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15 Ways Childhood Emotional Abuse Can Affect Your Sex Life

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When you grow up experiencing emotional abuse, closeness with others can be a real struggle. This may be especially true when it comes to sex — arguably one of the “closest” physical experiences we can have as human beings.

Maybe you grew up feeling unworthy, and now, in adulthood, you feel undeserving of a pleasurable sex life. Maybe in addition to childhood emotional abuse, you experienced sexual abuse and now associate sex with feeling “dirty” or “shameful.” Or maybe you were made to feel constantly insecure about your physical appearance, and can’t even think about exposing your body to anyone in such an intimate way.

If you can relate to any of the above, you’re not alone. To open up the conversation about how childhood emotional abuse can affect your sex life in adulthood, we turned to our Mighty community of trauma survivors to share their experiences. Below you can read what they had to say.

If you’re struggling in your sex life because of past trauma, please reach out for help. Talk to your partner, a therapist or your doctor for support and resources.

Here’s what our community told us:

1. Using Sex to Feel Loved or Avoid Being Left

“As a teenager and when I first married my husband, I used sex as a way to feel loved. As I’ve gotten older I’m becoming more shut off and not able to reciprocate emotions as much as my husband needs them.” — Stephanie S.

“Thinking that if I don’t do what I’m asked to do — no matter what it is — they will leave.” — Gladys M.

2. Not Having Sex

“I’m still a virgin, 54 years old. Have never been able to have a close relationship. Cannot go to gynecologist and I need to!” — Nancy T.

“I don’t trust anyone enough to allow myself to be that raw, that vulnerable. The fear of rejection or of not being good enough is too great. I’m celibate.” — Laura P.

3. Craving ‘Rough’ Sex

“I have a lot of anger built up so when I have sex, I love pain. It’s my only actual physical release aside from self-mutilation which I haven’t done in 3 years. Because of my the past and fear of rejection I usually pull away from my sexual partners. I usually block or avoid them after.” — Bryce A.

4. Hiding Face or Body Parts During Sex

“I always get nervous and anxious before they take my clothes off and I hide my face because I think they’ll be disappointed and think I’m disgusting. I would keep my eyes closed the whole time and always wanted to have the light off. I’ve been afraid to say ‘no’ in fear of that person being mad at me.” — Letiesha T.

“I used to hide my face under the pillows or with my hands. [Sex for me was] always in the dark. And I would use sex as a way to defuse an argument instead of confronting the issue head-on, even if it was an amicable argument.” — Shirley H.

5. Paying Extra Attention to Consent

“I actually think it benefited my sex life. It makes me very cautious and makes me ask constantly if he’s OK and if he actually wants this and it makes sure that consent is properly said.” — Katherine K.

6. Needing Affection After Sex

“I can’t have one-night stands. I can only have sex with the person I’m dating and have been dating for a while. And I need a lot of affection after sex. If I don’t get affection after, I’ll feel used and violated. I also get beyond paranoid of becoming pregnant.” — Christina I.

7. Feeling Emotionally ‘Numb’ When It Comes to Sex

“Growing up, my parents owned a very successful ‘romance enhancement’ product line. It was essentially Tupperware or Mary Kay but the in-home parties consisted of products like vibrators, edible lotions and lingerie. My brothers and I spent every single day after school, weekends and holidays, in a warehouse packaging dildos or labeling edible underwear. We were sexualized at an extremely early age but never sat down to have an actual ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. I believe my early exposure and unhealthy belief of what a sexual relationship entailed, causes my emotional numbness to sex. It truly is a daily struggle that leads to arguments with my amazing husband.” — Alexandrea G.

8. Planning Sex in Order to Mentally Prepare

“We have to plan intercourse in advance or I freak out. But I am rather clingy in other aspects.” — Emma E.

9. Being Afraid of Sex

“I’m 32 and I have no clue what a functional intimate relationship is supposed to look like. I only know what it’s not, so I’m afraid of it.” — Julie C.

10. Feeling Unworthy of Sexual Desire or Pleasure

“It’s hard for me to accept myself as a person deserving of sexual attention or desire. I spent so much time making my self small, it can be hard to be comfortable with any sort of intimacy.” — Tammy F.

11. Engaging in Sex You Wouldn’t Normally Want

“I grossly overcompensate, and it’s led to me doing a number of things I’m not necessarily proud of, just chasing down that sense of fulfillment on my own terms.” — Jess A.

“I agree too easily to sex even if I don’t really want to. I guess this is because of my need to feel close to someone and not knowing how else to get that feeling.” — Brianna L.

Growing up with the constant reminder that I am fat and too masculine, I tend to flirt and sleep with men and women I don’t even know a bit — just to prove I am lovable and decent-looking. It works for that moment. But when it’s over the shame pushes me into the next depressive phase and I start hating me and my body again… and worse than before.” — Anna T.

12. Feeling ‘Dirty’ or ‘Disgusting’ After Sex

“I have a hard time being intimate with my partner without feeling disgusting about myself. It’s hard to feel pleasure because I feel like it’s wrong to me even though I’m still sexual with my partner.” — Ravenlynn N.

“After sex, I always felt dirty. I have never had sober sex. I managed to go through more than 20 years without sex. It’s not that I do not like it or don’t think it is beautiful and fun, but I feel unworthy and dirty and wrong.” — Adult S.

13. Struggling With Self-Esteem — Especially If ‘Turned Down’ for Sex

“I always feel like if he doesn’t want it, I feel like I did something wrong or I’m not good enough or I’m too fat. I go over it and over it in my head until I’m practically sobbing in his chest…” — Erica D.

14. Feeling Like Sex Is a ‘Duty’

I was ‘taught/ treated’ as an object and a pleaser by a neighbor so if I don’t please and have sex, I feel like I’m not doing ‘my job’ and not being loved by my husband. I have to have it to make sure he loves me and he is happy with me. When he’s tired and denies physical contact I feel awfully rejected and feel like he is going to leave me or find someone else. I do have PTSD from child abuse, emotional abuse and medical PTSD but it’s getting better with EMDR therapy, thank God!” — Vanessa A.

15. Focusing Only on Your Partner’s Sexual Experience

I’d rather please the other person so I never let myself enjoy it.” — Emily B.

If you are struggling in your sex life due to the impact of childhood trauma, you’re not alone. Reach out for support by posting on The Mighty with the hashtag #TraumaSurvivors. For more from the Mighty community, check out the following stories:

Getty Images photo via theevening

Originally published: July 18, 2019
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