Factoring in Defenses is Key to Effective Sex Therapy for Abuse Survivors
When women have experienced sexual abuse, sexual desire may cause pain instead of pleasure. So it’s natural to develop rigid defenses to keep from being hurt. Over my years of doing sex therapy with abuse survivors, I’ve learned how infinitely resourceful women can be in keeping desire at bay. These women have been my teachers. Through them I have learned that abuse survivors can reconnect with a whole new world of sexual feeling.
Some of us develop the fine art of sexual gatekeeping so we can stop the flow of feeling before it overwhelms us, or even touches us. We stuff ourselves with food. We use alcohol to mimic warmth and comfort. We use sugar and caffeine to mimic heart-racing excitement. We watch sitcoms and reality shows to mimic human relationship. We watch reality shows to mimic our basic instincts for survival. We spend hours at the gym, plodding out our frustrations on the treadmill. We shop. An inveterate shopper describes how she substitutes “retail therapy” for the emptiness that occurs when she can’t feel good feelings about sex:
I think most of us probably spend tons of energy shutting out pleasure—feelings of connectedness to our world and others. Then spend lots of money trying to get well, feel better, make sense of our lives.
Another form of defense is to turn off the switches to all our sexual feelings so we can bypass wanting sexual pleasure. Here’s how an emergency room nurse says denial allowed her to survive her marital past—as she deliberately, perhaps permanently, shelved her sexual feelings well into her sixties.
I had a bad marriage. I do have desire but never had anyone to fulfill me. There are many people in this world who never have sex and are happy and content. I’m sure it must be nice, but sex is not a must for a nice life.
Denial may have separated this woman from a history she’d rather forget. But it didn’t help her move along the path to sexual partnership. Her story is an example of how we can swallow societal messages whole and believe we’re destined to a life of marginal libido.
Denial can wreak havoc with sexual desire no matter what kind of relationship you choose. A social worker from Cedar Rapids, Iowa displays the other side of denial. She says she found herself craving extraordinary sexual risks—just in order to feel something. She put herself in dangerous settings with dangerous partners—unprotected sex with potentially abusive and emotionally unavailable men and women.
The most fulfilling sexual experiences of my life were several ménages-à -trois situations I was involved in with two men, going to swingers clubs where I could fulfill my danger fantasies and engage in sex with women, but not feel like I was cheating on my partner.
The quality of her sexual play is different from polyamorous situations described by some women, where all the partners agree to communicate about the sexual interactions and ensure that they’re safe and above board.
Some women protect themselves by developing a suit of armor against all good feelings. Body armor so we can’t move fluidly. Emotional armor so nothing can reach our hearts. Mental armor so our thoughts and fantasies stay straight and narrow. Spiritual armor, which separates us from our deepest longings. All this self-imposed armor keeps others out, but it traps us inside as well. Some women have worn it so long that it functions like a second skin.
Our personal armor protects you from much more than pain, of course. It also protects us from fully feeling pleasure. It gives us the kind of self-control that makes us saints—or a heros. But it doesn’t serve us well if we’re trying to relate intimately with our partners and bring desire back into our lives. Especially if our partners have on full suits of armor, too.
Some women literally dissociate. When I say dissociate, I don’t necessarily mean a pathological state that warrants the kind of diagnostic label that brands you forever. For instance, one of my client couples presented me with a fascinating and moving opportunity to put ISIS work into practice. Their presenting problem was that she was terrified of sex—so terrified that she had locked herself in a closet on her wedding night. And they both acknowledged that it wasn’t her husband she was afraid of.
This woman was once a fashion model—very beautiful in a conventional sense, but with little ability to set boundaries. She had a history of multiple rapes as a young woman, and a memory from age four of her stepfather locking her in an attic where she was swarmed by wasps. The process of therapy was about helping her literally come out of the closet—with the help of her extremely supportive husband. Especially effective here was a series of visualizations I adapted from my training in Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), which helped her remove herself from her terror, and control the degrees of distance from which she could view events in her past in safety.
For instance, I asked her (in her visualization) to see herself sitting in a comfortable chair. We worked—together with her husband—to help her feel her body in that chair—safe and protected. This was engaging her in the physical part of the ISIS Wheel.
Then I asked her to watch the person in the chair (that is, herself) looking through a window—which had a shade she could control by pulling it up or down. On the other side of the window was a movie screen—on which she could project still slides (and ultimately moving pictures) of events in her past that had terrified her. This was engaging her in the mental part of the ISIS Wheel—where she could make the decisions about what she wanted to see and know.
Little by little she was able to raise the window shade and watch moving pictures of the parts of her past she needed to explore. Little by little she began to feel control over her memories as they revealed themselves—and they were often more hideous than she—or we—had imagined they might be. But now they were no longer locked away in her psyche, tormenting her. And by now she trusted that she had the ability to pull down the shade and retreat to the safety of her chair whenever she needed—with support and with love.
The outcome of this work was that she was finally able to move to the emotional and spiritual aspects of the ISIS Wheel with these memories, to feel what she needed to feel of them, to ascribe meaning to them for her life now, and to move on. All of this represented some four years of work together, and ultimately a sexual relationship for this couple, whose trust in one another has inspired me ever since.