Sex Injury: Past and Present

| By Paul | | Comments (48)

In Trauma and Sexuality, I wrote about sexual healing being a taboo subject in both the literature and in therapy. Not many want to talk about it. Yet it is one of the main areas where childhood sex abuse victims were damaged. It is my contention that since the problem is not addressed directly in the literature and hard to bring up in therapy, that we all tend to discuss the issues tied to sex in an unconsciously masked kind of way. We can talk about being hurt sexually and what was done to us (and think we are talking about sex directly). About being suicidal. Depressed. Triggered. Switchy. And on and on.

But, while all of these are important to talk about, none talk about our relationship to sex in the present. Many of these are symptoms of what is a core issue in the present. So I like to face it all head on. What is our relationship right now to sex? How is sex in the present dysfunctional? How is sex in the present hurting us? Helping us? Recreating? Overcoming? And how do all these questions about the present relate to the past?

I understand, I think, the essential barriers to talking about sex, even in the "safe" confines of the therapy office. For those of us sexually abused as children, we focused on hiding the fact that we were being hurt in that specific way. It should not be hard to appreciate that this is fertile ground for creating shame and guilt; stains on our soul which stay with us through adulthood and whose purpose seems to be only to deny us from seeking healing of any kind (or even thinking we are worthy enough to heal).

Not to mention those of us who were sexually abused were generally taught (we generally call them "the rules") to behave a certain way in dealing with sex, through a number of manipulative means. As with any kind of learning, neuronal circuits are formed. Sex abuse ties in with reward, pleasure and fear circuits in the brain moderated by powerful neurotransmitters like dopamine. Literally, there is an imprint on our brains. These imprints are terribly difficult to heal from. But we can heal from them if we deal with them directly instead of dancing around the perimeter. It is very easy to dance around the perimeter, however.

My belief is that the first step in sexual healing is acknowledging the original sexual injury, and that it is an injury in the present. The second step is being able to break down some of the guilt and shame barriers to talking about the subject. But there is more.

Obviously, each of us were affected in different ways sexually. Some become hyposexual and just run away from sex. Some become hypersexual. Neither of these extremes is necessarily bad as long as you are comfortable in them. But most of us are not comfortable with who we are sexually and this is why it is an area we must heal. It is unavoidable.

To further complicate matters, many of us use sex to recreate and perpetuate our abuse, whether it be through fantasy or in real-life, though I do believe there is a marked difference between the two. In the literature, re-enactment is a more commonly discussed sexual outcome. In these situations, we are continuing the cycle of abuse by placing ourselves in psychological or physical situations harmful to us. It can often be a way to resolve an intolerable conflict around control of our bodies, or to maintain an outcome we expect, to cement core beliefs of worthlessness, and on and on.

I think of all of this in terms of neuronal imprints and in terms of being a way to manage overwhelming feelings. I believe it is probably likely that the degree of re-enactment is correlated with degree of dissociation. With dissociative identities, parts were created for specific purposes and roles which are harder to move out of. Further, it is easier to realize how re-enactment solves certain problems—like being able to tolerate overwhelming feelings of "parts" of us—while isolating other parts of us who are traumatized by present-day behavior.

These are explanations and not excuses. Since, in most cases, the original abuse is not happening anymore, we are responsible for our behavior. In this case, I think it is most aptly labeled as self-abuse behavior.

When one is able to label one's own re-enacting as self-abuse, then the third, perhaps the most important, step in beginning to achieve sexual healing is reached. We can achieve this only when we realize that the "positive" effects of recreating our own abuse are dwarfed by the negative effects. And this takes a good deal of self-awareness and brutal internal honesty.

If we keep these three steps in mind—acknowledging original injury, overcoming guilt and shame, and labeling re-enactment as self-abuse—then we are making a great effort to heal. The prognosis, I think, is good.

While sexual healing may seem daunting, the good news is that once you have achieved all three steps, there is no going back. Yes, there are "setbacks", but once you gain awareness, you cannot lose it, you can only temporarily misplace it.

A huge disclaimer here goes without saying: I am not an expert. This post is based on my personal experiences and interactions with other survivors over the past 20 years. It is not meant to be a comprehensive, or even necessarily scalable view on the sexual effects of abuse. I think there is a good chance it may be quite scalable. But I do not pretend to assert that as fact.


shen said:

Hi Paul

I think you do a good job of laying out the facts and the outcomes. Personally, "acting out" for me is a matter of feeling powerful or in control. If I can't get to a place of feeling powerful or in control then I will dissociate and in those cases sex is non existent as far as I'm concerned. I have no memory of it, no sense that anything has happened and so as far as my inner timeline is concerned it has not happened.

I recently got to a place of trust with my therapist. In reaching that kind of trust I have finally confided things that feel very shameful to me. In looking at them from the outside they may not seem so shameful or awful, but to me that is how it feels. These behaviors are necessary for me to feel in control, but they are not behaviors I want to continue. Looking at it as self-abuse is an interesting twist to put on it. Because these behaviors do bring up shame I can see that it is self-abuse to continue with them. On the other hand, if these are the only things that "work" then it might also be abusive to deny myself behaviors that are not harmful to anyone else.

I am being very evasive here, I realize. These are not things I intend to share beyond what I've told my therapist. It was hard enough to confide in her and last week was the first time we "discussed" it at all. I put that in quotes because it wasn't much of a discussion at all. She asked me if I wanted to talk about the email I had sent her. I felt cornered and immediately felt a shift to a child part coming through. I nodded, however, feeling that this was the right thing to do. Then I said, "I wouldn't know how to begin."

She said, "Why don't you begin by saying it out loud."

This brought on a complete shift, although I was co-conscious. I know that I gave an emphatic NO to that suggestion. Instead, we worked a bit with DNMS to try to bring out why I was so completely against the idea of even saying it out loud.

I don't know how far we came with that approach. Honestly, it feels as if it is a maze that I will be lost in for a good long time to come... and maybe forever. I'm not sure I can find my way through this one. As you said, connections are made in childhood when sexual abuse is involved. Those connections - neural pathways - have been there for almost half a century in my case, and its hard to imagine that I could create a new path and follow it in the future. Maybe it is possible... I just don't know.

What I do hope to accomplish is to at least get past the shame. I am tired of feeling shame for things that happened TO me. Even though the "acting out" is an ongoing thing, it is not really as if I made a decision to behave in these ways when I was a child and often it does not feel as if I have a choice now. One gets carried along the familiar route.

A very difficult topic to discuss. Thank you for being brave enough to post about it here.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to shen:

Thanks, Shen, for sharing what you did. I can imagine that it was hard to say even what you did. It was important for me to put this out in the open, even though I was kind of evasive too. The point, for me, was to address the subject in a respectful way (i.e., without being graphic or unnecessarily triggering). I understand about the "power" and "control", I didn't specifically address these as these are a bit harder to call "abusive" depending on context. But, in my mind, they are abusive if they make parts of you feel hurt after (and I don't mean parts in a DID kind of way). Even if it works. It's a hard call because it's like the difference between taking the prescribed amount of medicine for anxiety versus regularly taking more than we are "supposed" to help us through. It's all in how it makes you feel after. If it induces shame and guilt, even to only parts of us, then it's harmful. This is what I meant when I brought up "brutal internal honesty". If we are truly, all of us inside, okay with behaviors then it is probably okay. I don't have an issue with sometimes taking more Klonopin than I'm supposed to. I can justify it to all of me. But many other things I cannot begin to justify.

shen said:

And that is exactly why I finally came out with it all to my therapist. Shame is not what I want or what I deserve, so in that way, yes, it is abusive if I am causing myself to feel that way.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to shen:

That's really great Shen! I'm serious: once you've overcome the hurdle to talking about it, it changes everything. When your therapist said, "Why don't you begin by saying it out loud", she was so right on point. I know it's easier for her to say than you. But you overcame the barrier and that's so good!

castorgirl said:

I am working on addressing those three areas you mention Paul, and it feels like I'm going backwards, not forward.

The following is an excerpt from a poem written yesterday. To me, it shows how deep the problem, behaviours and issues can be...

Go to your safe place... her only safe place is being fucked.
That's what she knows.
That's where she's wanted.
That's where she's comfortable.

It feels as if there are parts of me hardwired for the abuse - similar to what you are describing with the development of the brain pathways.

I'm struggling to see a way through this... I've often said that I survived the abuse, now I have to survive me.

Thank you for bringing up such an important, but often overlooked (or misunderstood) part of healing from childhood sexual abuse.

Take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

Castorgirl, Thank you for your honesty. Yes, I totally understand this point of view that you write in your poem. This is why it's so hard. What I want to say back to you is that I think you really are going forward. I will tell you why, and I've said this before. For one, you even read what I wrote. Second, you took the time to think about how it resonates with you. Third you wrote about that here. So, you are working on things. I stand by my belief that change comes if we continue to work at it. The only way we will not heal is if we don't try and you are trying. Progress may not be going fast enough, and things may appear to be going in the wrong direction. But I know if you keep at it you will get to a much better place than you are at now.

Kerro said:

Paul, this is such a difficult topic, and you have dealt with it in a responsible and respectful way.

I have also reached a position of trust with my therapist where I can talk about anything and everything about sex, including that which is shame-inducing for me. She has helped me see the bad things about sex in the past - both what was done to me, and what I did to myself. She is also helping me learn what "good" sex is - respectful, nurturing, loving, and not self-abusive - and where the lines might be because of my particular situation.

I really like what you say here: "in my mind, they are abusive if they make parts of you feel hurt after". That lesson has taken me a long, LONG time to learn, but you've just clarified what I've known for a while but not been able to put into words. Thank you.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Kerro:

Kerro, I'm glad that you have this trust with someone. And glad that you are not shying away from an important topic.

Evan said:

I wasn't sexually abused I'm very glad to say. So, it's probably presumptuous for me to comment.

I think at the third stage there needs to be recognition that we did the best we could at the time. That there are now other (safe, pleasurable) ways to get what we need.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Evan:

Thanks Evan. Not at all presumptuous. Your comments are always spot on. Personally, I saw the "first" stage I mentioned, recognizing the original injury, as being tied to what you are saying about doing the best we could at the time. The last comment about other pleasurable ways to get what we need may be a little off target, at least in terms of what I was saying. In fact, this was the point I was trying to make when I brought up the neurobiology. These neuronal "pleasure circuits" are hardwired. But if you are talking broader, like in terms of all of what life has to offer, then I see your point more clearly.

This is a really difficult topic and I'm far away to understand it. For example, I never, really never could consciously remember having sex. Meanwhile I know, that I had always switched. There are parts in my system, who always take over, that's their only task. This was taught to them by the perps. They want it. These parts know nothing else :( Sometimes they even search for it :(
It became a little better, since my therapist was able to speak with such a "special" part and explained to her what happened in the past and what happens now, when she acts in such a way.
It always causes many, many troubles for the system :( With their behaviour, they hurt other in the system. It's so difficult to communicate with these parts. I can only hope that they listen in the therapy sessions and learn something new.
I don't want it :(

Paul Author Profile Page replied to LostShadowChild:

Hi LostShadowChild. I'm sorry this is hard for you, like it is for so many. I'm glad you've talked to your therapist and helped to understand this for you. The hardest part for me is knowing I don't want it yet accepting it. Because only when you accept it can you hope to change it.

shen said:

I referenced this post in my blog, today, Paul. For me, you are right on target.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to shen:

Thanks Shen for saying I was on target. I hesitated to write about this because, while important, I didn't want to distress anyone.

Nansie said:

Hey Paul, Shen and everyone else who wrote. I see alot of progress in all of you. I know the sexual abuse that occurred...I also know how I acted it out in my life...I attempted to draw in men thru sexual attraction and looks. I believed that that is the only way anyone would want me. I was very young at the time of my abuse but was able to notice that this key person in my life was nicer to me and treated me better when he wanted to abuse me. But being so young I didn't know it was abuse...I just thought that this is what happened to little girls. I know these things and learn more about them all the time but I just can't seem to take ownership of them. I have parts that handle all this stuff. I become more and more aware of stuff and parts but I can't seem to own anything. I try to tho. It is like it happened to someone else...I just don't feel anything. I hesitate to write sometimes cuz I think I am slow with this or way behind all of you. I admire all of you...I just wish I could get into this but everytime I try I get terribly dizzy and lose time. Not alot of varies. I am trying but the feelings part of it all just seem to be further and further away. Thanks for the post...and the is always helpful and informative!

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Nansie, thank you for writing. I have been wondering how you are. Wow, that's a big piece of awareness. When you said your abuser treated you better when he wanted to abuse you, that set off a bunch of lights in me. I think that was mostly true for me. I think that's part "grooming" but also maybe it was their way of rationalizing and thinking it was okay and overcoming guilt. Funny you also said that you didn't realize it was abuse. I think that's somewhat true for me too and another reason for having parts to handle things. Please don't judge where you are at. I hope you know there are no requirements here to be in a certain place in order to write here. I am glad you read what I write and tell us all what you think. If what I write here is going to only mean something to people who are healed, then what's the point?

OneSurvivor replied to Nansie:

Nansie, I relate to the idea of it feeling like it happened to someone else. There are times when I can "see" it in my head and my gut twists...I take at least some ownership. Other times, I "see" it, but feel nothing. It makes me sometimes wonder how far along I have come.

Nansie replied to OneSurvivor:

I see what you mean OneSurvivor. When I start to feel anything it all just feels so dirty and shameful to me that I can't bear it. I hope I don't trigger anyone but this kind of abuse just seems to never wash off your body so you can feel clean again. At least it's that way for me. I don't feel the feelings but since I have been getting further into my therapy and the DID it seems like I never feel clean anymore. Really sux.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Nansie. It's fine to say what you said. I understand what you are saying and I'm sorry you feel that way. I think it's a common reaction, though not often talked about. But I do think we can heal that.

castorgirl replied to Paul:

I'd give anything for the urges to stop, or at least ease. Too many triggers.

OneSurvivor replied to castorgirl:

Oh, CG... I do understand and I feel for you. I offer you hugs, if that is OK. I have fought that battle and hope I never have to again. I empathize.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to castorgirl:

I'm sorry CG. Are you finding ways to deal with those urges that are safe?

OneSurvivor replied to Nansie:


It seems to hit everyone a bit differently. But one thing I have seen in common is the idea of shame... and, oftentimes, guilt.

I once told my former therapist that I felt like a used wedding dress, all torn up and discarded, worthless. Thankfully, as I worked through things, I was able to start feeling newness and cleanness, like a beautiful, brand new wedding dress. A lot of that was being able to see myself through the Creator's eyes. Plus, I had to face it, something that was extremely difficult to do at first. I did not even want to think of it, let alone face it. And talking about it. Oh, my gosh! That took a LONG time. In fact, there are things I STILL don't want to talk about, not that I really have anyone to talk about it with. (I wish I did.)

It still comes up from time to time and I have to face it and deal with it again. I suspect there may be more buried under there. But I will face it and I will fight for being that brand new, beautiful wedding dress, for feeling beautiful on the inside.

I hope you, and everyone else, can find that beauty inside. I have to remember that I am not the guilty one, my abusers are. I also have to remember that I am not what was done to me and I am not what I have done. It is not always easy to separate the actions from who I really am, but I keep working on it.

I really appreciate this discussion! It helps. I am so glad that Paul wrote about this.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to OneSurvivor:

OneSurvivor. I never understood the trend for brides to go get photographed while trashing their wedding dresses. Apparently, that's a very "in" thing. Interesting you used this metaphor. The metaphor I use most often to illustrate this point is being dragged behind a car along a rocky dirt road. I'm glad you were able to change this way of feeling and heal. You talk about facing it and talking about it. It amazes me the self harm I did while I therapy years ago and how I never even considered talking about it. Talk about an elephant in the room. No wonder it made me more symptomatic.

Nansie replied to Paul:

I need to ask you guys some questions... Do you think I would heal faster and better if I talked about the details of the actual abuse with my T? I haven't done this. I am very uncomfortable at the thought of talking about the details. Is that normal or should I be going over it and talking about it? I have a feeling the answer is yes I should. But I feel so ashamed of the thought and the memories. Have you all done this? What about the self injury? Have you all gone into the details of the acting out and the feelings attached to that? I know I can ask my T all of this but I want to know what you all are doing too? This stuff is so helpful for me! Thanks.

OneSurvivor replied to Nansie:

Nansie, that is a good question. I have not been able to talk about everything, but I did find it helped as much as I was able to discuss it. While not giving every little detail, the more detailed I got, the more it helped. I have to say, though, that talking about it with a female therapist was much easier than talking to a male. I don't know that I could talk to a male...other than, perhaps, my husband. And I can't say too much to him because he is concerned for me as his wife. It is hard for husbands sometimes to think of their wives as having gone through such things, but he does know a lot.

One thing I have found...when I talk about things, or write about things, they become more real to me. As long as they are still in my head, they maintain a quality of surrealism that starts to go away when I write or talk about them. Each time I write or talk, it becomes more real...I own it more. The more I own it...the more I can do something with it.

I have also found that writing things down and then giving that to the therapist can be a first step to actually talking about it. Or, it can even replace it if you just don't feel that you can get the words out of your mouth.

Oh, and you don't necessarily have to tell another person. Tell yourself...out loud. I have found that can be very helpful, too. It also validates everyone else in the system.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Nansie, This is a hard question. OneSurvivor answered it well. You really should talk to your therapist about it. I'm surprised you haven't. Usually the rule of thumb is to talk about memories when they are bothering you. If they are getting in the way. That's usually the right time. But, as OneSurvivor said, some people are easier to tell these things to than others. I've been lucky that I've had really trusting relationships with my therapists. The answer, for me, would be a flat out no if it's just for the sake of talking about them. But usually, for me again, the memories are so closely tied to certain parts, so when I switch the memories sometimes naturally spill out because parts are troubled by them. Do you see what I'm saying?

OneSurvivor replied to Paul:

Interesting... I did not know that there were brides who would destroy their wedding gowns like that. And to be photographed while doing it? Makes no sense to me.

I certainly get your metaphor. Wow! It is a powerful one.

I really don't have much choice but to talk. Well, to write anyway. Talking is still difficult. I can talk about some things. I can write about some things. I can do neither with some things.

And then there is the difference between a general reference versus details. Oh, the bugger is in the details. Ouch!

Nansie replied to OneSurvivor:

Thank you OneSurvivor and Paul for your input on this. I have not gone into details and relived the experience with him. I trust him but I am afraid a childlike part will come out and he's never seen me that way...I really keep this stuff bottled up and it has been very slow going. I've gained huge awareness with my T and a higher level of functioning does come with that but I haven't been able to relive this stuff with him. The part of me that has all the facts tells him stuff but in terms that are not detail or walking thru the event. I don't know how to let him see my parts. I know they have peered out to him at times but I can't relax and let it happen. But then there are times I can't remember much about therapy so I know a part must have been there for that...hmmm. It gets so confusing to me when therapy goes from words and information sharing to parts going in and out and my not remembering. I can't bring the two together. It's either parts or information sharing...can't do both at the same time. UGH....does this happen to anyone else? :(

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Nansie, Just know that the goal is not to purge all the trauma. That was how things were done 20 years ago and it caused a lot of regression in people. The goal is to put the past trauma in context and process not so much the events, but the feelings and what they did to change you.

David said:

As someone who does not have a history of CSA, I am continually amazed and humbled by the courage and guts and sheer will to embrace life that you all show in learning how to find, look at, and work through the memories and lifelong repercussions. I find myself so angry that the cruelty and betrayal of adults put such a shadow on an integral part of living in a human body.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to David:

Thank you David. I find it hard to share many of your sentiments (when talking about myself). But thank you.

Nansie said:

Thank you Paul for your kind words and encouragement. You too David, your compassion and caring are comforting to read. Cruelty and betrayal of adults is all I knew as a child. This was my "normal". It wasn't until I was much older that I was able to label it all as abusive. Funny how victims are sometimes taught that they deserved what they got so they become more ashamed of what they "deserved" and what they may or may not have done to deserve it that it becomes a long hard road to get passed that enough to learn it was not their fault and that they were abused to begin with. Big sentence but it has huge meaning to me. I spent so many years ashamed that I did something so bad in life that I deserved to be treated this way. I didn't want anyone to know what was done to me cuz then I would have to tell them what I did to deserve that...even tho I could think of nothing I did and in reality there is nothing I could have done to deserve this. I hope that makes sense. The shame just snowballed and snowballed all my life because of this sick thinking that was used by my abuser so that he could justify his sickness. I hope this makes sense to you Paul but what you wrote has really gotten me a good way. Thank you!

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Nansie, You are welcome. I am so sorry what your "normal" was. I hope you now know it was anything but normal.

Coach2 said:

Before stage one awareness, of how humiliation injures the soul in sexual abuse in early childhood, there is the adult suffocating in depression and misunderstood after effects. Perhaps sexual acting out, but also another aspect, for adults who parent.
The event of raising a child, and their sexual development, or exploration, triggering a survivors rage, humiliation ecetera and interfering with bonding or worse.
I am grateful you are writing, an to all the commentors on this post. You each bring light, with endless reflections, to my family.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Coach2:

Coach, It's nice to see you here. Yes, there are injuries upon injuries, for sure. I am dealing with the parent issues now. It has not been so bad for me personally, at least compared to what I hear in others. But, yes, I did plan to write about this specific angle soon.


I think that you are right on target. My therapist let me bring it up in my own time because if he pushes, I withdraw and dissociate. During this last year, I have made great progress. However, my husband still sleeps in another room, but we have great cuddle time which compared to last year, I couldn't even touch him or allow him to touch me. I still find it an extremely difficult subject with all sorts of old messages. The other part is by speaking it, it becomes more real. Soon, my blog will venture into my sexual abuse...scary.

take care,

Paul Author Profile Page replied to ClinicallyClueless:

Hi CC. Great that you pace this and are not feeling forced. And it seems you are making progress, and this is great to hear!

Dawn said:

@ Nansie
I just want to tell you that I can relate SO MUCH to what you have written here. And I also often think that others are doing better, going faster, than me. I have been trying to heal for about 16 years and I still have so much trouble seeing the past as 'mine'. I still don't remember things myself, I don't own them and I don't have emotions about them. It is very frustrating! I hope it helps a little to know you're not the only one.

@ Paul
Thanks for this post. I am just beginning to process some of the sexual abuse memories and am not ready to look at my current sexual problems, but I know the time will come one day. It is reasurring to know that others have gone before.


Paul Author Profile Page replied to Dawn:

Dawn, it may help you to feel a bit better to know that I have been trying to heal for 20 years and there are many things, including this subject, where it feels like I am just getting start. So "where you are" is really all relative.

Marie said:

Thank you, Paul, for this post. It is well written and spot on. I will keep it bookmarked for future reference in my own journey . . .

- Marie (Coming Out of the Trees)

Nansie said:

Thank you Dawn for your kind words! Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get thru all of this. I am sure many of you feel like this too... just so much work and it takes so long. I thank God for my therapist and sites like this that are such a comfort to know I am not alone!

Paul Author Profile Page replied to Nansie:

Thank you Marie. Nansie, I think because of your commitment, you will get through.

OneSurvivor said:

Paul, Excellent post dealing with a very sensitive subject. As an abuse survivor, sexuality can be very tricky for me. One positive thing about my living situation is that a lot of the pressure has been taken off. I think, I hope, that when we actually get a bedroom again, it will be easier for me. It is not that nothing happens right now. It is just that there is a limit to what can happen. It sure beats wanting to shut down and run the other way.

I realize I am rambling, but this is still a loaded subject for me to some extent.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to OneSurvivor:

OneSurvivor, Thank you! I know this is a loaded subject for many. That's why I have been approaching it carefully (and intend to keep it that way).

OneSurvivor replied to Paul:

Thank you for opening up about this. I have had insiders act out sexually, too... and it was not always a positive thing. I hope that is all in the past now.

Paul Author Profile Page replied to OneSurvivor:

OneSurvivor. It's nearly 5 months since this post was written. It's all different now. For the better. Thank you.

OneSurvivor replied to Paul:

I guess I am kind of behind, eh? :-) *sigh*

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