The Big Disconnect and the Sex Abuse Survivor

[Please read last week’s Blog, The Big Disconnect: Arousal Nonconcordance,” before continuing, if you did not read it last week!]

“You don't drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”
Edwin Louis Cole

Recovering from the effects of sex abuse is a complex and multi-layered process because sex abuse affects survivors on so many levels: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Untangling how the abuse has affected a survivor is a highly individual process and each survivor will find recovery in his/her own way and when he/she is ready and able to heal.

In my own healing process, one of the most confusing and painful moments I experienced occurred when a horrific realization emerged unbidden from my subconscious mind that I had felt sexual pleasure when an abuser touched my vulva when I was nine years old. In that awful moment of recognition, (in my mid-30’s) I was crushed and overwhelmed with shame—until the compassionate counselor I was working with ever so gently with tears in his eyes, spoke these words: “Jane, your body is wired to feel sexual pleasure when it is touched like that. It can’t tell whether the touch is welcome or desired. All it can do is respond. You didn’t do anything wrong and your body didn’t betray you. Your abuser did.”

In that moment of absolution, I could see how I had shamed myself because I had misunderstood my body’s natural response to the unwanted sexual stimulation—and I could release years of shame. Since then, I have met many survivors who have struggled with the same issue. Our lack of understanding is heartbreaking.

In writing this blog, I hope that any other survivor reading it who still struggles with shame around their body’s autonomic response to unwanted sexual touch can understand—accept themselves and let it go. Remember from last week’s blog, genital response is a state of expecting, and is triggered by stimuli it has been trained to recognize as sexually relevant, like Pavlov’s dog trained to salivate to a bell ringing. It is not a state of desiring, liking, or wanting.

Equating genital response with desiring/wanting/liking can be confusing in any number of situations. However, for the sex abuse survivor, linking these two very different states can be the source of profound shame, emotional pain and a lifetime of feeling like our bodies betrayed us—or worse—that we’re bad or somehow liked or wanted the abuse. Nothing could be further from the truth and with this information, we can trust that our feelings were accurate and our bodies were simply doing what bodies are wired to do.