Erika Shershun, MA, MFT
Not Feeling It: Sexual Trauma and Intimacy Issues
While not all survivors experience intimacy issues, they are fairly common. One reason is due to the nervous system’s tendency to remain in a sympathetic high alert state in an attempt to protect the body. This state can be elevated by sexual arousal, triggering trauma associations that have the capacity to mentally fuse sex with sexual abuse.
The most common intimacy issues I hear from survivors are:
· Lack of desire
· Feeling disconnected from your body
· Having a hard time getting in touch with, making, or enforcing boundaries
· Attempts at sexual intimacy disrupted by trauma symptoms
· Fear of dating and intimacy
· A pattern of reenactment or compulsion
Let’s take a look at each of these.
Lack of desire
This can be brought on by high levels of stress, unintegrated trauma, and PTSD. When your nervous system becomes dysregulated - meaning high arousal associated with the fight, flight response, or low arousal, associated with the freeze response - blood rushes away from the prefrontal cortex, digestive organs, and most importantly for this topic, the reproductive organs to prioritize survival needs. For the majority of survivors both stress and trauma responses turn off arousal, blocking sexual pleasure.
Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike in the movies, sexual desire’s not always spontaneous, nor is spontaneous desire necessary to become aroused. Responsive sexual desire happens when there’s a willingness to engage in sex even when desire or arousal isn’t initially present. With the right sexual stimuli (for example a hug, the right kiss, a certain type of touch, scent, tone, or sound), the appropriate context (trust, connection, playfulness), and state of mind (feeling calm, confidant, and secure), one can become responsively aroused.
Feeling disconnected from your body
If you’re a survivor, it wasn’t safe to be in your body during the traumatic event or events, your nervous system likely went into a freeze state and you may have dissociated - all in an attempt to survive. You may continue to feel disconnection from your body or numb as a result of dissociation, stemming from a deep-rooted sense of not feeling safe. It’s hard to feel desire when deep down you don’t feel safe.
Having a hard time getting in touch with, making, or enforcing boundaries
Sexual trauma is one of the worst boundary violations a person can survive, it’s not surprising that as a result some survivors struggle with boundaries. Difficulty making boundaries can be the result of a please and appease survival pattern, known as the fawn response, where one learns to curry favor in hopes of averting or lessening the abuse. In addition, most people are not modeled or taught healthy boundary making.
Many people are raised to be conflict avoidant, and as a generalization, females grow up being given the message that they should be agreeable. It’s hard to get your needs met if you can’t get in touch with them, are afraid to express them, don’t honor them or communicate them to your partner. Only you can tell your partner how you feel and what you want. You don’t always have to say a lot, it can simply be “no”, “not that”, or “yes”, and “more”.
Attempts at sexual intimacy disrupted by trauma symptoms
This might include for example: feeling tense, nauseous, vaginismus or other pelvic floor pain, dissociating, freezing, or a flashback. Symptoms can be brought on unwittingly by a partner’s movement or touch, their choice of words, their scent, or any other conscious or unconscious trauma association.
It’s also quite common for the trigger to be brought on by positive sensations. This is due to arousal nonconcordance, where your brain says no but your body physiologically responds to feelings of pleasure. Non-concordance can happen at any age, but is especially prevalent with childhood survivors who are usually groomed and manipulated, and often too young to know what's happening to them. Once they’re old enough to understand what sexual intimacy is, any feelings of pleasure associated with the trauma are very painful and confusing.
If your body felt pleasure, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s important to know that it happens beyond one’s control. And like all survivors, you did not have the capacity to stop the trauma, you were robbed of choice and your boundaries were shattered. Give your younger self lots of compassion for all she or he went through, and give self-compassion to yourself now whenever you’re experiencing emotional or physical pain.
Arousal nonconcordance can also go in the other direction, where your brain says yes but your body says no due to those triggered trauma associations that I mentioned earlier. Nonconcordance is significantly greater in females, with approx.10% concordance, than males with approx. 50% concordance. In Come As You Are, while explaining concordance, Emily Nagoski makes the analogy of the sexual response mechanism to a set of on and off switches:
“…each associated with a particular kind of input – genital sensations, relationship satisfaction, stress, attachment, etc. – that throws a switch on or off. Men’s and women’s sexual response mechanisms have the same set of dials and switches, but they tend to be tuned to different levels of sensitivity, so that just a little bit of genital stimulation throws an on switch for men, while just a little bit of stress throws an off switch for women.”
So, it’s especially helpful for women to alleviate stress (walk, run, yoga, guided visualization, mindfulness, a breath practice such as humming, a relaxing bath, massage…), or for their partner or partners to help them alleviate stress (doing any of the above with them, or doing a chore for them so they have time to destress) prior to sexual intimacy.
Fear of dating and intimacy
Many survivors consciously or unconsciously shut down their sexuality in an attempt to avoid feelings of fear, betrayal, and shame. This is especially common among single survivors who’ve experienced sexual trauma within the last several years, often by a friend, or date rape. This leaves them questioning how they can ever trust again.
If it feels right to you, it can be healthy to take a break from dating while doing the work of healing. If you’re suffering from disruptive trauma symptom’s you may not be ready to date, yet there can come a point where taking a break develops into sexual aversion. I look out for this when clients begin to express a longing for physical intimacy with a partner, perhaps with a long-term goal of marriage and children, but feel unable to take the first steps of getting on a dating site or going on a date. Together we evaluate whether they’re truly ready, or if there’s something else there that we want to look at.
A pattern of reenactment or compulsion
This is when survivors, outside of their awareness, expose themselves to situations reminiscent of the original trauma. Also known as repetition compulsion, an unconscious attempt to gain understanding and mastery over the traumatic event in hopes of a better outcome. The problem is, mastery is never found. Instead, survivors get locked into compulsive sexual behavior that can perpetuate feelings of helplessness, a sense of being bad, or out of control, and potentially putting themselves in dangerous situations, which can all result in further suffering.
Compulsion is characterized by dissociation of thoughts, sensations, and emotions related to the traumatic event(s). This numbing, spacing out, or leaving one’s body can serve as a protective defense. For some survivors, a sense of self-worth becomes entwined with being desired. Others might see their sexuality as their source of power, yet they keep finding themselves in disempowering situations, or it could be a combination of both. Many survivors move from sexual compulsion to sexual aversion or vice versa prior to or during their healing.
All of these intimacy issues can take away from feeling sexy or able to connect with a full expression of yourself.
If you visualize a continuum with survival on one side and creativity on the other, play is a form of creativity. We can’t play if we’re over in survival mode. Play, along with connection and true intimacy requires presence, and we can’t achieve or sustain presence if were in fight, flight, or freeze - survival mode. Feeling truly sexy and expressive requires feeling safe, present, playful and creative.
Unintegrated trauma is stored in the cells of the body, you can’t heal from it without listening to and working with the body and what it’s communicating. What you experience physically and what you believe mentally are intimately connected. If or when you’re ready to reclaim your sexual desire, the way back is through your body. Learning to safely inhabit your entire being—sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts—is the only way to reclaim your sexual power. My book, the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook, is all about learning to feel safe in your skin, creating boundaries and living with resilience.
photo from Unsplash
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