For many with histories of sexual trauma, one of the most debilitating and confusing consequences can be the inability to both experience love and enjoy sex in an intimate relationship. The survivor seems plagued by two options, neither one entirely satisfying: either be vulnerable and close without much passion, or be sexual and feel desire but dissociate intimate feelings.
According to the model of structural dissociation, to deal with the overwhelming nature of traumas like sexual abuse, dissociation occurs to protect vulnerable aspects of the self. A sexual part of the personality can also develop as a way to cope with abuse. Later in life, the unintegrated sexual part continues to be activated in situations involving sexuality, while vulnerable parts of the self dissociated at the time of trauma are once again split off.
Because of the possibility of introjection of the emotions, fantasies, and attitudes of the perpetrator — similar to what psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi described as “identifying with the aggressor” — sexuality may become associated with dominance, manipulation, and power.1 For instance, acting seductively can become a way to feel powerful, if not special, which often is a defense against the low self-worth, vulnerability, and fear that sexual trauma causes.
Sex is emotionally complex, even if you don’t have a history of sexual trauma. Sexuality potentially involves several of the ancient emotion systems identified by affective neuroscience (first introduced in the post “Working With Emotions”), including LUST (sexual excitement), CARE (nurturance), SEEKING (expectancy), and PLAY (social joy). These innate emotion systems combine together and are conditioned by sexual experiences. As a result of sexual trauma, some of these systems may be excluded from sexuality, such as CARE and PLAY, while FEAR (anxiety), GRIEF/PANIC (sadness), and RAGE (anger) are elicited.
When sexuality occurs in intimate relationships, feelings and behaviors linked to the CARE emotion system are commonly activated. The CARE system is thought to have first evolved to encourage maternal care of young, and then expanded with the increased sociality that supported the evolution of mammals. Much like a mother fosters secure attachment through physical closeness, caressing, and behaving protectively, the CARE emotion system supports intimacy in romantic relationships.
Sex, however, doesn’t only occur in relationships. States of sexual arousal (LUST) can lead to finding a partner (SEEKING) for the sole purpose of satisfying desire. Whether sexuality happens in support of intimacy or pursuit of gratification, the activation of the emotion system PLAY, including feeling social joy, is often a precursor to a satisfying experience. According to Panksepp and Biven, “play is a spontaneous activity, done for its own sake, because it is fun (pleasurable).” This quality of play is absent during sexual trauma. As Panksepp and Biven noted, “all stressors reduce play.”2
Like other mammals, play in humans supports social and psychological development. According to sociologist Robert Bellah:
“Play may be one of the most wondrous of human activities. Like dreaming, it seems to serve no purpose, or contribute to our physical survival, we nevertheless seem to need what I would call symbolically-mediated experiences to understand our worlds, relate to others, and at least with regards to play, share in symbolic attention.”3
In states of play, whether between human children or lion cubs, in-group aggressions are largely dampened. A bite or shove that might lead to escalating hostilities in states of play is made sense of by the implicit framing of the experience as one of play. This often unspoken bracketing of events as play protects developing minds and bodies. Play is how we learn social cooperation and to modulate aggression. If an experience is too overwhelming, the framing of the experience as play can be broken, which if it is truly playful, should end the encounter. When we are young, we especially rely on play to imitate and embody experiences we later may be expected to perform. Because of play, we are protected from being overwhelmed by circumstances we’re not yet mature enough to handle.
When sexual trauma occurs during the first decades of life — or at any age by someone close or depended upon — it may be impossible to overcome the instinctual understanding of relationships that occurs through play, as well as through attachment. Humans innately anticipate the protective boundaries of play and attachment, and the prioritizing of social bonds over personal aggression and gratification. When these boundaries aren’t respected, and instead are exploited, the only way to psychologically (if not also physically) survive the encounter may be by introjecting the attitudes, behaviors, and fantasies of the perpetrator. As discussed in a prior post, this can lead to experiencing the abuser as an inner part of the self, or an intrusive voice (or image) associated with memories of what happened. When activated during sex, it can be profoundly triggering, and survivors report feeling sexually passive in intimate relationships as they did during the abuse, or avoid sex entirely. Others continue to dissociate (often through substance use) feelings of vulnerability so they can experience arousal. As Ogden and her colleagues noted, there is difficulty “linking sexual attraction and desire with attachment and play.”4
Another consequence of sexual trauma occurs in reaction to usual courtship behaviors. Through body and facial communication we relay attraction. Sensorimotor psychotherapy creator Pat Ogden and colleagues wrote:
“In addition to explicit sexual actions, sexuality movement sequences include recognized courtship and flirting behaviors that indicate attraction — smiling, eye contact, higher-pitched vocalizations at a higher volume, animated, exaggerated gestures and facial expression… — and often include playful behavior that indicates the simultaneous arousal of the play action system.”5
Rather than experienced as playful and signaling an opportunity for greater social joy, signs of desire in another may suggest the possibility of aggression or dominance. Thus, well before the sexual encounter, survivors may unconsciously anticipate abuse or exploitation. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for women with histories of early life sexual abuse to believe they have no alternative but to act sexually when someone desires them. Holding the belief that you have no control over your own sexuality increases the likelihood of revictimization.
Integrating sexuality with intimacy requires slowing down and observing how sexual experience is organized. This involves noticing how the body reacts to touch, while witnessing the different emotions, beliefs, fantasies, and memories that arise during sex.
By slowing down and mindfully witnessing reactions, there is greater opportunity to safely feel vulnerable during sex, which is a precursor to experiencing desire and attachment-related emotions at the same time. For example, Ogden and colleagues described a client, Ann:
“…at the age of 50, came to therapy to address an action tendency pertaining to sexuality: Sexual experiences were not physically pleasurable for her but allowed her to feel a sense of power and conquest that ultimately prevented her from establishing a lasting sexual partnership.”6
Ann was sexually abused by her older brother. She continued to associate sex with feelings of specialness and power that she had felt when she was young. However, by working with a male therapist, Ann was able to use their gender differences to explore how she reacted to men:
“Ann strained to avoid going into her ‘sexual mode’ (tilting her head to one side, fluttering her eye lashes, holding the therapist’s eye contact in alteration with demurely looking down, crossing and uncrossing her legs, frequent smiles, leaning forward) and noticed that she felt anxious and uncertain. She reported having no idea of how to move, breathe, to ‘be’ without using her sexual power….”7
When Ann deliberately inhibited her usual ways of responding, she could feel her underlying anxiety. Although uncomfortable, she saw how her sexuality had become a defense against feeling vulnerable. With her therapist, Ann worked on having power over what she felt rather than power over men.
Survivors often want to rush healing their sexuality. This may be because they feel pressure to sexually perform, or they want to avoid bringing ‘old baggage’ into a new relationship. The pressure may come from themselves or their partners. Yet by approaching sexuality mindfully, and with a focus on initiating the PLAY and CARE emotional systems, there is greater opportunity for sexuality and intimacy to occur together. It is also crucial to have a partner willing to support this process of exploration and integration.
When the focus is sexual healing, we must give ourselves the freedom to take our time. We have to allow our bodies to catch up with the present moment, as well as our current needs, desires, and relationships. Like Ann, you may need to work with someone in a therapeutic setting where there is no possibility of sex, thus maximizing feelings of safety. However, whether with the support of a partner or professional, sexual healing like other aspects of recovery rests on integrating split off emotions, if not parts of the self, while regaining the creative aspects of selfhood, including trust in spontaneity, the body, and the joy of play.
Questions to ponder: Do you have difficulties being sexual and intimate in the same relationship? What emotions do you typically feel during sexual encounters? Are play and attachment part of your experience of sexuality?
1 Ferenczi, Sandor. (1988). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child: The language of tenderness and passion. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 24, 196-206.
2 Panksepp, Jaak, & Biven, Lucy. (2012). The archaeology of mind: Neuroevolutionary origins of human emotions. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, p. 352.
3 Bellah, Robert N. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
4 Ogden, Pat, Minton, Kekuni, & Pain, Clare. (2006). Trauma and the body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., p. 121.
7 Ibid., pp. 121-122.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).