What you will learn from this blog:
- The deeper reasons why sexual trauma makes it difficult for us to be intimate with and trust our partner
- How sexual trauma shows up in the body
- Healing sexual trauma is possible, with professional help
Past sexual trauma (for example childhood sexual abuse, sexually abusive relationships, or childhood trauma where the child witnessed parents using sex as a tool to manipulate one another) can affect a person and their intimate relationship in serious and confusing ways.
As therapists at Intracresco, we have clients coming to us for individual emotional therapy as well as couple therapy – and one such topic they discuss is their past sexual trauma.
In this blog, we discuss 3 common sexual trauma-related challenges we have seen in our experience as relationship therapists in Singapore.
1. Difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
In most instances, sexual abuse was carried out by someone the victim knew and trusted, rather than a stranger.
Having experienced pain from someone who should have protected them, the individual finds it hard to trust anyone again. This can affect their ability to commit and maintain an intimate relationship.
Such individuals can take on the subconscious programming of:
- “I better not get too close or this person may break my trust”
- “I’m confused, I do not know whom to trust anymore”
- “How do I know whether this person is interested in me or my body?”
Such subconscious programming can show up as anxiety in the relationship. When things get rocky, the person’s tendency is to end the relationship and run away.
The narrative running in the person’s mind may be: “People who were supposed to love and protect me did not do so when it mattered most. I cannot trust anyone to protect me, so I need to protect myself. I better get away quickly before this person harms me further.”
2. Inability to be vulnerable
For sexual trauma survivors, vulnerability in an intimate relationship can be a scary prospect.
Due to their trauma, they may see vulnerability as something negative. This can cause them to:
- Feel emotionally distant from their partner
- See sex as a form of control rather than an expression of love
- See sex as an obligation and condition for love
- See sex as exploitive, unsafe and benefitting only one person
- Become over-controlling, as they fear losing power, having been put in a powerless situation before
3. Difficulty with sexual arousal
A person who was sexually abused in the past may complain of unexplained aches, pains or cramps during intimacy with their partner.
- Some may have difficulty with orgasm/ejaculation
- Some may experience stiffening of the body, tightening of the pelvic area, or difficulty breathing during penetration
Often, the cause of this is trauma stored in the body, also known as “body-based trauma”, which is the body’s mechanism of coping with stored memories related to sexual trauma.
The thoughts running through the person’s mind during intimacy may sound like this:
- “I feel ashamed of myself for feeling this pleasure”
- “I can’t believe I allowed myself to be in this vulnerable position again”
- “I am so confused. I love this person so much, yet the act of sex makes me feel dirty”
For instance, the victim may associate sex as a source of pain rather than seeing it as a normal part of being human. Sex may be viewed as a form of control/power play rather than a healthy expression of love.
In a relationship, such trauma may exhibit itself as:
– Powerlessness: “I don’t have control over any area of my life including my own body.”
– Over-controlling: “I’m in danger if I’m not in complete control, so I need to control even the smallest details of my life including those in my life to feel safe.”
– Low self-esteem: “Other people’s needs come ahead of my own.”; “I need to constantly give in to my partner’s needs even at the expense of my own.”
– Sexualizing relationships: “If someone shows love and affection, they are probably looking for sex.”
– Lack of trust: “People who were supposed to love and protect me did not do so when it mattered most. I can’t trust anyone to protect me, so I need to protect myself.”
– Emotional upheavals: shame, grief and anger.
Penning this post was exceptionally hard for me (Kavitha), as I experienced sexual abuse as a child. A lot of what I wrote comes from my own lived experience. I know personally how sexual trauma impacts a person’s quality of life and intimate relationships.
That said, it is possible to heal from past sexual trauma, just as I have, with the appropriate support. When old memories do sneak up, I have reached a place of healing where I can openly share my fears and inhibitions with my partner and co-therapist, Kester.