Adverse Childhood Experiences
Taking the Shame Out of Your Sexual Relationships
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Posted March 24, 2023 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Sexual problems that former victims of sexual abuse experience may include sexual aversion or promiscuity.
- Realizing that many former victims of child sexual abuse suffer similar sexual issues as adults can help survivors feel less alone.
- Survivors of sexual abuse may cope in passive ways, like choosing an abusive partner, or in aggressive ways, like being abusive themselves.
It should come as no surprise that former victims of child sexual abuse often suffer from a tremendous amount of sexual shame. When your first experiences of sex are characterized by shame, secretiveness, exploitation, control, and manipulation, it is not difficult to understand how shame can permeate your sexual experiences from that time forward.
Child sexual abuse (CSA), more than any other factor, can literally shape a survivor’s sexual personality. For many former victims, it can be almost impossible to engage in sexual activities without subjecting themselves to shame. For others, shame occurs due to the choices they make and the circumstances surrounding their current sexual experiences. Many former victims experience shame because they suffer from sexual dysfunction, such as an inability to achieve orgasm or painful intercourse in women, or erectile dysfunction or premature or delayed ejaculation in men. And many former victims are very restricted when it comes to where they can be touched, how they want to be touched, and what kinds of sexual acts they can tolerate. To make matters worse, some former victims suffer from destructive sexual obsessions and fantasies that cause them to feel enormous shame.
In this post, we will focus on helping former victims of CSA identify the sexual issues they may experience due to the abuse. In the next post, I will offer active steps they can take in order to minimize or eliminate many of the sexual behaviors that continue to bring shame into their life.
If you are a former victim of CSA you will be encouraged to be understanding and forgiving of the ways you have come to view sex, even when these ways are problematic. The ultimate goal is to help you take the shame out of sex as much as possible.
Sexual problems that former CSA victims may experience
Let’s begin by identifying the various sexual problems former victims experience. All of these sexual problems can cause former victims to feel a great deal of shame. Put a checkmark next to each item that applies to you.
- Lack of sexual desire
- Sexual aversion
- Inability to enjoy sex or to have an orgasm
- Sexual dysfunctions, such as painful intercourse
- An inability to enjoy certain types of sex (can’t be penetrated but can engage in oral sex, can’t be fondled but can be penetrated, can’t be touched on certain parts of the body)
- Anger and disgust at any public (or media) display of affection, sexuality, nudity, or partial nudity
- Promiscuity, continuing to be a sexual object
- A pattern of sexual re-victimization
- Gynecological issues, including menstrual irregularities and severe menstrual cramps, pelvic and genital pain, external and internal scarring as a consequence of the abuse, chronic yeast infections or sexually transmitted diseases from the abuse as well as frequent urinary tract infections
- Problems with sexual identity (questioning whether you are gay, straight, or bisexual)
- Attraction to “illicit” sexual activities such as pornography and prostitution
- Sexual manipulation, including using seductiveness or other forms of sexual manipulation to get what you want in your marital, social, or business relationships
- Sexualizing all relationships (which can cause victims to become sexual victimizers)
- Sexual addiction
- Pornography addiction
- Attraction to kinky or public sex
If you identify with a certain item or items on the above list, you probably feel a great deal of shame about it. One way of countering this is to tell yourself that it is understandable that you would suffer from these issues since they are all common reactions to having been sexually abused. Telling yourself that it is understandable is your first step toward practicing self-compassion, which is the antidote to shame.
Recognizing that all these symptoms are typical of sexual abuse survivors can also help. Realizing that you are not alone since many former victims of CSA suffer from these same sexual issues as a result of having been sexually abused can help you to feel less alone. (For more detailed information on the connection between each of the above sexual issues and child sexual abuse, refer to my book: Freedom At Last: Healing the Shame of Child Sexual Abuse).
Other behaviors that can result from CSA include:
- An inability to initiate sex
- An inability to say no to sex
- A tendency to fake sexual enjoyment
- Having sex when you really don’t want to
- Feeling you have no physical boundaries when it comes to sex
- Needing to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs to enjoy sex
- Allowing sex to be forced on you
- Having sex while half-asleep
- Being confused as to what is appropriate and inappropriate touch in dating
- Using sex to feel better when you're down
- Using sexual fantasies that are re-enactments of the sexual abuse
While not all of the above behaviors are caused solely as a result of CSA, often they are. What is most important to understand is that any or all of the above sexual problems and issues can elicit shame in someone. Our sexuality is an extremely fragile aspect of ourselves and one which can cause us to feel enormously vulnerable. Many people rely on their sexuality to gain attention, approval, and love. If they can’t perform the way they would like to, they also feel “less than,” and this can affect their self-esteem and self-image.
Many of the above behaviors would be considered “passive behavior.” Passive behavior is continuing to view sex from a victim’s perspective and therefore can become a re-enactment of the abuse. Behaving in any of these ways causes you to feel ashamed of yourself and to continue to lose respect for yourself. Even more troubling, behaving in these passive ways is often re-traumatizing.
Examples of passive behavior can include:
- Not being able to say no to someone who comes on to you or to getting involved with sexual activities that you are not interested in or are even repulsed by.
- Allowing someone to pressure you into sex or demand sex of you.
- Being involved with domineering/abusive partners.
- Being involved with shame-inducing behaviors—sexual activities that cause you to feel deep shame during or after sex. Examples: someone humiliating you sexually or saying derogatory things to you during or after sex.
- Practicing risky behaviors such as drinking too much or taking drugs at bars or parties, especially when out alone or where you don’t know anyone. This includes not watching your drink or leaving your drink to go to the restroom and not insisting that a man where a condom.
Not all survivors of CSA exhibit passive behavior in reaction to the abuse. Some identified with the aggressor or hid their shame behind a wall of arrogance or bravado. This can cause them to recreate the abuse by being aggressive sexually. This can include:
- Being sexually inappropriate (standing too close to a stranger, touching a stranger in an intimate way [hand on their leg, hip, back, behind].
- Being sexually coercive or demanding.
- Humiliating and degrading your sexual partners.
- Being emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive toward your partner.
It is crucial that you make the all-important connection between your passive or aggressive sexual behavior and the fact that you were sexually abused as a child or teen.
Engel, Beverly. (2022). Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Guildford, CONN: Prometheus Books