Hidden sexual pain - sexual trauma
When sexual abuse/violence is experienced at any point in a survivors life, not many people are aware of how this may impact on the survivors sexuality, their sexual concept, their attitudes towards sex, their beliefs, the negative mindset left by the abuse, and how this affects the survivors sexual identity. Not much is discussed to highlight this pain and expression of unresolved pain.
Firstly, it is important to make clear that sex abuse/violence is not sex or about sex but about power and control upon another and using sex as the weapon. As someone once quoted: you don't hit someone with a spade and call it gardening.
Survivors can become very conflicted after the event and can turn two ways; becoming hyper-sexual or suffering from sexual anorexia (avoidance).
When a survivor becomes hyper-sexual, many chose to further discredit and victim blame victims by suggesting they couldn't have been abused or raped, and say hurtful comments like “they would be having trouble if it was really bad and they had been raped", or they can be negatively labelled as promiscuous with derogatory terms aimed towards them.
Matt Atkinson (2010), in his book 'Resurrection after rape', talks about sexualised grieving and that hyper-sexuality after abuse is about grief.
It is important that clients realise that their sexual actions are not the result of faulty morals, their worth as a person or badness. It is important that they don’t label themselves negatively, and that this belief is challenged and the clients are helped into understanding the effects of abuse and the impacts.
Their sexual actions are a result of their inner pain, and it is their inner hurt, not their personal worth, that is driving the cycle. These actions are a sign of despair that cannot be expressed in words and can only be brought to life through certain behaviours.
For survivors, sex may have lost its value and they may be trying to gain a false sense of control from feeling helpless and afraid. They may believe giving means they will not be hurt again. Many are reconnecting to the meaningless and humiliation of the abuse through meaningless and humiliating sex in an effort to give their grief an opportunity to finally be expressed and emerge. Therefore, Atkinson states that “sexual grieving is an attempt by a rape or sexual abuse survivor to grieve their brokenness through the desperate effort to reconnect their body and emotions”.
The other side of the coin is sexual anorexia termed by Dr. Patrick Carnes to describe the denial or repulsion of sexual appetite. He identifies the following traits in sexual anorexia:
- A dread of sexual pleasure
- A morbid and persistent fear of sexual contact
- Obsession and hyper vigilance around sexual matters
- Avoidance of anything connected to sex
- Preoccupation with others being sexual
- Distortions of body appearance, real or imagined
- Extreme loathing of bodily functions
- Obsessive self doubts about sexual adequacy
- Obsessive worry or concern about the sexual intentions of others
- Shame and self loathing over sexual experiences
- Depression about sexual adequacy and functioning
- Intimacy avoidance because of sexual fear.
Both hyper-sexuality and sexual anorexia are two sides of the same coin. Sexual anorexia is also a surviving tool but it also keeps the client stuck in their pain. It minimises the real role the trauma created in the victims sexual life. It can wrongly persuade individuals to believe that they just don’t want or like sex altogether, or it's due to timidity, fragility or sense of weakness.
Survivors can also develop sexual dysfunctions as a result of rape; all these are normal reactions just like the result of hearing loss after an explosion that hits us.
It is also important that we realise that sexual trauma isn’t limited to acts of rapes, but any unwanted sexual encounter, coerced sex, sleazy mockery, sexual harassment and deliberate exposure, exposure to pornography as child, or physical trauma to body that makes you feel it’s unattractive. We can even feel traumatised when we have given consent to sexual behaviour and yet felt traumatised without understanding why.
Atkinson talks about women he has counselled who report consensual sexual experiences that have left them feeling ashamed or degraded, including losing their virginity in ways that were seen as distressing or traumatic. He states that these episodes are then programmed into our brains to define sex and an encounter that is seen as shameful and overpowering. This then not only changes and affects our beliefs about sex but our very own brain structures. This means that when we approach a similar situation, our brain fires in similar ways as when we first experienced sex as a trauma.
Recovery and healing is possible, and as counsellors we must be aware of these conflicts and behaviours and have an understanding of the complex ways that sexual abuse/violence can impact on survivors and the struggles they may be experiencing. It is important that we help clients in their healing journey and recognise the many forms in which their pain is expressed, and how that pain may be unresolved and stuck.
Reference: 'Resurrection after Rape – A guide to transforming from victim to survivor', 2nd Edition, Matt Atkinson (2010), RAR Publishing.
'Sexual anorexia - Overcoming Sexual self hatred', PhD. Patrick Carnes, 1997.
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About Antonella Zottola
Antonella Zottola is a qualified integrative MBCAP counsellor. Antonella's private practise is held in Sale and is called Rising Phoenix. Antonella also has a PGCE and teaches counselling; in addition she will be giving a presentation held by the BACP on Domestic Violence and holding workshops to raise awareness.