How do I approach sex with my partner when they have been sexually abused?

 MY NAME IS SARAH LEE AND I'M A PSYCHOTHERAPIST WORKING IN MANCHESTER CITY CENTRE IN THE UK AND ON SKYPE. 

 
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I'm Sarah Lee, a UKCP registered psychotherapist. I work in Manchester City Centre helping people suffering from depression, anxiety and low self esteem. I have a special interest in working with clients with depression and survivors of long term abuse. If you're further afield you can work with me on Skype. If you have any questions, you can call me on 07853490358 or send me a message.

If your partner has been sexually abused or assaulted, you may not know how to approach sex with them. If they are struggling with sex or having other symptoms such as depression, guilt or panic attacks you can encourage them to speak with a psychotherapist who has experience in working with survivors of sexual assault. It is important to note that even though you may feel that they should speak to a professional, that they might not be ready to do so. Encouragement should be done respectfully which means that you might need to accept that they are not ready to discuss what happened to them.

So what should you do? What should you avoid? Are there things that you can do to make them feel comfortable around you and helps them to feel more safe?  

As a rule, you shouldn’t ask people to recount their abusive experiences in detail because they can become retraumatised (this might result in them feeling very upset, having anxiety or a panic attack or a flashback for example). If your partner chooses to tell you about what happened to them, that is their choice but don’t ask intrusive questions e.g. what did he/she do to you? Where did they touch you? Were you raped? Even the word rape can be triggering for some people. It is normally better to listen in such circumstances.

People who have been sexually abused are often very ashamed so may be telling you what happened in an effort to rid themselves of the bad feelings that they mistakenly carry. They are saying ‘I am flawed’ (which isn’t true, but is how they feel). So by telling you all the details of the abuse what they are really trying to say is ‘look at all the bad things I let happen and the bad things I did (this is also not true but may be how they feel), do you still love me?’ So when someone tries to give you a lot of details but then gets very upset trying to do so I would simply say something like ‘you don’t need to tell me what happened. I know it wasn’t your fault. It doesn’t change how I feel about you.’

I would also recommend that you talk to them about what feels ok for them and what doesn’t (being mindful that you don’t ask for details as above). So you could say ‘Are there any areas that you don’t want me to touch’ or ‘is there anything you don’t want me to do’. Depending on their reaction to the abuse, they may not be ready for sex but may be able to tolerate other sexual acts. You would need to check what they are ok with.

People can be retriggered by any of their senses. So be aware that your partner may be retriggered by your words, a certain smell, noises, textures, a particular feeling, tastes. They may not be able to tolerate certain positions for example. It may be difficult for them if they cannot see your face or you wear a certain aftershave or perfume that reminds them of the abuse. It may be different each time.

When someone is being retriggered, they will often go very still. They may look like they ‘are somewhere else’ or have a glazed look about them. They may not be able to talk. You will need to be attentive because they may not be able to tell you verbally when something is triggering them. If in doubt, stop. You could suggest beforehand that they raise their dominant hand if they are uncomfortable with what is happening so you know to stop. This is sometimes done in therapy because many people lose the ability to speak when traumatised.

You will need to be prepared to stop halfway through if they cannot continue. If this causes you problems or you feel angry about this you will need to deal with this yourself. It may also be beneficial for you to get support. If you are angry about what happened to them, showing your anger might be very frightening for them. You may need to keep it in check and let it out in some other way (e.g. screaming when you are on your own, hitting a punchbag, ripping up paper, writing an letter to their abuser that you don't send).

Some people who have been sexually abused have sex with their partners to ‘keep them happy’. This is something to consider. Do they seem like they are enjoying themselves or are they very still? Stillness, could be an indication of trauma. If you are doing something and they seems to have ‘gone’ you can stop, remind them that they are safe and that you’re here. You could also repeat who you are for example: ‘it’s me (your name), you are safe’.

Lastly, specific requests for sexual acts or situations can sometimes be a reenactment of trauma that is harmful for the person. They may request something that later leaves them feeling bad or traumatised in a mistaken effort to work through what they have experienced. This is not always the case and I have read and heard of people feeling empowered by reclaiming acts or situations. It depends on the individual. This can also be worked on in therapy.

Not everybody will need this much consideration. Your partner may not need these things, or may only need safety measures on some occasions but not others. Everybody responds differently and open communication should be able to help establish what is required. If you are stuck at any point with this, you may require further help from a professional to work out what is going on.

TO ARRANGE A FREE 20 MINUTE PHONE CONSULTATION TO FIND OUT HOW I CAN HELP, PLEASE CALL 07853490358 OR CONTACT ME HERE

 
Sarah Lee