Reader Question: What Can I Do if I Check Out During Sex Due to Childhood Sexual Abuse?

Reader Question:

Dear Dr. Jennifer,

I found out about your website after reading No More Christian Nice Girl. I just married a couple of months ago. I have a background of childhood sexual abuse and find initiating or even wanting sex incredibly difficult. Before I got married I spent a few years in counseling with a wonderful Christian therapist working on the issues that stemmed from my abuse, and I truly feel I have recovered from my past and reclaimed everything that the devil tried to steal from me, except for sex. I wish I wanted to have sex and I wish I enjoyed it, but if truth be told…sex scares me and makes me feel dirty. I don’t want my husband to feel like I’m rejecting him and/or don’t love him and I certainly don’t want him to look elsewhere to have his legitimate needs for sex met. For the last couple of months I’ve just been going along and letting him do whatever he wants and pretending I enjoyed it, but really I just check out and go somewhere else in my head until he’s finished. I realize that is “nice girl” behavior and will more than likely cause problems later on, so I want to work on this problem before it causes trouble in our marriage, but I don’t know what else to do. What are some things I could do to try and enjoy sex and not feel so afraid of it?
Sincerely,
A Newlywed Wife

Dear Newlywed Wife,

Good for you for working with a therapist to recover from your past abuse! I admire you for dedicating time, energy, and finances to your recovery process. You described a common reaction that sexual abuse survivors have to sex: “Sex scares me and makes me feel dirty” and also checking out and going “somewhere else in my head until he’s finished.” Here are some things for you to consider:

First, in order to survive sexual abuse, you probably had to check out and go somewhere else in your head while you were being abused. The technical term for this is dissociation, a coping mechanism used to protect ourselves from trauma we cannot escape. Dissociation temporarily disconnects your mind from your body so that you won’t be fully aware of what is being done to your body.

You, like many abuse survivors, are finding that the dissociation continues even though the abuse has stopped, and it is robbing you of a great sex life. In order to enjoy sex with your husband, you have to be connected to your body—feeling, enjoying, and encouraging both his touch and your own body’s sexual response. Sexual abuse trains us to not feel, enjoy, or encourage healthy sexual touch or our body’s natural responsiveness to sexual stimulation.

You can retrain yourself to stay connected to your body during sex, but be patient with yourself because it takes a lot of practice. Please talk to your husband about the challenges you face during sex. He will be an important partner in this process. He probably won’t understand everything you tell him at first, particularly if he hasn’t been sexually abused. He could educate himself by reading The Right to Innocence by Beverly Engel.

Write down what sex is like for you. In particular, note the specific things that trigger dissociation. For example, do you begin to check out as soon as your husband mentions sex? Or is it when he first touches you or later when you are undressed? Think about the settings in which your abuse occurred. If you were abused in a bedroom, then that setting may be particularly difficult for you. If you were abused in the dark, then darkness may trigger dissociation. Certain body postures may trigger you, such as laying down or if your husband is over you. Be a detective and gather as many facts as you can related to how you respond in a sexual situation.

Once you have gathered this information, devise a plan with your husband to gradually increase your tolerance for sexual experiences. Let’s say you can stay connected to your body right now for 30 seconds before the checking out happens. See what you can do to stay connected for 60 seconds. Perhaps it would help for you to leave all the lights on, or to have sex in a room other than the bedroom, or to have your husband underneath you in an embrace, or to leave your clothes on for longer periods of time.

Ahead of time, arrange a code word or signal that you can give your husband to let him know that you are beginning to check out. Often you are moving into a much younger state of mind when the checking out happens (typically it’s however old you were when abused). To combat this, he can help you do something dramatic and different to get you right back into your adult body and feeling comfortably in control, such as jumping up and down on the bed or dancing around. I know that sounds silly and childlike, but it can really help. Genuine laughter pushes fear away. While you are jumping up and down or dancing around with your husband (yes, he needs to jump too, but don’t break the bed!), speak truth aloud to yourself, such as “I am a grown married woman. God wants me to enjoy sex. Sex is good and of God. I will not surrender my future sexuality to the Enemy, etc.”

Schedule practice times with your husband where there is no expectation that you will actually end up having sex. The purpose of the practice sessions is to lengthen the amount of time you can stay connected to your body, and to increase your comfort with sexual touch and your body’s responsiveness. A good Christian resource to read is Restoring the Pleasure: Complete Step-by-Step Programs to Help Couples Overcome the Most Common Sexual Barriers by Clifford and Joyce Penner.

Since you already have my book, No More Christian Nice Girl, read the sex chapter again and begin to retrain your mind to see sex as God does. Print out the list of truths below from the chapter, and speak that truth often to yourself when the Enemy begins to whisper “Sex is dirty and so are you if your body responds to his touch.”

God’s Truth About Sex
from No More Christian Nice Girl

God’s Good Women learn how to enjoy sex. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine. . . . Take me away with you—let us hurry!” (Song of Songs 1:2, 4).

My husband, like most husbands, is captivated by my naked body, no matter my age or weight. “My darling, I am yours, and you desire me. . . . Just looking at me brings him great pleasure” (Song of Songs 7:10; 8:10 CEV).

Making love to my husband is really no trouble. Sex makes a man feel loved. “My bride, you have thrilled my heart…with a glance of your eyes…your love is so sweet.…My desire for you made me feel like a prince in a chariot.” (Song of Songs 4:9-10, 6:12 NCV).

My husband will appreciate and respect me for directly asking for what I want in bed. “Show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Song of Songs 2:14).

My husband is my best friend. “His mouth is sweet to kiss, and I desire him very much. Yes,…this is my lover and my friend” (Song of Songs 5:16 NCV).

My husband and I can fix any sexual problems we have by working together. “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (Song of Songs 2:15).

I can give myself to my husband without reservation, with mind, heart, and body. “I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies” (Song of Songs 6:3).

• God is pleased when my husband and I enjoy one another sexually. “We rejoice and delight in you; we will praise your love more than wine. . . . Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers” (Song of Songs 1:4; 5:1).

Above all, don’t give up. Don’t quit and just fake it and check out the rest of your married sex life. God and all the forces of Heaven are on your side in this battle. You can reclaim everything that the Enemy has taken, including sex.

Blessings,
Jennifer Degler, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist and Life Coach
CWIVES Founder

Comments 2

  1. klas
    October 20, 2010

    Not that I am a professional expert by any means, and I only have one small incident with sexual abuse, but having been promiscuous in college and conditioned to see sex as dirty by my mother, I can share how I managed to win that 25+ year battle. I had MAJOR issues with feeling ‘dirty’ for many many years. Recently, I did a study and read a commentary on the Song of Solomon and read some really good books (The Act of Marriage by Tim and Beverly LaHaye and Intended for Pleasure by Ed Wheat were extremely eye opening). These resources helped me see sex very differently and from God’s perspective, as the One invented it and His purpose for it. Previously, sex was just a means of procreating, and with that purpose it didn’t feel ‘dirty.’ Now I have 8 children, but I did my wifely ‘duties’ for over 23 years, most of them not enjoying nor initiating sex. I KNOW what you are feeling like when you say “I just wait til’ he’s done.” Now that I am finished having children, I had to completely learn a new way of seeing sex. Lately, I see sex more as ‘making love’ and use that term only. Sex is not a dirty word, but when I see sex as making love to the man that I am so madly crazy in love with, then sex is beautiful and easy to initiate. I verbally express my love frequently while making love, and ask my husband to do the same. That keeps sex a loving act for us. That is my experience after 25+ years of struggling with sex and how it’s now resolved in my life. I pray that God will completely heal you of your past abuse.

    Blessings,
    klas

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