When one or both partners have experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, many couples have joyful, fulfilling, intimate sexual relationships. An experience of sexual abuse does not automatically mean that sex, sexual intimacy and sexual enjoyment will be difficult. Sometimes, however, sexual abuse can impact on partner’s sexual relationship, and require some working through. This page details some common difficulties, along with steps that can be taken to enhance sexual intimacy, for couples where a male partner has experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault.
Foundations for enjoyable sex
First, it is useful to remember that negotiating, developing and maintaining sexual intimacy can be a challenge in ANY relationship. It’s great when satisfying sex and sexual relationships just happen. However, this is not always the case for everyone 100% of the time. In any sexual relationship, each partner will need to work out what is sensual, playful, sensitive, joyful and fulfilling for them. Each couple will need to work out how can they make this happen in safe, mutually satisfying ways. Typically, enjoying sexual intimacy in longer term relationships involves a bit of work.
Some building blocks for satisfying sexual relationships are:
- Accurate information about your own sexuality, your partner’s, and about sex itself.
- Having or developing an orientation based on pleasure (arousal, love, lust, and fun), rather than performance.
- Having the kind of relationship in which good sex can flourish.
- Being able to communicate verbally and non-verbally about sex.
- Being assertive about your own desires, and able to focus fully on your own pleasure.
- Being exquisitely sensitive to your partner and being able to respond sexually with them.
- Understanding, accepting, and appreciating sex differences.
Factors that can impact on satisfying sex
Ever since the kids came along it seemed like we were not as close as we’d been before, especially in the bedroom. I just thought that things would get better in time, but they’re worse now. We don’t talk about it much and we hardly ever have sex any more. He says it’s the same for everyone and that there’s nothing wrong. So when he finally told me about the abuse I was totally knocked over! But, at the same time it kind of made sense. I had sometimes thought that maybe something might have happened to him. Whilst, I felt so sad for him, it was a relief to know.”
Disentangling what might be impacting on shared pleasure in sexual intimacy can be tricky. Given that sexual abuse can have such a profound impact on people’s lives, it is not surprising that when difficulties do appear, couples can focus in on the legacy of the abuse as the source of the problem, when there might be other factors at play.
It is important to consider additional factors that are known to impact on enjoying sex and sexual intimacy in relationships:
- Sleep difficulties.
- Body image.
- Erectile dysfunction and other physical factors.
- Low testosterone.
- Relationship difficulties.
- The impact of parenting.
All of the above can influence individual and couple sexual intimacy, and might need checking out and working on.
It is good to keep in mind that cultural factors and gender expectations also shape men and women’s approach to sex. It is not uncommon for men in our society to grow up believing sex is simply something that they do with their bodies, rather than an expression of emotional intimacy. Also remember that expectations about sexuality and sexual relationships change! The idea that people in long term relationships should have a full and satisfying sex life, based in equality, is a recent one. Up until the 1960s, a man’s role was very much that of provider, ensuring that the family had a roof over their heads and food on the table. See our page on Men and intimacy.
Particular problems related to sexual abuse
Given that sexual abuse involves unwanted sexual contact or inappropriate exposure, sex and sexually intimate relationships can easily become a place where difficulties might appear. Sometimes, men who have been sexually abused have been able to ‘do’ or ‘perform’ sex in a casual way in their teens or twenties. The difficulties are often identified later, when engaging in sex within the context of a loving relationship.
For some men, the experience of sexual assault can at times “play itself out” in the area of sex and intimacy. If the sexual assault has occurred within an emotionally intimate relationship, for example with a trusted adult, then it makes sense that when sex and intimacy come together later in life alarm bells can sound.
An experience of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault can impact on sexual relationships in the following ways:
- Increased confusion during sexual and emotional intimacy.
- Discomfort with touch in certain areas of the body.
- Limiting the type of sexual activity considered okay or enjoyable.
- Requiring certain circumstances to be in place. For example, lights on or off when sex occurs.
- Experiencing difficulties in achieving sexual arousal or ejaculation.
- Feeling distress, shame or guilt about a sexual response, interest or fantasy.
- Low libido or avoiding sex altogether.
- Excessive interest and validation of manhood through sex.
- Engaging in sexually compulsive behavior.
- ‘Checking out,’ disengaging emotionally.
- Requiring the use of pornography or sexual aids to achieve arousal or ejaculation.
- Difficulty trusting sexual partners.
- Experiencing panic attacks, disassociation or flashbacks during sexual activity.
- Difficulties in sexual relationships, confusing sex with love, care-giving, abuse, pain, with being powerless or being powerful.
Most men are raised to believe that physical sexual arousal can only occur when there is sexual desire. If a man has experienced physical arousal, even ejaculation, as part of being abused, it can be extremely confusing for him. He may believe that he was in some way responsible for what occurred, and this may even have been suggested to him by the abuser. His whole sense of being a man and his sexuality can then come into conflict (see Sexual assault & arousal). The fact that 80% of men who are sexually abused in childhood are sexually abused by men means that they are often confronted by questions relating to sexuality. Some straight identifying men may also have been told, or secretly fear, that they are gay. This can get in the way of emotional and sexual intimacy with partners.
How sexual abuse can shape understandings of sex
An experience of sexual abuse can produce a particular mind-set, or frame of reference, where sex become viewed in unhelpful negative terms, rather than a positive energy that consenting adults can enjoy. See below for an excellent list compiled by Healthyplace.com
|Sex as sexual abuse||Sex as positive sexual energy|
|Sex as uncontrollable energy||Sex as controllable energy|
|Sex is an obligation||Sex is a choice|
|Sex is addictive||Sex is a natural drive|
|Sex is hurtful||Sex is nurturing, healing|
|Sex is a condition for receiving love||Sex is an expression of love|
|Sex is a ‘doing to’ someone||Sex is sharing with someone|
|Sex is a commodity||Sex is part of who I am|
|Sex is absence of communication||Sex involves communication|
|Sex is secretive||Sex is private|
|Sex is exploitative||Sex is respectful|
|Sex is deceitful||Sex is honest|
|Sex benefits one person||Sex is mutual|
|Sex is emotionally distant||Sex is intimate|
|Sex is irresponsible||Sex is responsible|
|Sex is unsafe||Sex is safe|
|Sex has no limits||Sex has boundaries|
|Sex is power over someone||Sex is empowering|
Negotiating and enhancing a sexual relationship with a partner can be a challenge if the partner does not know about the experience of sexual abuse. This can further isolate the man and have him trying to control, work it out or manage situations and bodily reactions.
I always knew there were some no-go zones – things that we just didn’t do and places I just didn’t touch but I never knew why. It now makes lots of sense to me what those things have been about and I can see that we can still have a close relationship without having to do it all. In fact, it is better now that I know what is uncomfortable for him and why.”
As a couple it is useful to:
- Be aware that it is not uncommon for memories and difficulties relating to sexual abuse to re-appear during sexual contact. Situations that replicate the experience of the abuse are likely to be particularly challenging.
- Develop an awareness of what are, or might be, the sensitive areas, scenarios, and trigger points following an experiences of sexual abuse. For example, who was involved, their gender, relationship context, the ways of engaging or disengaging, the places, acts, positions, touches, smells, sounds, feelings, etc.
- Place an emphasis on slowly developing an understanding of preferences in:
- Prioritising safety and choice.
- Becoming familiar and comfortable with your body.
- Talking and how to talk about these topics.
- Being together and in tune with your partner and their body.
- Your wishes and desires.
Talk, take time and prioritise choice
- Increased emotional engagement and communication have been specifically identified as important qualities. These improve the sexual relationship where the male partner has experienced sexual abuse.
- If difficulties arise, take time to check in and reassure yourself that it is not about you. Some partners may feel unattractive, or that they have somehow done something wrong, and not realise it isn’t about this at all.
- If possible, talk to your partner about the difficulties. Offer some ways forward that you have already thought about, for example, experimenting with intimate touch without the focus being on genital intercourse.
- Be really clear about your partner’s and your own boundaries and limits. Everyone has a right to say “No” to things that don’t feel comfortable or safe.
- Know that when your partner is sexual with you he is taking a big step in trust. The occasional stumble is to be expected.
Be cautious of applying standardised sex therapy techniques for engagement and enhancing sexual pleasure. These may not consider and adjust for the influence of an experience of sexual abuse. Some sex therapy techniques can be very prescriptive, giving people specific homework to do, rather than prioritizing people’s sense of personal choice and control.
Seek help if difficulties persist
Sex ought to be an enjoyable, fun, life giving aspect in intimate partner relationships. If difficulties continue after talking things through, and trying different ways to introduce more sexual intimacy into your relationship, do seek help from a qualified counsellor or sex therapist. Ideally you are looking to talk with a professional person who has understanding, knowledge and experience in addressing histories of sexual trauma in ways that support enhancement of sexual intimacy.
- Anderson Jacob, C. McCarthy Veach. Intrapersonal and familial effects if childhood sexual abuse on female partners of male survivors. Journal of counselling psychology 2005, 52:3, 284-297
- Hall, K. ‘Childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual problems: A new view of assessment and treatment’. Feminism and Psychology 2008 18:546-556.
- Sanderson, Christiane. Counselling Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 3rd Ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2006.
- Schachter, C.L., Stalker, C.A., Teram, E., Lasiuk, G.C., Danilkewich, A. (2009). Handbook on sensitive practice for health care practitioner: Lessons from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/ncfv-cnivf/sources/nfnts/nfnts-sensi/index-eng.php