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How to Heal from Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sexual abuse is more widespread than most of us would like to acknowledge. For adults who were abused as children, recovery can be long and painful. The abuse sometimes destroys family relationships, and the survivor’s adult sexual relationships can also be at risk. But therapy can help survivors rebuild healthy, nurturing sex lives.

There are a variety of available therapeutic approaches. Staci Haines, author of Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma is herself a survivor. She combines talk therapy with a hands-on program to reintroduce survivors to their bodies. The goal is to help survivors feel comfortable in their bodies, so that they can eventually experience erotic pleasure.

People who have been sexually abuse often experience survivor guilt, believing they were somehow responsible or compliant. Therapy helps them realize that as children, they had no power and are not to blame. They are supported in forgiving themselves, and feeling the appropriate anger they have for the abuser. Talk therapy also explores the survivor’s own issues with sex, from dissociation, aversion, engaging in sex just to pleasure a lover, faking pleasure and faking orgasm.

Because sexual touch often reawakens painful memories, getting past dissociation is critical. Most survivors need a period of celibacy, or just sensual hand-holding or cuddling, without genital contact. This period may last several months, or for some people, it may take much longer. One survivor says:

When I first started therapy. I couldn’t stand being touched. For a time, my lover and I had no physical contact. Then I wanted to be in his arms, to feel close to him, but all I could tolerate was being hugged. Eventually, we began to explore being more sexual.

One important tool in the program is gaining comfort with sexual pleasure through masturbation. Masturbation can trigger flashbacks, so survivors are encouraged to open their eyes and ground themselves in the present moment. Whether you are by yourself or with a lover, this is not abuse. You deserve loving pleasure.

Of course, the real change for survivors to return to partner sex. It is important that the person have total control over the process. This can present challenges for the survivor’s lovers. But over time, the sex becomes more relaxed and reciprocal.

These are stages of recovery (adapted from the book, The Courage to Heal):

• The Emergency Stage. This often involves emotional turmoil as memories of the abuse reemerge.

• Remembering. Some survivors have suppressed memories. All survivors must allow themselves to face memories and the feelings that accompany them.

• Believing it happened. Often survivors have been told by family members that the abuse never happened, and sometimes they doubt their own recall.

* Breaking the silence. Healing involves talking about the abuse, with family, a therapist, friends, and the survivor’s lover.

• Understanding that it wasn’t your fault. Children do not have the power to control or stop abuse. The abuser is the person at fault.

• Grieving. Many survivors shut down their emotions, and they do not feel connected to their bodies. They have to go through the grief over all they have lost: innocence, trust, and self-confidence.

• Anger. Survivors must get in touch with the anger they have suppressed.

• Confronting the abuser. This may not be appropriate for every person and every situation, but many survivors find this empowering.

• Forgiveness. Survivors must forgive themselves in order to heal. Some survivors decide to forgive their abuser, but that is entirely up to them.

• Resolution and moving on. Eventually, with therapy and support, the survivor comes to terms with their history, and they feel free to move forward.

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Category: Wellness

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