How Childhood Sexual Abuse Can Affect Your Adult Sex Life
childhood abuse affects adult sex life

How Childhood Sexual Abuse Can Affect Your Adult Sex Life

As a survivor of sexual abuse, I have seen half a dozen therapists in my life. These sessions taught me that childhood trauma stays with us. It can define us or it can shape us. And sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two. Twenty-eight to 33 percent of women in America have been sexually abused—their lives vastly changed by someone else inflicting harm on them.

It has been a long time since my much older family member; a person I loved and trusted, put his hands on me and told me to keep our secret; 30 years of space and time to be exact. The young girl I was at the time, who was going through puberty, is very different than the woman with three kids that I am today. But I am still her. Things come up that stop me in my tracks and force me to remember, then deal, with the emotions and feelings connected to my abuse—especially in relation to my sexuality as an adult. I can easily go from being aroused to dipping into a very dark place if my partner does even the slightest thing that reminds me of my abuser, and when this happens it’s extremely difficult to explain what’s happening without hurting my partner.

Childhood sexual abuse is an experience that produces reactions, builds defense mechanisms and, whether we realize it or not, carries into our adult lives regardless of years of therapy, hypnosis, or healing practices. The emotions and pain we experience through childhood sexual abuse can leave us feeling like it was our fault and we were to blame. Even as adults, when we have overcome certain anxiety from our experience, the abuse can continue to affect us by giving us anxiety when we are intimate with someone or leave us feeling as though we are only useful when we are able to satisfy someone in a sexual way. Even when that lesson is crystal clear: abuse of any kind is never the fault of anyone except the abuser.

It can skew our experience of sexual desire

Because we are not in control of the situation and feel like we do not have a say as to what is happening to us, sexual abuse can block our own true feelings of desire when we are older. We may associate our arousal or sexual attraction to be “dirty” or “wrong.”

I spoke with clinical psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher, who says, “Sexual abuse can cause a skewed view of sex later in life. Some adults become hypo-sexual, their childhood trauma may have been so awful that any type of sexual activity may be too excruciating for them to bear. While others become hyper-sexual and need to engage in lots of sexual activity as a way to try to feel in control as their abuse left them feeling so out of control.”

It can cause emotional disconnect as a method of control

Some women may feel their abuse took something away from them; something that was theirs that was not given away but stolen. It can make it hard to trust and willingly want to give that “something”  to another person—making intimacy and communication very difficult. Abuse and trauma can make us feel very alone as we aren’t sure if what we are feeling is ‘normal,’ which makes it hard to open up to our partners.

Keeping people at arm’s length by withholding intimacy or friendship as a punishment when we are upset or angry is a tactic many abuse survivors use to avoid getting hurt again. In the end, this harmful behavior may feel like control but really, it’s just one manifestation that happens when our past abuse controls us.

Elizabeth Jeglic, the author of Sexual Violence, explains that sexual abuse can manifest into eating disorders, depression, poor coping skills and even an inability to experience close, healthy relationships as adults. And I have experienced almost all of the above as a way to feel in control over what happened to me. Eating is something we can control; as a teenager, I suffered from anorexia a few years after my childhood abuse ended. I would panic if someone tried to get me to eat something I did not want. It left me feeling like I had no say about what I put into my body; a very scary experience.

Past experiences with sexual abuse can affect your current partner

Not having a libido or feeling sad, overwhelmed, or scared when it comes to having sex can deeply affect the one we love. It can leave them with feelings of rejection or thinking the problem has more to do with them than with trauma from your past. They may feel helpless because there isn’t much they will be able to do to help you with your intimacy issues. This experience can cause a divide and negatively impact your adult relationships.

Abuse, whether sexual, physical, or emotional, affects the way we handle other trauma, heartache, and relationships. It is not something that simply leaves you when the abuse stops. The damage lingers and can manifest into something we think is in no way linked to the horrific experience we’ve endured. While I don’t have all the answers, I am a firm believer in getting the treatment and care you need to treat not only abuse, but also any problems you face as a result of the abuse. As women, we all deserve to have fulfilling relationships and this includes a happy, healthy sex life. It is hard work to get past childhood sexual abuse but worth the effort so you can live your best life.

Featured image by Alina Miroshnichenk
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