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If You Were Sexually Abused, Don't Blame Yourself for How Your Body Reacted

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

If you were to ask a survivor of sexual assault or abuse what the primary emotion they feel surrounding the incident is, most would say shame. There’s the shame of having been assaulted at all, fueled by the prevalence of victim blaming and the sense that “I should have been able to protect myself” or “I should have said no more forcefully.” There’s shame of disclosure if it’s someone you know, for example a family member, because revealing the assault can have serious ramifications on the status quo of the family power structure. 

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But the shame that is perhaps the most difficult to deal with, and often leads survivors to withhold from revealing their assault to begin with, is the shame associated with having a physical reaction to the assault. If our biology did what it was designed to, namely we were aroused or climaxed, we start to question whether or not it was really an assault. How could my body betray me like that? Did I actually want it? Am I making it up? Does this mean it wasn’t really assault? Or, and this is particularly difficult for male survivors of assault where their perpetrators were male, does this mean I’m gay?

From my own experiences with sexual abuse, my first memory of feeling sexual arousal of any kind was during my abuse. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but in hindsight I recognize that the warm tingly feeling I had was arousal. I recall the moment when I realized this and how utterly disgusted I was with myself. And to confuse matters even further, the sensation of arousal was inextricably tied to that of discomfort and even pain. It was like my biology had been hijacked by my abuser and now my wires are so crossed that I cannot separate one from the other. 

What made this realization even worse was that it came after I was finally able to re-engage with my husband sexually after a very long hiatus. When my abuse memories resurfaced, I was so triggered by anything having to do with sex that I simply couldn’t engage. In order to begin processing my trauma I had to take a break and allow myself time to heal.

Through intense trauma work, EMDR and Sensate Focus therapy, I was finally able to move past being triggered by sex and not dissociate during intimacy. This took almost four years and a tremendous amount of patience, care and commitment on the part of both myself and my husband. Once I was able to be intimate without dissociating, however, it became apparent to me quickly that I hadn’t recognized the shame I felt with experiencing pleasure. Allowing myself to enjoy the experience felt almost like I was saying the abuse was OK, and I couldn’t reconcile those two things in my head or my body.

Frankly I was angry, because I felt like I had done all of this work to be comfortable with having sex again and now I had this additional hurdle to overcome of re-wiring my brain so that I could  actually enjoy it. I felt robbed, not just of my innocence and my power, but of my human right to be a sexual being. Humans are born as sexual creatures. In fact, even babies in vitro have been seen touching themselves, and it’s not uncommon for small children to pleasure themselves because it feels good. They have no sense that this is something private or that they should be ashamed of it. Teenagers begin exploring their sexuality and experimenting with what they like and what feels good as part of puberty. And grown adults have the ability to have sex simply for pleasure and as an expression of their emotional connection to one another. How incredibly unfair for anyone to take something that is a sacred right away from me because of their own selfishness and perversion. How dare they.

When I finally acknowledged this truth, I brought it up to my therapist. I didn’t know what to do with this newfound information and I didn’t know how to “fix it.” As we began to dig deeper into my shame we were able to link my feelings of rage and shame to my persistent body dysmorphic disorder and anorexic behaviors. I was so disgusted with my body that I could only cope with living inside of it by punishing it and treating it as though it was inherently bad.

While I have done a lot of work in terms of reconciling with my body and trying to forgive it, if I’m completely honest, it’s a work in progress. I still struggle with body image and I still have an ambivalent relationship with the experience of sexual pleasure. But it has gotten better and I continue to persist with therapy to reclaim my right to enjoy my body the way it was designed to be enjoyed.

If you have experienced shame associated with having reacted “positively” to being sexually assaulted or abused, you are not alone. Know that it does not make your trauma less valid. Understand that your body reacted exactly the way it was supposed to. Try to reframe this as proof that you aren’t broken or damaged in any way, but rather that you are perfectly human.

The best advice I can give is to work through this specific shame with a trauma informed therapist who is sex positive and who you feel comfortable talking to about such a sensitive subject. Modalities like EMDR and Somatic Experiencing can help to re-wire your mind and body and help you find peace within your own skin. Mindfulness during sexual activity is crucial, and I’m not talking about meditation or anything woo woo, but rather simply focusing on the person you are with, recognizing they are not your abuser, allowing yourself to be aware of the sensations within your body without judgment and above all acknowledging that you are choosing to be with that person in that moment. All of this will help, but it’s a long process that takes tremendous courage and commitment. Remember to be gentle on yourself, don’t despair if you have setbacks and don’t give up. You deserve it.

Image via Getty Images

Originally published: October 25, 2020
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