral sex, but only when my head is not restricted in the process).
The point I am trying to make is that I am starting to feel like my body and mind are reconnecting, as a result of the mindfulness course I completed. Being more aware of body and mind has bought new challenges. Tolerance, is a fluid term and can be quite confusing for the partners of abuse victims; what I can tolerate one day, I cant tolerate the next. How is my partner supposed to keep up with the constant change in my tolerances, without feeling the effect on his own self esteem? Sometimes I confuse acts of kindness, for making sexual advances. Simple affection like stroking my arm or back, has some hidden agenda. I sometimes feel like mentioning this to my partner results in a childish response ,which I find confusing.
The long and short of it is, I am sick of the impact that child sexual abuse has had on ever aspect of my life and I deserve a healthy and happy sex life! I don’t want to feel like there is an expectation (and in reality there is none!). If I am having sex when I don’t really want to, then maybe I should question whether it is consensual at all? I have sex sometimes, because I think my partner will leave if I don’t; he is just a man with needs after all (which is how I viewed my abuser for a long time). I don’t want to have thoughts, that my partner may leave me, as a result of his own unsatisfied sexual needs (irrational I know!). I don’t want to engage in sexual activity, only out of a fear of abandonment.
I want to feel like sex and love making, is an extension of the love I feel for my man and him for me. I am very lucky to be with a man I love and that he is so patient. I want to engage in more emotionally connected sex, where I am really in the moment, and where intrusive thoughts do not encroach. I am hoping that writing this piece and becoming more aware of my own thought processes surrounding sexual activity, and continued self care, will help with this.