The trauma of sexual abuse is one for the lifetime and it brings in its wake intimacy issues that rear their ugly head when you least expect them, leaving you confused, conflicted, and hurting all over again.
I was 16, when a boy I was completely besotted with violated my body, with complete disregard to my consent, to satisfy his lust. As two teenagers supposedly head-over-heels in love, making out sessions were a constant feature in the relationship, which I quite enjoyed too. But he wanted more.
From not-so-veiled threats that I must agree to have sex if the relationship was to continue to pleading with me to let him go on, the signs that he wanted nothing more than to get into my pants were all over. Typically, I would resist and he’d stop. That day, however, he didn’t. Despite my vocal and physical resistance, he pinned me down and went ahead to have his way with me.
Almost 20 years later, the wound is still fresh, like it happened yesterday. The memory is fragmented, but parts of it vividly come alive in my mind every now and again. The nip in the air on that November afternoon, the coldness of the sheets under me, the laughter of our friends in the next room spilling over, the colour of the pants I was wearing. Most of all, the smirk on his face, as he rolled over. “Oh, so you WERE a virgin,” the words ring in my ears, followed by a deafening silence.
For a 16-year-old who couldn’t breathe a word about what had gone down to anyone or turn to loved ones for help, support and counsel, processing what had happened was no easy task. It was a lone battle, fought in silence for years, struggling with thoughts like, “I brought it upon myself by agreeing to go into that room with him.” Guilt. Shame. Self-loathing. Pain.
It was years before I could accept that I was sexually abused and understand that the guilt and shame weren’t mine to have. The pain and the trauma aren’t restricted to that incident alone. They’ve made their presence felt in every intimate relationship I’ve had since. It took the unrelenting support of a loving partner to begin the process of healing. Exhausted from battling the demon on my own, I, finally, sought help by going into therapy earlier this year. A diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stared me in the face. Healing hasn’t been swift or linear, but we’re making a little progress, one session at a time. Even the smallest changes come as a huge relief.
This journey has also opened my eyes to the fact that this struggle isn’t mine alone. PTSD from sexual abuse, particularly among those molested as a child, is extremely common – 55% of sexually abused people suffer from it. To help those out there suffering in silence, I spoke to intimacy coach, Pallavi Barnal, about the intimacy issues faced by sexual abuse victims.
Apart from the anxiety, restlessness and poor sleep, intimacy issues have remained my biggest battle since the incident. My body tends to stiffen up right before intercourse, making the experience more painful than pleasurable. Pallavi explains that this is not uncommon. “I’ve counselled a few sexual abuse victims and one of the biggest challenges they face is that one of their earliest interactions around their sexuality has been traumatic and non-consensual. This trauma gets augmented manifold if the perpetrator of the abuse is a family member or someone close to them – which happens in a majority of cases – because they have to come face to face with their abuser every day.”
“In most of these cases, even if the parents come to know about the abuse, they try to hush the matter up. As a result, the victim feels unheard, not understood, not accepted. The pain remains unresolved.
“Such sexually abused victims, who have not had the right support to process their trauma, break down even 15-16 years after the incident has happened because they’ve not had the chance to heal and the incident remains like a fresh wound in their consciousness,” says Pallavi.
What can a sexual abuse victim do to work through their intimacy issues?
“I once counselled this girl who experienced difficulty during intercourse since there was a lot of angst and unresolved trauma because of the sexual abuse. To address this and be able to establish functional intimate relationships, it’s imperative to seek help. The benefits of counselling in such cases cannot be emphasized enough. More often than not, we’re not equipped to deal with the trauma of being sexually abused on our own.
“It is critical to be let go of the pent-up feelings of pain and angst by being understood, acknowledged, and understanding that what happened to you was indeed wrong. This becomes an even more pressing need in case the incident was hushed up and the victim was left to suffer in silence either for the sake of family honour or because no one wanted to go through the messy processes of seeking justice.
“Another essential aspect is to say it out loud, express and really acknowledge what happened to you in the support of a compassionate, trained professional,” says Pallavi.
Role of a partner in helping a sexual abuse victim cope with intimacy issues
“If you’re with a partner, keep them in the loop. Take your partner into confidence and share what you’ve gone through and how it impacts you so that they don’t feel that you’re rejecting them by avoiding intimacy in a relationship. You don’t have to feel guilty about talking about it again and again. It’s a deep trauma, a deep wound that you cannot rush to heal or choose to ignore.
“A lot of times, these intimacy issues can take a toll on the relationship if your partner has no idea about what you’ve gone through. They may misconstrue it as your lack of interest in them or be left feeling that the relationship has turned sour. So talk about your challenges to them openly,” advises Pallavi.
And I strongly agree. A supportive and understanding partner can truly be your first step toward healing from the trauma of sexual abuse. When my current partner first asked me out, I had all but turned him down, warning him I was damaged goods (not physically or morally but emotionally).
He was unrelenting in his faith that we could make it work. He was prepared to hold my hand and navigate the shadows of this past trauma. He was hopeful that someday we will find a way out of these shadows. His hope became my strength.
Apart from emotional healing, with him, I also found a way to be comfortable in my skin, embrace my desire without feeling dirty or repulsed by it. Until then, I had resigned myself to believing that painful intercourse was just the price you pay to be in a loving relationship.
It was my partner’s support and understanding that helped me break free from that mould and reacquaint myself with my sexuality. A simple ‘Hey, relax’ or ‘It’s me’ from him is enough to bring me back to the present moment and not stay trapped in the memory of that incident. I speak from experience when I say that it is possible to enjoy fulfilling sex life. You’re not doomed to suffer in silence. It may take time but with a little progress every day, you can get there. Not just the mind, trauma affects your body too
As I mentioned before, the prospect of any form of vaginal insertion causes my pelvic muscles to contract and tighten up. Not just during sex but also before a pelvic exam or a transvaginal ultrasound. This makes even the most routine experience painful and unpleasant.
My therapist helped me understand that this is because trauma doesn’t just affect the mind but also the body. The trauma gets stored in the body and muscle memory kicks in to ‘protect you from what it perceives as a repeat of the traumatic experience.
Mindfulness can be your biggest weapon against countering these physical manifestations of sexual abuse trauma. (If you’re scoffing at the mention of mindfulness, I feel ya. I was among the naysayers not so long ago. But keeping an open mind to new experiences and changing your opinion is what growing and evolving is all about.)
Sexual abuse is a scarring experience that changes you in so many ways in an instant and continues to change you over and over again. But it is possible to take the reins of that change and steer it in a direction you want. With the right help, you can work your way through the intimacy issues triggered by the trauma of being sexually abused.