Intimacy After Abuse: Pleasure Without Shame
Recently, a friend of mine and a fellow abuse survivor has begun to be more open about her experiences. Her bravery and strength in being vulnerable, even in the face of potential judgment and shaming, is inspiring. I find myself holding my breath for her, though, silently praying that she will not be shamed for letting herself be seen. But it seems to always happen eventually. Someone who thinks they know the heart of the wounded sees fit to judge abuse survivors for choices they themselves would not have made, and they effectively push these brave, fragile souls further from healing. It infuriates me to watch it happen, and it's the inspiration for this post on intimacy after abuse. We desperately need more understanding and less judgment. Expecting survivors of abuse to behave as though they have not been abused is not empowering, it's discouraging, and whether or not this form of caring comes from a well intentioned place, it feels like cruelty.
The rest of this post is not based on my friend's experiences and I'm not speaking for her. This is based on my own experiences, but I hope it will be helpful in increasing understanding and awareness, and perhaps in connecting with others who feel similarly.
Abuse and body shame often go hand in hand. I have spent my adult life re-claiming my body -- learning how to honor the beauty and majesty that is a woman's body, and trying to shed the mindset of shame associated with intimacy and pleasure. Learning to value my body and to feel worthy of experiencing bodily pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, has been a doozy of a project.
The abuse I experienced as a young teen started shortly after I'd gotten my period for the first time. This meant I had very little time to get to know my "new" body, the one quickly morphing into a more womanly one, before he began dishonoring it and claiming it for his own. Abuse muddled pleasure and agony in my mind. My abuser used the way my body was naturally shaped to justify his lust and lack of self restraint. He made sure I believed that my body was largely to blame for his sin, and by the time the abuse was over my body had become my enemy. When I looked in the mirror I saw something disharmonious and hideous, something that made men do terrible things, and I hated it.
Disconnecting from the idea that my body was meant to be used by other people was a formidable challenge. Consent was a totally foreign thing to me, and this, coupled with my extremely low self esteem, was the primary reason I went on to be in consecutive sexually abusive relationships. I knew one thing for certain: above all, men wanted sex and I was good for that. Even when I dated men who focused on pleasuring me, I felt that I was obligated to let them pleasure me, whether or not I actually wanted it. I had no idea how to voice what I did or didn't want and I had perfected faking pleasure in sexually uncomfortable situations. What a mess!
The truth is, I needed my voice to be the loudest one when it came to my sex life. I needed to be the only one at the wheel where my body was concerned and I'd never known what that looked like because I'd never been with anyone who truly valued my sexual opinion over their own. Another truth is that I've just recently, in the last two or three years of my life, been able to more fully grasp what it means to be in control of my body and to speak up about my sexual desires and comforts. It's been freeing, to say the least. (And perhaps that gives a little perspective into what the timeline of healing can look like for survivors of abuse; after nearly ten years of marriage to the kindest, most respectful man imaginable, I'm still getting my feet under me where sex is concerned. We could all do well to practice more grace and understand that healing can take a very long time.)
Sex used to mean something very different to me than it does now. It used to be something men had a right to do to me. Now I understand that sexual intimacy is a sacred union between two people. To be done healthily it requires communication, consent before, during, and after, and the understanding that it's a mind-body-soul connection, not just something people do with their bodies. It also used to be something I didn't have a say in, something that automatically complicated relationships and injected anxiety into my life. Now I know I'm allowed to say no and that my voice deserves to be heard and respected, and that if at any time I feel that my voice has not been honored, I can bring that up! When my husband and I first started talking more openly with each other about intimacy, it felt awkward and uncomfortable -- sex was something you did, not something you talked about. But learning how to communicate about sex proved invaluable in dismantling old, unhealthy mindsets and working toward a healthy sex life, and it also helped me begin to shed some of the shame associated with experiencing pleasure -- I'm allowed to feel good, and I'm allowed to talk about what feels good for me.
One of the biggest differences between a healthy sexual relationship and an unhealthy one, for us anyway, is the idea of mutual pleasure. It makes my husband feel good to know that I am feeling good, and that's really relevant for me. In the past, it hasn't mattered if I felt good or not, I was simply a means to an end. It's so freeing to know that my husband is turned on when I'm experiencing pleasure, and it's been really healing for me to be validated in that way.
When someone is abused, they are told over and over again that they don't matter. Their voice, their desires, their personhood, their comfort, their future...none of it matters. So much of healing is about re-claiming those parts of ourselves, and that is not an easy process. The road to healing after abuse is marred with potholes and hurdles. It's not smooth and it doesn't always fit into what people think healing should look like. It's messy. It hurts. It will inevitably take some unexpected turns and some of those turns might be totally life altering. There's no right way to heal. Some survivors prefer privacy and feel safest confiding in only one or two close loved ones. Others find solace in having their voices more widely heard, even at the risk of being shamed. It's so important that we put aside our rigid perceptions of what the human experience is supposed to look like and learn to embrace compassion, openness, and love. I'm not asking you to lower the bar, I'm asking you to raise it.
I look forward to continuing this series on intimacy after abuse. There's much more to say about it. If you have suggestions for discussion, experiences you'd like to share with me, or thoughts on the matter in general, I would truly love to hear from you. You can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org