Hidden Sexual Pain – Sexual Trauma

When sexual abuse/violence is experienced at any point in a survivors life, not many people are aware of how this may impact on the survivors sexuality, their sexual concept, their attitudes towards sex, their beliefs, the negative mindset left by the abuse, and how this affects the survivors sexual identity. Not much is discussed to highlight this pain and expression of unresolved pain.

Firstly, it is important to make clear that sex abuse/violence is not sex or about sex but about power and control upon another and using sex as the weapon. As someone once quoted: you don’t hit someone with a spade and call it gardening.

Survivors can become very conflicted after the event and can turn two ways; becoming hyper-sexual or suffering from sexual anorexia (avoidance). It is important to realise that survivors can fluctuate from periods of hyper-sexuality and sexual avoidance or vice versa and they can also have elements of both of these normal reactions. These reactions are as normal as bleeding if you are stabbed. There is no right or wrong way to react to trauma. We are all individuals and everyone’s experience will be different.

When a survivor becomes hyper-sexual, many chose to further discredit and victim blame victims by suggesting they couldn’t have been abused or raped, and say hurtful comments like “they would be having trouble if it was really bad and they had been raped”, or they can be negatively labelled as promiscuous with derogatory terms aimed towards them (such as slut shamed)..

Matt Atkinson (2010), in his book ‘Resurrection after rape’, talks about sexualised grieving and that hyper-sexuality after abuse is about grief.

It is important that clients realise that their sexual actions are not the result of faulty morals, their worth as a person or badness. It is important that they don’t label themselves negatively, and that this belief is challenged and the clients are helped into understanding the effects of abuse and the impacts.

Their sexual actions are a result of their inner pain, and it is their inner hurt, not their personal worth, that is driving the cycle. These actions are a sign of despair that cannot be expressed in words and can only be brought to life through certain behaviours. Actions are seen as a way to meet a need and if we take the time to understand the needs we can then uncover the pain and hurts that is buried underneath these behaviours.

For survivors, sex may have lost its value and they may be trying to gain a false sense of control from feeling helpless and afraid. They may believe giving means they will not be hurt again. Many are reconnecting to the meaningless and humiliation of the abuse through meaningless and humiliating sex in an effort to give their grief an opportunity to finally be expressed and emerge. Therefore, Atkinson states that “sexual grieving is an attempt by a rape or sexual abuse survivor to grieve their brokenness through the desperate effort to reconnect their body and emotions”.

Survivors will become hyper-sexual for many reasons. Some of these may include:

Expectations: The belief that everyone wants sex or expects it. Some survivors can come to believe that sex was the reason they were harmed. They may feel that sexual violence is inevitable, also because rapists believe that if people can get away with rape, then most will and this may be communicated to the victim, along with the fact that women (in particular) are from a young age warned about sexual violence and conditioned to fear this happening or expected to have to ‘protect’ themselves from rape with the issue even being seen as ‘women’s issues’. Many have been sexually harassed at one point in their lives. When someone is raped, it may make being raped again more of a possibility than ever before.

Punishment: Survivors often may come to believe and feel that they are bad or that they deserved it or told this and so they may use sex as a punishment, believing they are so bad and deserve to be harmed. Sex is used as a way to self- injure.

Control: Rape or sexual abuse of any kind, takes away someone’s control and choices. Survivors may become hyper-sexual as a way to regain back a sense of lost control, to take their power back. It’s a way to control the process of sex  itself even when meaningless and harmful. It’s to regain control over that sense of powerlessness and helplessness felt during the traumatic event. The survivor is now trying to gain control over the situation, choices and over their bodies and others. Survivors may feel “If I let them do it, it’s okay! (false sense of control).

It can be an attempt to prove they ‘are not a victim’ of their trauma or not affected. A way to prove that if they can go through the act of sex, have it, get through it that they are okay, they can still function, their abilities and sexuality hasn’t been robbed. Some don’t enjoy the sexual encounters or experiences they have even if they pretend or act like they do.

Addiction: Some become addicted and like all addictions it’s trying to fill a void, or numb the pain. They feel compelled towards it and something that is out of their control just like abuse taught them sex was an uncontrollable urge, rather than desired.

Sexual orientation: For men raped or sexually abused by other men, this may lead them to question their sexual orientation and feel conflicted,  so they may become hyper sexual as a way to prove their sexual orientation.

Low self worth: Sex might be for survivors especially those abused as children, all they have known that gives them worth. It can be the only way they have learned to received affection, attention, ‘love’ or have other needs met so sex becomes a way to meet unmet needs.

The brain is trying to understand the trauma, redo it differently or undo it.

The other side of the coin is sexual anorexia termed by Dr. Patrick Carnes to describe the denial or repulsion of sexual appetite. He identifies the following traits in sexual anorexia:

  • A dread of sexual pleasure
  • A morbid and persistent fear of sexual contact
  • Obsession and hyper vigilance around sexual matters
  • Avoidance of anything connected to sex
  • Preoccupation with others being sexual
  • Distortions of body appearance, real or imagined
  • Extreme loathing of bodily functions
  • Obsessive self doubts about sexual adequacy
  • Obsessive worry or concern about the sexual intentions of others
  • Shame and self loathing over sexual experiences
  • Depression about sexual adequacy and functioning
  • Intimacy avoidance because of sexual fear.

Both hyper-sexuality and sexual anorexia are two sides of the same coin. Sexual anorexia is also a surviving tool but it also keeps the client stuck in their pain. It minimises the real role the trauma created in the victims sexual life. It can wrongly persuade individuals to believe that they just don’t want or like sex altogether, or it’s due to timidity, fragility or sense of weakness.

Survivors can also develop sexual dysfunctions as a result of rape; all these are normal reactions just like the result of hearing loss after an explosion that hits us.

It is also important that we realise that sexual trauma isn’t limited to acts of rapes, but any unwanted sexual encounter, coerced sex, sleazy mockery, sexual harassment and deliberate exposure, exposure to pornography as child, or physical trauma to body that makes you feel it’s unattractive. We can even feel traumatised when we have given consent to sexual behaviour and yet felt traumatised without understanding why.

Atkinson talks about women he has counselled who report consensual sexual experiences that have left them feeling ashamed or degraded, including losing their virginity in ways that were seen as distressing or traumatic, these can include being ignored or left after sex after thinking they had a relationship. It is not okay for a partner to sexually abuse another, it doesn’t make it okay because you would have sex with them on another day or you find them attractive or consented in past, or wanting sex but not in way offered or given. You need to feel ready, not pressured or forced and consent means only in the way you have consented with care and respect.

Lundy Bancroft states: “Exploitive, rough, uncaring sex is similar to physical violence in its effects, and can be worse in many ways”.

Atkinson states that these episodes are then programmed into our brains to define sex and an encounter that is seen as shameful and overpowering. This then not only changes and affects our beliefs about sex but our very own brain structures. This means that when we approach a similar situation, our brain fires in similar ways as when we first experienced sex as a trauma.

It is important to realise that boys also do get sexually abused and raped by female and male perpetrators and for most survivors (both male and females) the perpetrator is mostly always someone known and trusted such as a family member, friend, partner, boss, teacher, babysitter…and very rarely is it a stranger.

Recovery and healing is possible, and as counsellors we must be aware of these conflicts and behaviours and have an understanding of the complex ways that sexual abuse/violence can impact on survivors and the struggles they may be experiencing. It is important that we help clients in their healing journey and recognise the many forms in which their pain is expressed, and how that pain may be unresolved and stuck.

For more information on sexual violence/abuse and domestic violence and abuse, check out my eBook

Shattering the myths of abuse: Validating the pain; Changing the culture –https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shattering-Myths-Abuse-Validating-Changing-ebook/dp/B07PSCF9B5


References: ‘Resurrection after Rape – A guide to transforming from victim to survivor’, 2nd Edition, Matt Atkinson (2010), RAR Publishing.

‘Sexual anorexia – Overcoming Sexual self hatred’, PhD. Patrick Carnes, 1997

Other useful reading: 

The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Malta

Online resources:

Sex after rape or assault – what to expect from your mate:  https://bluegypsy.tripod.com/physical.html

Guilt and Shame Resulting from Sexual Abuse: https://www.angelfire.com/super2/p_bhaskar/guilt.html

Copywrite: Antonella Zottola

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