Therapy Digest 19
In the latest Therapy Digest, I discuss how the experience of surviving rape or sexual assault can impact on a person’s sense of self which can include changes to sexual preferences and desire.
I also explore the importance of experiencing failure to help build resilience – that most vital life skill that enables a person to pick themselves up off the floor, dust themselves down to try again.
Surviving Sexual Assault: Can It Change Your Sexual Desires?
(Trigger Warning: The following article contains a discussion of a sexual nature that some readers may find upsetting.)
It is not surprising that most adult survivors of sexual assault will experience changes in their established sexual preferences. How they feel sexual desire may change; their sex drive might also change, as may their sexual preferences.
The emotional fall out from a sexual assault or a sexually abusive relationship can be far more enduring and than any physical injuries. The body can and will often recover more readily and faster from the physical assault than the psychological assault on the adult survivor’s sense of self.
Sexual Assault Recovery
Coming to terms with the experience of surviving sexual assault can have many more layers of complexity when the sexual assault involved grooming, betrayal of trust, or the power imbalance between an adult and a younger person.
Being a survivor of sexual abuse does not condemn them to a life-sentence of going without consensual sex or a life where sexual interaction is either distressing or even re-traumatising. It is a cliche to think of sexual abuse or rape survivors as permanently damaged or ‘broken’ in some way, and that is a huge oversimplification of a complex process of recovery.
It’s true that sex is often more difficult following experiencing sexual assault, but it’s entirely false that a survivor will not be capable of engaging in healthy sex.
To experience difficulties either emotionally or physically is a legitimate response to trauma. The Amygdala is part of the brain that controls the fight and flight response that reacts to perceived threats – either real or imagined. It can become over cranked by traumatic experiences such as these and make it difficult for the survivor’s body and mind to fully accept they are safe to enjoy consensual sex with their partner even when they feel consciously ready to do so.
This is a typical response that may require working with a trained therapist to overcome.
Changes to Sexuality After Sexual Assault
It has been suggested that some sexual assault survivors find themselves gravitating towards consensual BDSM (Bondage/submission) or less mainstream sexual encounters due to their experience of abuse. However, in my experience as a therapist what makes people gravitate towards consensual BDSM or kinky sexual encounters is complex and being a survivor of sexual assault is only one of many factors that may or may not make this kind of sexual interplay attractive.
It’s often difficult to ascertain a linear correlation between previous sexual experiences even ones as traumatic as sexual assault and how it impacts on sexual desire. In my therapy practice, I’ve seen a wide variety of responses to sexual assault from both my male and female clients.
Common threads do exist including the role childhood sexual assault has played in many of my client’s lifelong struggles to maintain a healthy weight. It is not uncommon for them to battle obesity or out of control behaviour around food and/or alcohol or Class A drugs.
The consequences of rape and sexual assault for survivors leave them scattered across the whole spectrum of sexual activity. Some choose never to be intimate again; Others become sexually promiscuous as a way of taking back control; Some willfully disregard their safety and wellbeing by repeatedly placing themselves in potentially exploitative or dangerous situations. Some who used to feel sexually confident and instigate experimentation with their partners find themselves only willing to participate in so-called ‘vanilla’, or non-threatening sexual activity.
Sexual Assault and PTSD
Other survivors struggle with PTSC (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashbacks and prefer to refrain from penetrative sex or avoid feeling claustrophobic or physically restrained in any way to ensure they don’t trigger their traumatic memories. Others can effectively departmentalise their traumatic experience so that it has no conscious influence on their consensual sex life.
Submission and abdicating sexual responsibility within a safe framework can be useful role-playing for some survivors of sexual abuse. Equally taking the dominant role and play-acting feeling in control can counter some previous experiences of powerlessness and vulnerability.
How adults experience consensual sexual activity is no-ones business but their own. Within the confines of legality and personal morality, everything is acceptable. However, it is the judgments people make about their behaviour that can be at odds with their actions and that can indicate a psychological disassociation which would benefit from a therapeutic resolution.
Physiologically, Vaginismus is the medical term for a rarely spoken of and commonly experienced after-effect of sexual assault. Vaginismus can take place for many reasons other than sexual assault too. It is a medically recognised condition when an involuntary muscle spasm that woman experience that can cause consensual penetrative sex to be acutely painful and almost impossible to undertake.
Psychologic effects of unease around sexual activity can be relatively minor or completely debilitating including frightening out of body experiences, emotional discomfort and unease through to full-blown panic attacks. All of these responses would benefit from an empathetic and skilled approach from an experienced therapist to ensure the survivor is not re-traumatised by having to re-live their experiences. There is, fortunately, therapy approaches dedicated to ensuring this work is as gentle and trauma-free as possible.
Effects of Sexual Assault
Effects of sexual assault are highly unpredictable and can lay dormant for years if not decades. When the high profile Jimmy Saville multiple sexual abuse case hit the media myself, and many other therapists were inundated with calls for therapeutic intervention from adult survivors of childhood abuse. Many of the survivors thought they had put their childhood experiences behind them but found they were experiencing mounting anxiety and distress as the news story rolled out over an extended period triggering their memories.
Perhaps not surprisingly sometimes a random car accident or period of high stress such as moving house or loss of a parent or loved one can be enough to unsettle years of equilibrium bringing back uncomfortable memories of long-buried sexual trauma or sexual confusion from childhood.
Memories buried alive never die, and if survivors of sexual assault have tried everything but are still not confident they are making decisions free from the influence of their sexual assault, then therapy can give them the clarity and resolution they need to go forward knowing they have fully resolved their past trauma.
If your life still feels limited by your experience of rape or sexual assault or by your emotional response to an abusive relationship you deserve to fully recover from the trauma. If you feel ready to heal, please book a discovery call with me via the link on this page and I’ll explain how I work with PSTD and survivor trauma.
You can access more information and resources by calling:
National Rape Crisis Helpline 0808 802 29999.
Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline 08088 01 03 02
National Assault Hotline (USA) 800 656 4673
The Importance of Failure To Build Resilience
As a therapist, part of my work is witnessing how people respond to stress and what my clients perceive how they have failed in their lives.
No-one can avoid everything negative that could happen to them over a lifetime, and it’s not the experience of failure itself that is crippling but what we tell ourselves about these experiences that can be very damaging.
Ideally, failures and small defeats happen during childhood so that children grow up having developed confidence in how they can recover from life’s challenges within the safety of a supportive family.
Resilience and Bounce Back
This is how resilience or the ability to bounce back from defeat is created. It is essential to think of resilience as an emotional muscle that you can strengthen through use so that it is there when you need it most.
However, everyone’s experience of childhood is unique, and this healthy balance of trial and error is not available to everyone as they grow up.
One of the reasons that children are not experiencing the opportunities to develop resilience in childhood is a by-product of their parent’s anxiety. It can show up by parents tightening their control of their off-spring through helicopter parenting or by micro-managing their children’s exposure to the real world beyond home, school and family.
Adult levels of anxiety are currently high for a number of factors. For instance, I see adult clients who are struggling in the workplace with job insecurity and unreasonable targets implemented by often poorly trained managers. What was once a professional arena where people could excel and build self-esteem is now for many a cold, dog-eat-dog, head-down, highly pressured environment.
Adult Anxiety Affects their Family Too
Some of these adults who experience increasing levels of stress and insecurity project their impression of the world as big and bad onto their children. Add in feelings of overwhelm with Brexit-Trauma and social media’s role as the purveyor of all things shocking and disturbing in modern society the world over, and it makes for a heady mix of paranoia and fear.
The unprecedented rise in mental ill-health amongst undergraduate students is a result of young people not being allowed to experience a failure while growing up and therefore not building their resilience and faith in themselves that they can overcome adversity and thrive. They have never been allowed to learn that it is okay to metaphorically fall down as an opportunity to experience getting-back-up again, dusting yourself off and getting on with one’s life.
The challenging mix of leaving home, managing a budget while studying can become overwhelming for those who have been infantilised all their lives by overly anxious and controlling parents.
Luckily there are active steps everyone can take during and after a crisis to speed emotional recovery and the ability to bounce back. These can be learnt at all ages, so no-one is condemned to living a life without resilience.
My third book ‘The Getting of Resilience from the Inside Out’ from Hammersmith Books, London is scheduled for publication late 2019.
If you struggle with feelings of overwhelm and you are finding it challenging to bounce back from adversity and tough times, then you can reach out via the contact button on this page for an obligation free discovery call.
Sally Baker is Senior Therapist, published Author and Speaker in private practice in London for face to face sessions and the world over via the internet.
With almost twenty years of professional experience, she employs cutting-edge therapeutic approaches to help one person at a time to transform their lives.
She has extensive experience working with people to alleviate their anxiety, depression, anger issues, eating disorders as well as conflicts within relationships and the family.
To find out more about Sally Baker, her books and her work visit her website, www.workingonthebody.com