Sex and Shame

Dogwood petals rained down in the streets on the way home. The heat still laid itself like a blanket on the earth. I felt as if I had wings, reaching the final stage of metamorphosis. At last, being able to escape the prison of fear’s cupped hands. I kept my CRV’s windows down as I drove home. The humid air, thickened by the essence of oak leaves and cut grass, swept in and warmed my body to the core of my bones. 

My mind kept swerving lanes. At first I felt like a cleansing wave washed over me, leaving remnants of relief. But then I’d swerve and an immense weight of shame pressed down with regret. It’s hard sometimes to differentiate your own internal voice, verses the ones you’ve grown up with. It takes time to analyze whether they’re your mother’s or your own fears. As I continued to drive, her words began to surface. They felt like a heavy stones weighing on me. “You know, if you like sex so much, you may as well just get paid for it.”   

-excerpt from “The Pavement” by Fiona McHugh 

Rape takes something that most of the world sees as pleasurable and turns it into something terrifying, forcing one to see their powerlessness at that moment. There are so many different responses trauma survivors have when it comes to thoughts about sex. Some survivors avoid intimacy and touch at all costs, while some survivors experience hyper-sexuality. None of these responses are wrong or to be ashamed of. Shame is like a dark cloud, and it’s difficult to see the overall picture of what is going on within. When we remove shame from our responses, it’s easier to understand the trauma responses.

Everyone deserves to have a happy sex life. In the book (which I HIGHLY recommend) The Sexual Healing Journey, the author Wendy Maltz describes sex as a knife. The knife can be used for enjoyable experiences like cutting a cake at a birthday party, but it also can be used as a weapon. It’s not the knife itself that causes the pain or is the problem. Instead, it’s about the person who’s holding that knife that controls the experience. The act of sex itself isn’t the problem.

It’s common that survivors feel dirty or contaminated. As a child, I learned/experienced what rape was before what sex was. For some survivors, it may be hard to differentiate the two. I could write over twenty reasons I’ve personally struggled with sex and shame. No one talks about this stuff, for many reasons, but a major problem with that is sometimes the silence continues to fuel the shame.

Here are some shame associated responses and perceptions of sex:

  1. Sex feels dirty and secretive: As I mentioned above, sex in itself isn’t dirty and secretive, but the act of rape is. Many of us were told to keep the abuse quiet by the perpetrator themselves or others in our household/community. This causes the survivor to feel as if they did something wrong because that burden is placed back on them. Certain traditions and religious communities also view talking about sex as taboo. I went to Catholic School as a kid, and sex was discussed as if it was the driving catalyst for the road to hell. I remember feeling unwanted and “bad,” as a kid coming home from school some days. If you were abused and also were raised in a strict religious environment, I want you to know that unlearning a lot of fear-based rules can help when it comes to releasing the shame. Sex is such a natural thing, and a lot of the world doesn’t perceive it that way. Learning tantra has been something that has helped me unlearn past beliefs about sex, while still perceiving it in a spiritual way.
  2. Feeling embarrassed about avoiding and fearing sex: I think sometimes, some of us downplay the trauma to avoid the pain of that reality. When we downplay the abuse, we’re less compassionate towards ourselves. We may want to rush the healing process and just feel “normal.” Healing from trauma takes years, and there are many milestones that every individual reaches at their own pace. PTSD was so bad for me, even someone patting me on the back just sent off the emergency alarm system in my body. In fact, I hated the thought of sex more than I hated pop radio country music. I remember hearing friends talk about their experiences and thinking, “Why?” like, “Why would you do that? HOW could you like THAT?” I never dated anyone until I was nineteen years old, and felt so embarrassed about how inexperienced I was. Looking back, I wish I was a lot more self-compassionate. I would faint, experience flashbacks, nightmares, feel the experience all over again in my body physically every night as I went to bed – I mean, OF COURSE, I avoided intimacy while experiencing all of that. Jeez. If you can relate: Rushing things will only add more pain to the trauma. You will know when the time is right. Trust me, I wish I knew this. Fearing sex after abuse is so normal and understandable. I’ll be writing a post in the future about overcoming the fear of sex (w/o using substances to escape)
  3. The shame of being hypersexual: I think a lot of survivors and society, in general, are confused as to why some survivors have this reaction. Around the age of twenty, I went towards the opposite end of the spectrum. I abused anti-anxiety meds and alcohol in order to cope with fear. I’d take a swig of vodka in my parked car before seeing people. Only a few people in my life to this day know the extent of it. There were times where it was obvious and other times where it wasn’t noticeable, yet there wasn’t one time where I was having sex sober. I was in pain. I caused a lot of emotional pain for others. I slept with people to reassure myself that I was “healed” and that I could handle sex without having an anxiety attack or flashback, which was a big fear of mine. I struggled with connecting sex with love in my mind. I got bored easily and chased after more risky situations to try to reclaim a sense of control that I had lost from the abuse. I cried a lot after having sex and felt ashamed, where then I’d respond back with “Fuck it I was broken anyway.” Sex can be used to escape, dissociate, or find control. This past year was when I really realized how my actions were making the pain and shame deeper. Once I stepped away from this cycle, I was able to put that energy towards healing and rewriting my future.

Whatever responses and shame you may experience with sex, I want you to know that you are doing the best you can. These are states of reaction to the trauma and not who you are as a person. In other words, your response to trauma isn’t your true nature or personality. You are not a prude and you are not a whore, you have survived sexual abuse. You are strong and brave. Your feelings and actions are normal and understandable. Trauma isn’t who you are at the core. I used to think that because of my experiences at an early age, my perspective of sex was tainted and that’s just how it was always going to be. Nope, no one’s identity is their trauma or their reactions to it.

Here are some things that I wish I had known when I was younger about sex:

  • Sex is not an obligation or something you owe anybody.
  • Sex should equally be enjoyable for men and women
  • You don’t need to have sex in order to be loved and valued. You are lovable and valuable because you exist.
  • Just because you desire sex, doesn’t mean you are creepy like a sexual offender.
  • You are a beautiful soul with a purpose and not an object for people’s gratification.
  • It’s actually common to feel aroused when you’re anxious or powerless during sex even though it’s also your biggest fear. Trauma doesn’t make sense, it’s not rational. A lot of responses in the body aren’t conscience based but stem from the limbic system in the brain (where fight or flight mode is activated). Vice versa; you may only feel aroused when you have control, this is just your brain trying to make connections and sense of things because that’s what brains do.
  • It’s ok to not want sex, and you are allowed to stop it from progressing at any point.
  • The right partner won’t reject you because of your past.
  • A lot of people don’t have orgasms after abuse. But I promise, one day you will be able to.
  • Your body will try to protect you sometimes, even in safe situations. For example; sometimes women feel pain during sex because that’s their body’s natural fight response. In cases like this, especially if it’s continual, I believe body work is the solution. Pelvic Floor Therapy (for trauma) is a MAJOR help. I’ll write a blog post specifically for women who experience this and resources that will help.

You are a warrior and have the ability to overcome any obstacle. I used to believe changing one’s perspective of sex was impossible. I still work on it to this day. Patience, awareness, and self compassion are your best friend.

Be Well,

Fiona

3 thoughts on “Sex and Shame

  1. Hello Fiona, thanks very much for witting this. I have a couple friends, in my life for years, that were repeatedly sexually abused by family members as children. I really never understood their sexual behavior (and or their continued relationships with abusers)…in general, “over sexualized” and always seeking such hookups, usually – in my opinion- unhealthy or risky. In my mind, I chalked it up to “what feels familiar or normal” to that person. Your piece helped me understand more about what may be alive for people that have survived this type of abuse. Also, your piece helps me in what I tell my daughters … or how I help them understand that their bodies are their own. Thanks for your openness. Much love to you. Life is hard, we help one another. I’m grateful for you.

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    1. Hi Mary! Yes, it’s such a confusing thing for survivors to understand or explain themselves, and I’m so grateful that this helped. Sending you and your daughters love and strength!

      Like

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