Note: This article speaks in broad terms about sexual assault and abuse. If you feel overwhelmed at any point reading this article, I encourage you to stop reading (or skip to the section on “grounding”) and allow your body to do what it needs to do to come back to the present. Whether it’s going for a brisk walk, doing some deep breathing, or calling a trusted friend. As this article will discuss, there’s no need to push yourself past the point of overwhelm. Healing can only take place with patience.

Many survivors of sexual assault face difficulties with intimacy and/or sexuality at some point in their lives. While this is a very common experience, it’s certainly not the case for all survivors. Traumatic events affect people in a variety of different ways dependent on each person’s life experiences and their unique nervous systems. This article will focus on the people who do struggle with sex and intimacy after traumatic events. It will show that even though it can feel really hopeless at times, there are some amazing ways forward to achieving a healthy and satisfying sex life. We have some powerful innate abilities to heal trauma, but it often takes patience, support and work to get there.

Understanding the Impacts

Sexuality and the Central Nervous System – Stress and Love

Sexuality is impacted by the emotional systems managed by a very primal part of your brain often called “the reptilian brain.” This part of your brain is responsible for stress feelings as well as love feelings, all of which have helped us to survive as a species. Stress and love are also the main emotions that impact intimacy and sexual desire.

Stress responses are the neurobiological processes that help you deal with threats. Your brain prioritizes one of the following three main components based on survival needs: fight (anger/frustration), flight (fear/anxiety), or collapse (numbness, depression, dissociation).

Love is also a survival strategy; it’s the neurobiological process that pulls us closer to our tribes and bonds humans together. Love is responsible for passion, romance, and joy. It’s also responsible for the agony of grief and heartbreak.

Common Reactions

When a person lives through a traumatic event, the stress response in their central nervous system (brain and body) often gets locked into survival mode. It has detected that there is danger and so it learns that it must always be scanning for any sign of danger. As a result, there are two very common reactions to sexual trauma that affect a survivor’s sex life.

  1. Sexual Avoidance/Difficulty Experiencing Pleasure

The main function of the central nervous system is to prioritize survival needs in order of importance. For example, if you can’t breathe, you’re unlikely to notice that you’re hungry until you get oxygen again. Similarly, although love is indeed a survival mechanism (bringing us together with our tribes), the brain tends to prioritize attention to stress over love because stress points to a more immediate threat: the possibility of another dangerous and violent act.

After a sexual assault, sensations, contexts and ideas that used to be interpreted as sexually relevant (like physical touch) may instead now be interpreted by your brain as threats. So sexual situations actually make your brain sound the “danger” alarm bell. Our central nervous systems confuse sex (an act of consent, equality and pleasure) with sexual assault (an act of violence and power over another). Remember, your nervous system’s primary function is to keep you alive and safe, so anything that feels in any way similar to a violent situation from the past will sound your brain’s alarm bell.

Basically, you may be experiencing love or desire, but your brain is still stuck on survival mode. This makes it almost impossible to experience pleasure, desire and closeness.

  1. Engaging in Compulsive Sexual Behaviours

Remember how love is also a survival strategy? It draws us closer to others and makes us feel whole. So instead of stress hitting the sexual brakes, some people get locked into patterns of feeling out of control sexually and having multiple partners. In this case, sometimes the innate survival strategy prioritizes closeness for that feeling of being whole; however, when this is a survival mechanism, it’s often happening from that “collapse” stress response, or a more dissociated place. People stuck in this pattern may experience a brief feeling of relief but may still struggle with the deeper components of intimacy.

  1. Additional common symptoms
  • sexual avoidance/anxiety
  • sex feeling like an obligation
  • dissociation during sexual activity/not present
  • negative feelings associated with touch
  • difficulty achieving arousal/sensation
  • feeling emotionally distant
  • flashbacks/intrusive thoughts or images during sexual activity
  • engaging in compulsive sexual behaviours
  • difficulty maintaining an intimate relationship
  • vaginal pain in women; erectile dysfunction in men
  • feelings of shame
  • negative beliefs about sex

This is a short list of reactions, there are many more impacts on a person’s sense of self and experiences in relationships. If you’d like to get a better sense of how your traumatic experiences may have impacted your sex life, you can have a look at Wendy Maltz’s Sexual Effects Inventory here https://www.havoca.org/survivors/sexuality/sexual-effects-inventory/

Remedies: Developing a Healthy Sex Life 

This short article was just to give you an idea of some of the many ways that sexual assault can impact intimacy. These impacts sometimes show up directly after the assault and sometimes show up years later.

Stay tuned for the next article which will talk about some of the many ways to heal the parts of your brain that are impacted by the trauma and to help you to find safety and pleasure in intimacy.

Sources

Maltz, Wendy (2021). Healthy Sex: Promoting Healthy, Loving Sex and Intimacy. https://healthysex.com/

Nagoski, Emily (2015). Come as you Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life. Simon & Schuster Inc: New York. 

University of Alberta Sexual Assault Center (2019). Sexual intimacy after sexual assault or sexual abuse. https://www.ualberta.ca/media-library/ualberta/current-students/sexual-assault-centre/pdf-resources-and-handouts/intimacy-after-sexual-assault-2019.pdf

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