How Trauma Shapes Sexuality

Why would a woman who was sexually abused as a child have rape and submission fantasies that sexually excite her as an adult? Why would another woman who suffered physical abuse as a child now enjoy role-playing dominant/submissive sex games? Why would a man raped or taunted by classmates as an adolescent now be unable to perform sexually or another man who was repeatedly berated by an emotionally abusive parent now not be able to approach women socially or sexually? These scenarios are not unusual; in fact, they are among the most common examples of how childhood trauma can shape adult sexual behavior.

Various studies (i.e. Wolfe, Gentile & Wolfe, 1989) have confirmed higher rates of Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) in sexually abused children. These survivors display re-experiencing symptoms, including intrusive thoughts and flashbacks and becoming involved in relationships that repeat the sexually abusive behavior they originally suffered. Additionally, it is estimated that “about four out of five abuse survivors experience disturbing sexual fantasies” (Wendy Maltz M.S.W.) which color their sexual predilections. Maltz says that it is not surprising that the repercussions of abuse manifest themselves as issues of sexuality, since it was sexuality that was abused in the first place.

When we experience trauma in life, we associate those emotions with certain sensations and thoughts that were present during the traumatic episodes. So if our young, innocent bodies instinctively responded to coercive sexual acts – acts that we really didn’t understand or acts that confused us because of how and with whom it was happening – then we might later, as adults, unconsciously connect the event with the feeling (the body remembers). Consequently, coercive sex could actually become a signal to the body to respond sexually, even to the point of orgasm. In fact, “some survivors find that their only path to sexual release is fantasizing victimization.” (H. Smith, 2009).

There are a host of factors that contribute to the eventual sexual behavior of adult survivors, including degree of abuse, duration of abuse, abuser’s relationship to the victim, age when abused, rituals involved and whether or not the abuse became public knowledge and then how it was then dealt with by other parental figures. Some adult survivors avoid sex; others engage in it promiscuously, while others simply numb themselves (or disassociate) during sex. Those are among the most common general reactions that survivors have to sex. But there has been very little research about how the abuse specifically shapes the sexual desires and fantasies of victims. One such study conducted by Meston, Herman & Trapnell (1999), showed a relationship between early abuse and adult sexual behavior in the following areas – frequency of masturbation, range of sexual fantasies, masochism, promiscuity and voyeurism.

Another study by Finklehor & Browne (1985) – the most comprehensive study to date – identifies a “theory of sexual traumatization”. Briefly, the theory posits that through a variety of means, childhood sexual abuse shapes sexuality creating unusual emotional associations to sexual activities and a repertoire of sexualized behaviors that seem inappropriate or disturbing. These behaviors may have been learned during the period of abuse or in some manner are associated with the abuse and are now used as a strategy for manipulating others. What the theory didn’t state is that they may now also be used as a way to self stimulate.

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