As a psychologist, I work with adult survivors of child sexual abuse. It is a topic that is difficult to talk about, but one that exists in every community, including our own community. Whereas the treatment for these adults is individualized, unique, and an essential part of healing, there are some important messages that everyone can internalize.
One universal message is that sex is not how you first learned it. It’s what you make it.
I often tell my clients that emotionally they are virgins, because what they experienced was abuse. Like other newcomers to sex, they can learn to develop a fulfilling sexual relationship. In a loving relationship, sex can be wonderful; it is supportive, mutual, and feels good to both. Even people that are not per se survivors of “abuse”, but have negative associations, can gain from this perspective of themselves being the determiners of their sexual experience. Sex is what you, and your partner, make it to be.
With a trained psychologist, someone who has experienced abuse in the past has the opportunity to process their trauma so that it doesn’t haunt them and affect their present lives. They can learn tools of how to calm themselves when afraid, how to be present in their relationship instead of jumping to the past. They can overcome their aversions to touch, and learn to be open to warm, positive, loving touch. These tools of relaxation, mindfulness and easing into a physical relationship are ones that all couples, not matter what they have sexually experienced, can gain from. To learn more about them speak to a therapist such as myself who is well trained in this area.
Healthy sexuality is based on healthy communication
The role of the partner in improving one’s sexual experience and overcoming trauma is obviously key and something that we work on a lot in therapy. The process of articulating one’s pain and one’s needs is not easy for the survivor, but it is especially important for building a healthy marriage. When done in conjunction with the partner (ideally with a therapist), working on communication will strengthen the feeling that they’re a team going through this together. The couple will be encouraged to spend time together, express their care and love in non-sexual ways while slowly building up their physical connection. Optimism, positive feedback, patience and support all help them feel closer to each other. Ultimately, this challenge can actually draw the couple into a deeper relationship. All this is just as important for a “regular” couple. Open communication about expectations, relevant history and current needs and curiosities will bring a couple much closer emotionally and lead them to greater sexual comfort and satisfaction.
Before the wedding night
Madrichot Kallah and Madrichei Chatanim [premarital counselors for brides and grooms] are in a special position of preparing people for marriage. They might notice that certain singles are especially anxious about physical intimacy. Perhaps it makes them nervous or afraid to even think about being sexual. A well trained madrich/a can learn to sense discomfort when these topics are raised, and it is an opportunity to ask the kallah/chatan if she ever experienced any form of sexual abuse. They may sense that a bride is having difficulty imagining performing bedikot or standing in front of someone at the mikveh. If any of the above arises, explain that you are raising the topic not to pry, but in the effort of ensuring that they are truly prepared to engage in a life of healthy and supportive intimacy. With assurance that there’s no need to be embarrassed, that it wasn’t their fault, and that it unfortunately happens quite a lot, a madrich/a can serve as a great first responder guiding a survivor of abuse to help.
Without therapy, the survivor may not be able to consummate the marriage, let alone be part of a healthy intimate relationship. These are the couples who will end up turning to a Rav or sex therapist in crisis a few months after their wedding. There may be anger and hurt feelings, especially if neither one understands that it was a past experience which is actually the impediment to their having a healthy relationship now.
As we have seen, there are many implications of being a survivor of sexual abuse; some have extremely negative feelings toward sexuality, other an aversions to touch, and others an apprehension about keeping some of the laws of niddah. A kallah/hatan teacher might be one of the only people privy to the knowledge that this kallah/hatan has experienced sexual trauma or abuse. Kallah and chatan teachers can do them a tremendous service by guiding survivors to see a therapist who can help set them on a positive path as they move into couplehood in the ways outlined here. By catching the problem before the survivor is married, and encouraging them to go to therapy, teachers can enable them to heal and live a full, healthy life, based on commitment, love and mutual respect.
The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
Healing the Incest Wound by Christine Courtois
The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz
Growing Beyond Survival by Elizabeth Vermilyea