How Sexual Trauma can Affect Sexuality
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Trauma is an experience somebody has that is deeply distressing or disturbing.  Sexual trauma is particularly distressing because of the sense of powerlessness and betrayal that the victim feels.  Often, the perpetrator, whether it is childhood molest or adult rape is someone the victim knows well. Some victims where the trauma was once or a few times (of course one is one too many!), may not develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder particularly if the victim has a good support system, can openly discuss what has happened and received validation quickly, and if the person has had a relatively nurturing childhood.   It is far more common to have PTSD when there is greater frequency (as is often the case in childhood sexual abuse), if there was a threat of violence, if the sexual trauma was prolonged, if the victim does not have good social supports or has had a traumatic childhood.

How much a sexual trauma can affect one’s sexuality as an adult has a lot to do with if the victim develops PTSD.  Symptoms of PTSD include hyperarousal, avoidance; re-experiencing the trauma in some ways (such as in flashbacks or nightmares) and changes in perception and mood.   PTSD develops when the pain is too much for the brain to process in an adaptive, healthy way so the traumatic memory gets stored in another part of the brain (the amygdala), where it can stay repressed.  However, when there is a trigger, the memory or parts of the memory can break through and be experienced.

As far as sexuality is affected, let’s take an example of a woman who was sexually molested as a child starting when she was 4.  She gets married, has a daughter and then when the daughter is 4 years old, the woman suddenly has no desire to have sex with her husband.  As a matter of fact, she feels repulsed by the idea.   There can be all sorts of triggers, but for this example it is her daughter turning 4 years old., the same age as the mother when the molest experiences began. The wife is probably not even consciously aware of why she is suddenly turned off and repulsed by her husband.  The traumatic memory is being experienced.  In this case, it may be just the feelings and the sensations that are being experienced without any images or thoughts about the memory.  The images and thoughts of the memory are “dissociated”.   As you see in this example, the triggering of the traumatic memory has brought up her feelings and bodily sensations she felt as a child during the sexual experience.  This in turn leads to significantly decreasing libido and arousal and sex can be totally avoided.

The woman in this example could also have gone the other way and become hypersexual as a way of re-enacting the earlier trauma and the shame that she felt.  People can actually act out sexually as an unconscious way to re-experience the shame that unfortunately sexual victims feel.

Some sexual trauma victims can only be turned on by being in submissive positions either with a real live person or in their fantasy.  In these situations, the sexual trauma leads to the brain being wired in such a way that the only path of arousal is through a similar experience of being powerless, “one down” and/or humiliated.

Victims of rape who before the rape have had healthy sex lives may be deeply affected sexually by the rape.  The rape changes the associations of touch and sex from positive to negative. The victim could be experiencing a false sense of shame or guilt, which can also decrease sexual desire, arousal and orgasm.  Rape can lead to some or all of the sexual symptoms I have mentioned above which of course can greatly affect intimate relationships.

Remember that sexual trauma victims have a range of short term and long-term consequences.  As I wrote above, those that do not develop PTSD may escape with few if any symptoms.  However, it is common for sexual trauma victims to have their sexuality affected in some way.  Since they were hurt, they now may see sex as dangerous or shameful.  They need to protect themselves from these feelings of shame and helplessness and that is what leads to the sexual symptoms I have described.

In my next article, I will be discussing how these victims can begin healing from these horrendous experiences.  There is hope and I have helped many people heal and get their lives and sexuality back.

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