I find this hard to write about, but my father ‘showed me how to have sex’ when I was primary school age. I hated it when he did this, but he persuaded me it was what all girls had to learn. It is only now as an adult that I realise this is what our society calls childhood sexual abuse. Now I don’t like my husband touching me as it makes me tense up and sometimes I get flashbacks of my father touching me. I used to force myself to have sex when we were first married, but now we have given up as my husband got really upset when he discovered that I hated it. I feel safe being a-sexual, but sometimes it makes me cry that my Dad has taken this form of love away from my marriage and from me and left me an empty shell. What can I do?
"What you were put through as a child was immense. These experiences confuse our sexual bodies, traumatise our memory systems and twist our child gift of trust. This is why what your Dad did was criminal and he could be sent to prison for it.
Coming through this will be an intricate journey for you and I ask you not to read my response below as a simplistic bandaid. I recommend you find a counsellor in your area with expertise in childhood sexual abuse. I work for Life Centre, a Christian charity that does this and if you phone our office on 01243 786349 we can let you know of any local services available to you, or you can use our telephone counselling service 01243 779196.
Although this might seem very scary to hear, it is going to help you gradually to talk out what happened between you and your Dad. This will involve talking not only about what physically happened, but also about how you felt emotionally and what you thought in your head. It will be important that as you talk you don’t get overwhelmed by it all: so do it in little chunks and with someone who helps you feel very safe and grounded.
I’m going to explain to you some technical stuff to help you understand what will help.
There are two regions of the brain, the amygdale and the hippocampus, which we use to process our memories. When we have traumatic experiences our brains process them in a different way to non-traumatic experiences. The hippocampus processes the data necessary to make sense of our experiences within the time-line of personal history and the sequence of the experience itself. As our stress levels increase in a traumatic situation, hormones are released that suppress the functioning of the hippocampus. This means that traumatic experiences such as what you have been through don’t get stored very clearly as past events.
The Amygdale stores the emotions and sensations we had about an event. It does not succumb to the stress hormones that suppress the activity of the hippocampus; it continues to function, come what may. This means that we can get flashbacks where it feels like the bad memory is happening again: we get the emotional and sensory memory without it feeling in the past. This is because the amygdale has carried on working but the hippocampus’ role has been skipped.
This means that when you try and be sexual with your husband, your brain will struggle to separate out the past bad experiences from the present, as a good experience. Your aim in talking about the abuse is for your brain to gradually learn to separate out the past from the present; the good from the bad.
You can add to this by strengthening safe and pleasant feelings linked to intimate touch with your husband. If you feel overwhelmed at the moment by the thought of intercourse then it’s better to agree that it is off the menu for a while, and agree what you can enjoy together in being physically close. Better to experience a little bit positively and gradually build up from there in a defined way so you feel in control, than do nothing out of anxiety. Keep reminding yourself that you can trust your husband – he is different to your Dad – and focus on feelings of safety.
As you do this, you will gradually heal your sexuality which has got off to a very confusing and negative start, through no fault whatsoever of your own. Don’t settle for being a-sexual. You are more than your father’s fingerprints. You are also your own person, ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’."