Jenny Constable: Coping with sex after sexual abuse

24/03/2017
angela

CommonSpace sex and relationships columnist Jenny Constable explores the sensitive topic of dealing with sex after sexual abuse

WITH more being done to support women reporting their abusers after being attacked, abuse in relationships has moved from being a toxic elephant in the room to being a recognised societal problem in need of addressing. 

However, while these steps are undoubtedly essential, and to be encouraged, the actual practice of convicting sex offenders is a separate issue to addressing the individual’s experiences of coping with the after effects of sexual abuse, and in particular, experiences of sex after sexual abuse.

With statistics estimating that one in five women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetimes, the problem has reached epidemic proportions, and such trauma often leaves emotional scars hidden deep beneath the surface.

With statistics estimating that one in five women will experience rape or sexual assault in their lifetimes, the problem has reached epidemic proportions, and such trauma often leaves emotional scars hidden deep beneath the surface.

Sex is a fundamental aspect of what makes humanity, literally and figuratively, what it is. It allows us to connect with others; to find a release from the mundanity of day-to-day life. It’s supposed to make us feel good; to be enjoyable. It is, after all, the most natural act in the world; we literally wouldn’t be here without it. 

However, when sex has become something you’ve learnt to associate with intimidation rather than intimacy, surmounting this emotional block in your mind can be an arduous and complex process.

When negotiating an issue this sensitive, this painful, I feel the need to offer a kind of disclaimer; this is by no means a manual, a set of guidelines, or gospel on the ‘right’ way to deal with and move on from abuse. It’s a personal narrative, but one I’ve found comfort in, and one that, I hope, serves to reflect the experiences and attitudes of others who have suffered similarly.

It’s all too easy, and common, after sexual abuse to feel like your body isn’t your own; to feel as though like you’ve somehow forfeited ownership of your skin and bones to the point where being undressed for too long educes panic, and even looking at yourself in the mirror is uncomfortable. 

In this frame of mind, it’s hard to leave yourself vulnerable to someone else, when you’ve come to be disassociated with yourself.

When sex has become something you’ve learnt to associate with intimidation rather than intimacy, surmounting this emotional block in your mind can be an arduous and complex process.

In the process of recovery, it’s important to take baby steps towards reclaiming your body as your own. Take a hot bath. Take lots of hot baths. Use two – wait – use FIVE bath bombs. Exfoliate your skin, cut your nails, and soak yourself in the water.

Submerge yourself until your skin prunes and pinkens. Look after yourself. Wash it all away.

Masturbate, and masturbate lots. Realise that your sexuality is yours: yours to own and yours to share – if you decide to. Find out what you like. Find ways to make touching yourself seem natural again; figure out how to make your own heart flutter. Relearn the soft mounds and valleys of your figure; familiarise your fingertips with the feel of your skin and pattern. 

If, after some time, you want to start to have sex again, you do it on your terms, when you’re completely ready. Realise that what happened to you is not your shame to carry, nor does it devalue or cheapen you in any way.

Don’t be afraid to talk about it, but don’t feel pressured to give a play-by-play or disclose anything you feel uncomfortable with. When you’re ready to speak, be it with friends or family, remember that they’re there to listen and to comfort. 

In the process of recovery, it’s important to take baby steps towards reclaiming your body as your own.

You’re not on trial and they’re not a jury. They are there to help you heal. If talking about it with your nearest and dearest seems a step too far, there are charities you can turn to that offer counselling and advice like Rape Crisis Scotland, Women’s Support Project or Speak Out Scotland; organisations best positioned to support victims of sexual abuse who may otherwise feel isolated.

The more we talk about it, the more we share our experiences in the open and force the public to take note of it, the less taboo it holds.

When it comes to new partners, especially, talking about sexual abuse can pose distinct obstacles. The prospect of confiding about your abuse to someone new is daunting; it is the most private and personal of matters. 

We feel a need to keep it secret, to push it down deep inside us, be that for fear of judgement or of pity. Perhaps it is simply out of fear that it would somehow make us harder to love if they found out the truth. 

As ever, it’s completely down to the individual when – or if – they decide to recount past events to their current partners. If you feel you can disclose everything to your new suitor – great! If you’ve put it firmly behind you and thrown away the key – equally as great! 

The time will come where you must make peace with yourself, to realise that what happened to you is not a reflection of yourself; that you did nothing wrong and you’re not to blame. 

You are in control of your relationships- your experiences are no one else’s to have ownership of.

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, in the time leading on from your attack, the time will come where you must make peace with yourself, to realise that what happened to you is not a reflection of yourself; that you did nothing wrong and you’re not to blame. 

A fundamentally loving act was used against you in the worst possible way, but this does not make you unlovable, and it does not mean you won’t love again.

If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this article, you can contact Rape Crisis Scotland for further advice and support.

Picture courtesy of Jenny Constable

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