October 20, 2004

Q&A: Experiencing Sexuality Again After Abuse

Q&A about sexuality after abuse from a previous partner.

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Question: My ex-boyfriend forced me into sexual things I didn’t want to do so I was never there physically or mentally. Now, I have a new boyfriend who I have had meaningful and consensual sex with a few times, but he recently has brought to my attention that he feels that I’m not “into it” when we have sex. Is there any way I can get past that and move on?

First, I’m sorry to hear about your past experiences with nonconsensual sex. Far too many women and men have had similar experiences and they can be tough to move past, particularly when they happened over a long period or when they occurred at the hands of someone you trusted or who you thought cared for you (like your boyfriend at the time).

Second, good for you for a) finding someone who treats you with more respect and b) for working so hard to communicate with him about your sexual relationship. If you feel comfortable, you might consider sharing information with your current partner about your past experiences as a way of helping him to understand why you may not always seem “into it.” This is certainly not something you have to do, and not everyone would choose to.

I wonder if you’ve had a chance to work through your feelings about your former relationship in a way that’s brought you not only closure, but perhaps some insight and personal understanding about how to navigate healthier relationships. Many women and men who have been forced into sex find that counseling can be helpful. At the IU Health Center, Counseling and Psychological Services (http://healthcenter.indiana.edu/caps/) is a great service, and there are individual and group sexual assault-specific support services, too.

The book The Courage to Heal is frequently used either on its own or in conjunction with counseling and has helped many individuals deal with the effects of nonconsensual sex. Often when people are forced to do something with their bodies that doesn’t feel good or right to them emotionally, they “tune out” as a way of adapting to the situation and that makes total sense in the moment; it serves as a means of protection and is a very natural and normal response to a terrible situation.

The difficulty is when this becomes kind of an automatic response such that now, even when you’re having sex with someone who you actually want to have sex with, it can be easy to slip into that same pattern. However, many people learn to break through this pattern and establish new ones and you can too whether that’s through reading the book, doing counseling, journaling or paying closer attention to clearly identifying what kinds of sexual expression you do or do not want and acting on your choices.

Finally, given how negative our culture can be about sexuality, there are an awful lot of people who tune out during sex because they wonder if what they’re doing is right, what their parents or friends would think if they found out, if they’ll be punished or if they are now somehow “dirty” for having or acting on sexual thoughts and fantasies. So getting over negative associations with sexual expression and accepting the sexual sides of ourselves is — to some extent — work that many of us have to do. The fact that you’re aware of this and you’re ready to do the work puts you way ahead of the game. Good luck.

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