A survivor’s automatic sexual responses may represent a learned response to the abuse or to early association of abuse in its widest sense with sexual arousal. For example, a survivor might report that s/he is only able to feel sexual arousal if the sexual activity incorporates an element of violence. They may feel ashamed to admit to such feelings, but they are common, and often relate to the individual’s first sexual experiences during the abuse. If they experienced violation, humiliation and fear as a child at the same time as they experienced arousal, it can leave a legacy where the two elements are fused and confused. The consequence can be that the survivor associates pleasure with pain, and love with humiliation.
In addition, survivors may report that they can only function sexually if they think or fantasize about sex in an abusive context. The early experience of abuse is likely to have caused this, and for the survivor to overcome these thoughts, they will have to begin by understanding their reactions in the context of the sexual abuse. The survivor may experience automatic responses in relation to touching their own children. They may fear that they will abuse their child, or be seen to be doing so. In this context, their appreciation of what is normal, safe and appropriate touch between a parent and child is critical. Most survivors are very clear about what is appropriate, and are able to touch their children safely.
Automatic responses rarely occur in isolation. They are more likely to connect with each other so that the survivor experiences a series of uncontrollable responses that can be very inhibiting, and may precipitate a flashback. For example, a survivor might describe responding to her partner greeting her with a hug by feeling sick (a physical response), thinking that her partner just wants sex (intrusive thought), and feeling disgusted (emotional response). She may then turn away or feel extremely angry. Thus, a situation which could represent safe, non-sexual touch quickly becomes tainted by uncontrollable reactions that may belong to the original experience of being abused, or to some other sexually abusive experience.
The stages of dealing with these automatic responses involve:
- Sometimes, the survivor can make sense of the trigger in terms of the abuse, but where s/he does not have the relevant memories, the triggers may be more difficult to understand. The triggers may indicate aspects of your childhood experiences that have been buried. They may be the first clues that you experienced abuse in the past. Identification of the links with the abuse, the context in which the abuse occurred (time, place and family circumstances), and their childhood reactions, beliefs and assumptions may involve disclosure work, or may require detailed discussions leading to a better understanding of your childhood situation which provided the context for the abuse.
- The survivor should learn to understand that these responses are automatic, and that they are not to blame for experience them. It is only by understanding your responses that you may be able to work out ways of controlling them. In this context, the use of the concept of the ‘inner child’ can be useful, in that the helper might suggest that some of these reactions represent the responses of the inner child and that as an adult the survivor should not blame the ‘child’ for having them.
- The survivor should take control of the triggers and their accompanying automatic reactions. The key here is to be consciously aware of the triggers and their origins. When they occur in the context of a supportive relationship (with a partner, friend or family member), the survivor can enlist the support of that person to choose a new way of responding.
- You should try and stay as calm as possible. One way involves staying with the situation, and breathing more steadily.
- You should stay grounded in your present situation. You may have to talk yourself through – confirming your name, age, your address as an adult and where you are during the automatic reactions.
- You should choose a new response. For example, if you have a strong reaction to your partner standing behind you and breathing deeply, you could ask him to move to a different position, or you could turn and face him. In more intimate situations, this could involve discussion with your partner about alternative responses, behaviors or other options, in order to help you take control of your reactions. This will require practice, and the choice of alternative responses before the chosen response is achieved.
- During the stage of choosing a new response, the survivor may need to learn about different forms of touch other than those experienced during the abuse. It is important that throughout this learning process the survivor is encouraged to be clear about their likes and dislikes regarding touch, and that they can learn the distinctions between safe and unsafe touch, and between sexual and non-sexual touch. In this respect, challenging their previously held beliefs, helping them to understand how their body reacts to touch, and enabling them to be more assertive about touch may have to accompany the work on examining and changing their automatic responses.
Automatic responses that occur in sexual situations can sometimes be dealt with by the survivor, but if s/he has a supportive partner, these situations may need to be explored and resolved with the help of the partner. Where the partner is unsupportive or abusive, resolving some of these reactions will be more difficult, as the survivor’s adult situation may contain too many echoes of the abuse experienced in childhood or rape in adolescence/adulthood. In either situation, a period of abstinence from sexual intercourse may be necessary as the survivor begins to deal with the complex issues surrounding their sexual responses. For women who do not have a partner, these automatic reactions can be dealt with to some extent, but may reoccur, if she does have a partner at a later stage.
Many survivors find that because of their sexual assault they experience sexual touch or certain sexual activities as negative ad unpleasant. Through specific therapeutic exercises you can learn to enjoy and feel safe during sexual touch. There are exercises that you can do on your own, and those that you can do with a partner.
If you are in a relationship at the time that you want to actively begin healing sexually, it is important that you work together. It is essential that you feel safe and comfortable with your partner and that your partner always respects your limits and is prepared to follow your lead throughout this process. Partners who act in ways that mimic sexual assault, such as touching without consent, ignoring how you feel, or behaving in impulsive or hurtful ways will prevent you from healing. Building emotional trust and a sense of safety in a relationship are important prerequisites to enjoying sexual intimacy.
Fortunately, the effects that sexual assault has on your ability to enjoy sexual intimacy can be minimized and healed with time and effort. The process of sexual healing is one that must be done slowly and patiently, and it works best if it follows or coincides with other healing regarding the assault. The guidance of a counselor can be very beneficial in the process of sexual healing, and is often recommended as this process can trigger difficult memories and emotions. While sexual healing is something that may take much time and energy, ultimately it will lead to enjoyment of sexual intimacy that is consistently positive and pleasurable.
Surviving Child Sexual Abuse: A Handbook For Helping Women Challenge Their Past