While no two people experience sexuality and sexual intimacy the same way, many survivors of child sexual abuse experience a difficult relationship with sex. For survivors, sexual pleasure and intimacy can feel intertwined with the memories, emotions, and responses of the sexual trauma they experienced as a child or teen.
These trauma-related emotions and responses might lead you to experience a discord between your desire for sex, your feelings about sexuality and pleasure, and your ability to communicate those feelings.
Whatever effects of trauma may be impacting your sexual experiences as an adult, know that you are not alone and that you are deserving of a healthy, fulfilling relationship with sex—one that meets your specific needs, wants, and preferences. And the first step to building a healthy relationship with sex is developing an understanding of sexual health.
What Is Sexual Health?
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as, “a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected, and fulfilled.”
Talking about sex (and all of its related topics) can sometimes feel uncomfortable, especially if you have experienced sex-related trauma. Open and honest communication is so important in empowering you with the information you need to understand your experiences better. In an effort to provide helpful information regarding your sexual well-being, we have provided several resources below that feature Saprea’s licensed clinical therapists sharing what they feel are some of the most important things for you to understand about your sexual health.
Understand How Child Sexual Abuse Might (or Might Not) Have Impacted Your Sexuality
Child sexual abuse can impact people in many different ways, and you may experience the effects differently at various points in your life due to trauma’s potential impact on trust, safety, and your relationship with sexuality. Many survivors experience the thought, “my body is betraying me,” when they feel uncomfortable or are aroused by things they don’t want to be aroused by. Some survivors may experience disrupted relationships, avoidance or fear of sex, physical pain, or may engage in risky sexual behaviors (like unprotected sex with multiple partners).
Some sexual difficulties or feelings you have may not be related to your childhood trauma and are, instead, a result of stressors, medical conditions, genetics, or other influences in your life. If you are experiencing difficulties, concerns, or have questions about your sexuality, speak with a licensed therapist who specializes in childhood trauma and/or sex therapy. If you are experiencing genital pain or medical difficulties, speak with a doctor who specializes in reproductive health.
Know That You Aren’t Alone, and Everyone’s Relationship with Sex, Sexuality, and Intimacy Is Different
Many survivors say they struggle with feelings of inadequacy and shame, especially when it comes to their relationship with sex (“I’m not good enough,” “I’m not meeting my partner’s needs,” “[My partner] must think I’m crazy”). If this is you, know that you aren’t the only one who experiences these kinds of thoughts and feelings. In fact, most people at some point in their life will experience some form of these thoughts or experiences.
It’s easy to get caught up in messaging from books, media, personal upbringings, and culture about what sexuality “should” or “shouldn’t” include or to feel that your experience isn’t comparable to someone else’s experience. In reality, each person has their own unique relationship with intimacy to discover. As you get to know your preferences, your sexual self-esteem can flourish as you enjoy satisfying adult sexual relationships. Additionally, there are many kinds of intimacy—emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual, ideological, etc.—that can be developed with others.
You Can Take Ownership of the Sexual Experiences You’d Like to Have
Many survivors feel they have to comply with different kinds of sexual experiences because they feel their partner “deserves” it or that in order to receive love, they have to give sex.
Some people choose to be passive recipients during sex. You have a right to stop a sexual encounter at any point or to change your mind, even if you said yes at the beginning. You are not required to have sex with anyone.
Just as people have different preferences and desires when it comes to food, people have different preferences and desires when it comes to sexuality and intimacy. Some people like food that’s a bit spicy; others may like it on the mild side. Some like to focus solely on the food, while others place great value on the ambience or quality of conversation during a meal. The beauty of sexuality is that you get to figure out your preferences—what you like, what you don’t like, what accelerates your experience and what puts the brakes on your experience. You can give yourself permission to choose what you want and don’t want as part of your sexual experiences. You get to own your sexual experiences.
Developing Communication Skills Can Improve Intimacy and Trust
You may not experience fireworks or rainbows when it comes to sexual encounters, and this is the case for many people. Sexual intimacy takes work and communication, and sometimes includes awkward moments. Talking with your partner(s) about your preferences, your feelings about different aspects of sexuality, and ways to work together can help you be on the same page.
We often assume the other person knows (or would know, if they loved us) how we are feeling or what we are experiencing emotionally. Unfortunately, humans aren’t always that good at deciphering someone else’s feelings or thoughts. Using assertive communication skills can help your voice be heard and can help you understand the other person’s experiences as well. The communication also extends to discussions with medical providers about your sexual health in order for them to give you the best treatment and experience as possible.
It’s Possible to Re-Learn Safe Touch and Take Healing Steps
While your mind and body may have learned to react to sexual stimuli in a way that is now causing you difficulties as an adult, you can learn or re-learn to experience safe touch while feeling safe. Re-learning can start with non-sexual touch, such as getting a massage or allowing someone to do your hair. From there, you can work through different levels of touch, like cuddling or holding hands. If the touch gets to be too much, acknowledge how you feel and try again another time.
Using Mindfulness and grounding techniques before, after, and during intimate touch can also help you stay present in the moment and redirect your thoughts to something that will be helpful (for example, “I am safe,” “I am with someone I want to be with,”). These techniques are best practiced outside of intimate moments so that in the moment they will be easier to use.
Sexual health comes with a variety of perspectives and diversity, so you may connect with some of the resources listed below more than others. Many of the resources contain diagrams of the human body that you may wish to review, skip over, or discuss with the help of a therapist depending on your personal preferences. Keep in mind that the perspectives expressed in the materials below don’t necessarily represent the views or affiliations of Saprea.
- The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (Third Edition) by Wendy Maltz
- Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski
- Sex Matters for Women, Second Edition: A Complete Guide to Taking Care of Your Sexual Self by Sallie Foley, Sally A. Kope, et al.
- The Maltz Hierarchy of Sexual Interaction
- The Truth about Unwanted Arousal—Ted Talk by Emily Nagoski
Disclaimer: As an Amazon affiliate, Saprea gets a small commission if you buy from these links that help to support our cause at no extra cost to you.
As you learn more about what sexual health means to you, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by recognizing what barriers or stressors tied to your past abuse are impacting your relationship with sexual intimacy in the present.
- Mindfulness by observing with curiosity, patience, and self-compassion what sexual intimacy means to you and what factors determine a sexual experience that meets your needs, wants, and preferences.
- Aspiration by taking small steps now to better your understanding of sexual health so that you can have a more fulfilling relationship with sexual intimacy in the future.