Content Warning: This column mentions childhood and adult sexual abuse and violence.
This is a question but also a need for some clarity and reassurance. I’m a 20-something bi female living in Portland, Oregon. I consider myself a sexual, curious, and sex-positive person. My boyfriend and I of five years broke up last year and then got back together. I’ve always had issues (at least after the initial passion wears off in a relationship) with my libido, and sometimes orgasms, when it comes to interacting with someone in a sexual context.
I love giving, but it’s sometimes very hard for me to receive. Sometimes I don’t like being touched, I feel overwhelmed by the sensation, and uncomfortable by my own pleasure. Sometimes I feel dirty and like I’m being used or violated even though I’m not. I am a survivor of rape that occurred last year, and childhood abuse from my father. But even before the rape, I had these issues occasionally.
I’m looking for advice on what’s going on in my body/mind that makes this happen, because it rarely happens on my own. I want to develop and grow and feel empowered in my sexuality, and not ashamed or nervous to be touched. How do I help the ongoing and underlying issues at hand?
Seeking Sexual Clarity
First and foremost, I’m so sorry to hear about the sexual abuse and violence present in your history. It’s not okay and it’s not your fault. I’m immediately wondering what kind of support system you have. Who are your trusted friends, family, or professionals that you can talk to about your experiences and have them heard in a way that’s supportive and validating? I recommend working with a therapist to help process some of these issues in a deeper, longer term way that my wee sex column won’t be able to provide you with alone.
Secondly, I want to normalize some things! Tragically, your experience of abuse is certainly not abnormal for many women. It’s also very normal for all people regardless of abuse history to feel a dip in libido and passion in long-term relationships. Finally, it’s completely normal that your body and brain kick into overdrive to protect you in partnered sexual situations, likely in response to past experiences you’ve had that have been extremely non-consensual and violating.
On the one hand, it’s somehow comforting to know that your body and brain remember trauma and rise to the occasion to prepare for the worst. On the other, this can block you from feeling open to pleasurable sexual experiences if your brain and body are jumping to attention at the wrong, safely partnered moments.
Trauma is a quick way to program your brain and body of certain things such as Receiving Sexual Touch = DANGER. The de-programming of that track unfortunately takes time as you first identify the specific links between sexual touch and danger (What kinds? When? With who? In what contexts?), and secondly ease into collecting a stash of new experiences that offer your brain and body evidence that counters the Receiving Sexual Touch = Danger loop. Again, a sex-positive trauma therapist will offer you the professional support you might need in this path to healing.
In the meantime, keep a journal of the daily ways you experience pleasure (either sexual or non-sexual) in your body that feel easy and non-threatening. This can help your mind and body notice all of the ways you already experience touch that innately feel safe and positive: yoga, a warm bath, masturbation, your favorite sweater, warm tea. There are so many ways that sexual trauma tricks us into thinking we’re unable to feel good so it can be a powerful start toward recovery to note all of the ways in which you’re already doing it.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, http://www.yanatallonhicks.com.