So, here’s a bit of personal info before I jump into answering this question. One of the reasons that I decided to become a sex therapist was because I have a personal history of sexual abuse and understand the deep pain and disruption this can cause, both personally and within marriage. I definitely had seasons early on where I hated sex because it brought up so much baggage and pain from my past abuse. The Lord has given me such beauty and healing in this area and I fully believe he can do the same for you.
While healing from abuse can take some deep work and this video just begins to scratch the surface, I offer tips here that can help you start the journey to healing.
This particular question was from one of my newsletter insiders. Typically, I just answer those as an email back to the sender, but I decided to share my answer via video so that other’s could benefit as well. In this episode, I address the big question of why a woman may hate sex when she used to enjoy it and a couple of steps that you can take as a couple to make sex enjoyable again. The full video is embedded on this page, but just in case you prefer reading, the full transcript is just below the video.
**By the way, if you’d like to watch a beautiful testimonial of God’s grace and healing after abuse, check out this webinar/interview.**
Hi, I’m Dr. Jessica McCleese, Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Certified Sex Therapist and today, I’m answering a reader’s question about marital intimacy in light of past sexual abuse.
Now statistically speaking, somewhere around 20% of females have been sexually abused. And that is really just a guesstimate, because we know that not all cases of sexual abuse are actually reported. I would expect from my own research and my counseling work that many, many, women are affected by sexual abuse and the only people they ever tell about their abuse are either incredibly close friends, a therapist, or family members. And by the way, sometimes women find that the only safe place to talk about the abuse is in therapy which means that some women tell nobody in their lives except for a therapist. So, if you know more than a handful of women, statistically speaking, you are highly likely to know someone who has been sexually abused, even if you’ve never heard a story of abuse.
Alright – so time to share my reader’s question with you. She starts by saying:
I HATE sex. I have for almost our entire marriage. I have issues with body image, eating disorders, depression and anxiety. I know that these problems stem from my sexual abuse from my dad and other men when I was younger. What I don’t understand is that early in my marriage, I LOVED sex. My husband is loving, supportive, understanding, patient and godly. I am so grateful to God that he has given me the husband that I have and his heart to stick this out with me. I just want to leave my past behind and move forward. I am tired of therapy because I’ve gone to therapists off an on for over two decades.
So first of all, I just want to say that I’m so sorry that you’ve been dealing with the pain of sexual trauma and that therapy has been only minimally effective.
One of the things that I see that people often struggle with when it comes to sexual abuse, and something that I struggled with myself, is a belief that the event or events happened so long ago that you should no longer be affected. I’ve heard many women express both anger and sadness over the fact that someone has taken so much of their life from them. You see, the ugliness about sexual trauma is that the violation is far beyond physical.
In fact, I think one of the great misunderstandings about sexual abuse is that it’s a type of physical abuse. But, the reality is that sexuality encompasses much more than our physical presence. This means that sexual abuse affects us far beyond the physical realm. And this is why many women experience problems in multiple areas. Our reader notes this too. Her physical self has been impacted (so she said something about body image concerns and eating disorder) and the emotional self has been impacted (she talks about both anxiety and depression), relationships are impacted (even now she’s struggling with sex with her husband even though he’s supportive, kind, and caring).
And while it wasn’t noted in our reader’s question, many women find that they also struggle with spirituality afterward. They may wonder, how did God let this happen, does God really love me, or if He’s so powerful and can do anything….can he really be loving and caring if this happened to me? So for many women that have been sexually abused, the journey of knowing God and finding comfort in Him can actually be quite painful and a very difficult place.
Now you’ll note that our reader also says that theres a difference in how she felt early in the marriage, saying that she loved sex and then later in the marriage that those pleasant feelings left and that now she hates sex. Note that there’s nothing in here about her relationship with her husband changing and since she calls him supportive and kind, I’m going to assume that this is the case in their sexual relationship as well.
This is another big question that women can have when they’re dealing with sexual abuse or when they’ve been abused in the past. How is it that everything could be okay at one point, and then just change? It doesn’t seem to make sense.
But, our reader isn’t alone in this. Sometimes, women will note that they had sex before marriage with their spouse and that sex was great, but it seemed to go downhill after marriage. Others that practiced abstinence before marriage may note that early on in the marriage the sexual connection was great but that it seems to change over the years. This, in fact, is a concern that our reader has. She notes that she loved sex early in the marriage, but that she now hates it.
Now there are a few reasons for why women might see that their attitude about sex changes over time. For many women, there seems to be a bit more control regarding the sexual relationship early on. And this is what I mean. In the sense of before marriage, the woman can feel like she is making a decision to engage in sexual behaviors. And even early in the marriage, women can feel like they are choosing to be sexual. This might be due to the honeymoon effect that couples feel in a new marriage where everything seems new and exciting and we just kinda rest in this place of knowing that we’re loved.
Over time though, women women can begin to feel, and this is especially true of women that have been sexually abused, they begin to feel like sex has become more of an obligation. So they may think that they have to give their husband sex so that he won’t leave, won’t get angry, or won’t look at porn. And, in some cases, other women will say these things so that you believe that thats the truth or sometimes a husband will actually tell his wife these things. Just as a caveat by the way – if your husband strays from you, that’s his sin issue – not yours!
So when a woman starts to believe that sex is just for her husband or that she is obligated to meet his needs, she can begin to doubt that sex is for her too. And this can lead to feelings quite similar to those that were experienced during sexual abuse. After all, instances of abuse teach a woman that her body is not hers and that she cannot say no. And even if a husband is not portraying this message to his wife, some women have a really hard time believing that they can actually enjoy sex. You can probably see how this type of belief system would leave a woman who has been sexually abused, feeling very much like she did during the abuse.
Now another reason why women can sometimes see changes in their sexual enjoyment with their spouse is because of different events or situations that are serving as triggers. A trigger is anything that causes you to feel anxious or tense or generally unsafe. Triggers related back to the original trauma and can be sounds, sights, smells, tastes or touch. Basically, a trigger can affect any of your five senses. Here’s an example. Let’s say that you were abused as a child and the person who abused you would play a song before the abuse started. That song would likely be a trigger for you.
Other triggers can include marriage, pregnancy, giving birth, infertility, your child becoming the same age you were when you were assaulted, stories on the news or social media, phrases that are said to you and so on. It’s actually pretty impossible to give you examples of every possible trigger because they can be so numerous and so varied from one individual to the next.
Still another reason that a person may enjoy sex at one point in the relationship and then later dislike or even hate it may just be because you’re finally in a safe enough relationship to really work on this. So someone who’s been sexually abused can often detect the level of safety they have in a relationship with someone else. Now, sometimes this is off because theres a tendency just not to feel safe with others, but, theres still just an ability for women to know, can I share my story with you. Now sadly, many women who have been abused are scared to talk about the abuse because they don’t know if they’ll be believed or if the person they’re telling will care or even know what to say to them to help. So – they can build a protective wall around themselves and not let others in to their pain. And once someone finds themselves in a really safe relationship or lives for long enough with a spouse that treats them well, a serious grieving process can begin. So something happens when a person finally understands just how bad a previous relationship or experience was and many times this can’t be fully recognized until you’re in a safe relationship to compare it to the one that wasn’t safe. And, once you’re in that place of safety, the grief can be overwhelming. Now from a Christian perspective, I really believe that God allows these things to come up full force when he’s ready to take us through a time of healing. But please don’t hear me say that he’ll just step in and take every pain away immediately.
I’ll never be able to answer this bigger question of “why did this happen?” In fact, the best response I’ve heard to this question is from Diane Langberg, expert in the work of trauma. And she says, that there will never be an adequate response to this question. Now people offer trite answers like “God gives us free will and so this person had to be allowed to hurt you,” but the reality is that there is no good answer to why one person can be so hateful, evil and harmful toward another person.
But, even when there isn’t a good answer to all of this, we do know that God loves us and that he’ll come close to us in the process of healing.
So, if you’ve been through sexual abuse, I really encourage you not to give up on seeking healing and wholeness. The journey will not be easy, but it will be rewarding. And if, like our reader, you’re in a safe relationship where you can talk this out with someone who deeply loves you, please do so.
There’s something incredibly powerful about sharing your story with someone who loves you who will not only listen, but will also vow to walk with you on this journey. Scripture tells us that we should bear each other’s burdens and that by doing this we fulfill the law of Christ. So, if you’re in a relationship with someone that has been sexually abused, then you do great work and bring healing by just sitting in that uncomfortable and painful place with them and reminding them that they are loved, valued, cared for, and of incredible worth.
I truly believe that if you’ve been abused and you currently do not enjoy sex, you can get to the place where you do enjoy it once again. But, this simply will not happen if you feel like you have to have sex. The enjoyment of your sexual relationship will grow as you see proof over and over again that sex is for both of you – not just your spouse. And this piece isn’t learned in the actual sexual act as much as it is outside of sexual behaviors.
So if you’re in a similar situation to our reader, work toward connecting in non-sexual ways. Spend at least 15-minutes a day connecting verbally and emotionally by talking about interests you share, goals and dreams you have, fears and insecurities. Learn how to be really vulnerable, but do this with baby steps. When you’re comfortable enough, start talking about how much you dislike sex, but also how much you want to enjoy it. Share your fears in this area and your emotions you feel about the person or the people who hurt you. Remember that working on your sex life isn’t just something you do with your clothes off. Much of the work in the sexual arena is actually taking place in your day-to-day living.
Along with the verbal and emotional connection, start connecting daily in a physical manner. Now this could be just sitting closely on the couch and holding hands. If you’re comfortable, you might find that a 15-30 second kiss is very welcome. Or, if sexual activity is just too scary or painful right now, connect by just making eye contact with one another for 30 seconds. The idea here is just to have a comfortable physical connection.
These are just beginning steps and in future videos I’ll talk more about sexual abuse and how couples can heal together. But for now, look at the resources in the description area of this video. I point you to a website and a book by Diane Langberg that I’ve found quite helpful in my work with clients and I also point you to a blog where I share some of my own story. (Diane’s book also has a workbook that’s really helpful.)
Finally, do me a favor and share this video with someone by clicking on the share button. I really believe that there are many people that could benefit from this content.
Dear friend, know that you are so incredibly loved by God and your story is not over yet. God bless you and may you be fully well.
***P.S. The links for the book and workbook are affiliate links. It costs you nothing more to use them. And when you use them, you’re doing the good deed of helping me buy coffee and/or chocolate.
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