Ask the Doctors: Recoving from Sexual Abuse
Dear Dr. Queen,
Hi. I need advice…I’m a 30-something female recovering from childhood sexual abuse and a recent rape. My therapist and I are working on discovering and discussing my sexuality. Any advice about how to continue my sexual healing and how to allow myself to feel physical sexual sensations in my body?
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First, allow me to recommend the best book/video combo about this issue that we have ever found: Staci Haines’ Healing Sex (first released as The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, this is an updated second edition) and S.I.R. Productions’ companion video, Healing Sex: The Complete Guide to Sexual Wholeness. These are full of great information about healing from sexual abuse or trauma, and should definitely be on your shelf if they’re not already. Haines is a Somatic practitioner and educator; this therapeutic practice emphasizes the body and its experiences and sensations, and you are definitely in good hands with her if your goal is to get more into your body and experience more pleasure. Haines, by the way, maintains a private practice in San Francisco and founded a nonprofit, Generation 5, which is dedicated to ending child sexual abuse within five generations. You might want to explore the Gen5 site to see if there are useful resources for you there.
Second, the most important element in your healing process is you: specifically, your discovery of your own sexual desires, limits, and elements of arousal and response. This means that if you have a partner now, even a very supportive one, you’ll still be well-served by having your own time set aside for self-discovery, masturbation, erotic reading, and possibly erotic movie-viewing and a practice of writing down your erotic experiences and fantasies. Focus on things that are pleasurable for you and help you feel in your body — an obvious and non-sexual way to do this is though massage, and even if you are eager to get comfortable with sex, don’t overlook the value of less erotically charged types of pleasure as steppingstones to get you there. Another thing that is very body-focused and sensual is dance. Yoga or other physical practices might be interesting for you too. Take these things into self-pleasuring, and don’t go right to your genitals for stimulation — touch yourself all over. This connects your body, helps keep you *in* your body, and has the added value of increasing your feelings of arousal. Take all the time you like before moving to more specifically genital touch. It’s useful to discover your own responses — and triggers — alone, before trying to integrate your erotic experience with another person. It’s also potentially useful to write down the experiences you have with these things so you can look for common threads, triggers, and progress.
When you do get into sexual situations that seem overwhelming, a sex therapy technique that might be useful to you is “sensate focus”: concentrating just on the feelings of your body, rather than letting your mind run wild (or, as is sometimes more of an issue with survivors, checking out). Your ability to do this, alone and/or with others, will be a pretty good indication of how “in your body” you are at any given time. Many survivors of abuse make it a point only to have sex when they’re able to stay embodied this way; it’s also a technique that can help anyone, not just survivors, keep in touch with arousal.
Each of us has a unique sexual self, so there’s no telling what you’ll find you respond to and want to explore; while your sexual experiences have not all been under your own control, you *do* have a sexuality that is yours to uncover. Don’t forget that many people who haven’t had non-consensual experiences have still been made to feel shame about their erotic feelings, or kept in ignorance of sexual possibilities — so you have a lot of company on the road to self-discovery. Take your time and go at your own pace, and be honest with yourself about what you do and don’t want to do. Best of luck!
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