Rebuilding your sexual self after sexual abuse
This blog was published with SurvivorsUK, a rape & sexual abuse charity for men, boys, Trans & non binary people. Link below for more info!
audio version of the blog
Society is good at talking about sex. The trouble is, it’s good at talking about it in ways that
are defended, untrue, shaming, fictionalised or for comedic value. Authentic conversations
about sex are complex. When sexual abuse is added to that conversation, it becomes even
more difficult. This difficulty creates a culture of shame that leaves many survivors of sexual
abuse silenced and without a space to communicate their experiences. It can prevent re-
building a sense of self as a sexual being.
Depending on the age sexual abuse happens, a person’s sense of themselves as a sexual
being can be impacted differently. It is important to note that this difference is not
hierarchical. One experience is not better or worse than the other. Nor is there a
homogeneous way to sum up each individual’s experience and emotions. However, there
are common challenges that many survivors experience but rarely feel able to share with
others. This can lead to traumatic loneliness - where the repercussions of trauma leave
people isolated, stigmatised, and alone.
Developmental impacts of sexual abuse
For some, when sexual abuse happens before an emergent sexuality, in prepubescence,
sexual abuse can be confusing in terms of their current stage of sexual development. Their
emergent sexuality is impacted from the very beginning. This can be extremely difficult
because they don’t know what their sexual identity would have been or how it would have
grown without the experience of abuse.
For some people, sexual abuse happens when a person’s sense of sexuality emerges in
puberty. This is a delicate time in the development of a person’s psyche and sexual identity.
Abuse can trample over it, not allowing sexuality to develop appropriately and in its own
Abuse can also happen when a person has developed a more secure sense of sexuality
during adulthood. This abuse can shatter a secure sexuality and a sense of safety in the
world more broadly.
Some abuse would have happened across several ages. That abuse can come from one or
multiple different perpetrators. In these cases, sexual abuse is rarely experienced in a
vacuum. Often other abuses have been present; physical, emotional, or neglect.
A person’s sense of self as a sexual being is a vibrant and delicate part of their identity. It is
almost always impacted negatively by sexual abuse. What that impact looks like can vary. In
fact, the result of abuse can appear to be complete opposites in different people. Despite
this, it is often the case that these opposite behaviours and feelings are rooted in similar
experiences of abuse.
For some, sex can become compulsive. This sex doesn’t necessarily feel fulfilling and can be
void of intimacy. It can mean that people compromise themselves and engage in different
types of sex they might not have wanted to have. For others, it can go in the other direction,
sex is complicated, and their sense of self as a sexual being with sexual desire is something
they feel completely disconnected from.
For some, it can be challenging to disconnect themselves as sexual beings from the abuse.
Their experience of abuse gets intertwined with their sexuality and sense of sexual self. For
others, it can impact some big fundamentals of their sexual identities. They can question
whether the gender they are attracted to or particular kinks or BDSM they enjoy are due to
the abuse. (Research tells us that a history of sexual abuse does not affect your sexuality.)
The impact of sexual abuse on a person’s sexual self can be huge and can take a tremendous
amount of energy to come to terms with. This can become even more complicated when
negotiating external sexual factors, like pornography, masturbation, or sexual partners.
Partners often bring their own thoughts, feelings, and sense of self as sexual beings that can
create challenges. Likewise, a person’s relationship with pornography or masturbation can
be complex or even shaming.
Seeking therapy can help, but it is not free from difficulties. Not all therapists will have
experience working with sexual trauma or sexual identities. In some cases, an inexperienced
therapist can do more damage than good. For those that do not live heteronormative
lifestyles, finding a therapist that understands queer culture is a challenge. Those who
include kink and BDSM in their identity (or even those just curious about it) can often find
the psychological world judging or pathologizing with their desires and sexual self. Early
psychoanalysis made assumptions that engaging in BDSM meant a link to surviving
childhood abuse. A 2008 in Australia found zero evidence for this*.
Often, survivors report that ‘finding their tribe’ can be one of the most healing experiences.
Survivor support groups can prove to be a community of people with similar experiences.
Being open about sex and oneself as a sexual being can restore identities, reduce shame,
and combat the isolation of sexual abuse. The power of being with people who ‘just get it’
can be life-changing. Many of these groups meet in person, but some are also online if that
feels too much (or not practical.) For example, I run online groups for men, boys, and
Trans/non-binary people who have survived sexual violence.
While the impacts of sexual abuse and trauma may never disappear, they can be integrated.
By sharing stories, exploring who we authentically are as sexual beings and learning from
other people’s journeys, we can learn to turn the volume of pain down and create space for
celebrating the sexual side to our identities in whichever way feels authentic to us.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse and are wondering what to do next, the charity
SurvivorsUK have created a national database of professionals and organisations who have
undergone training in the area of sexual trauma. To find a service, use their postcode search
to find support near you: https://www.survivorsuk.org/ways-we-can-help/national-
*Early psychoanalysis made assumptions that engaging in BDSM meant a link to surviving
childhood abuse. A 2008 in Australia found zero evidence for this. However, many of my
patients engage in BDSM and have experienced childhood sexual trauma. This can bring up a lot of emotions, and stigma from the psychological world does not help. Finding a kink
friendly therpist can help unpack these challenges in a de-stigmatising, sex positive way.
Blog first published with SurvivorsUK.