PTSD Girl

Friday, December 30, 2005

Question

I've read a lot about vibrators being good for women who have never had an orgasm. I have a similar problem. I was severely abused sexually as a small child and teenager. There were multiple perpetrators of both sexes, I was used in pornography, I was also beaten and subjected to severe neglect. I associate virtually every kind of sex with the many ways I was violated. When I've tried to have sex with a partner, it's as if my whole body is numb. I have done a lot of work on these issues and have gotten to the point where I feel able to please another person in bed, but when it comes to them pleasing me, I honestly don't know what to ask for. So I bought a vibrator to teach myself how to masturbate. But I wonder if these things are safe for sex abuse survivors to use. Once I turned it on, it was as if I couldn't stop. I wasn't getting any pleasure out of it, but I kept on doing it. Finally I managed to put it down because I knew I was hurting myself. The next day there was a lot of swelling and a burning sensation. I was afraid to go to the doctor so I put an ice pack on the area and eventually after a few days I felt a little better. I won't use a vibrator again. But is there anything else for me to try? I feel so hopeless about reclaiming any kind of pleasure for myself.

Answer

You're right to pay attention to how something makes you feel instead of how other (or even most) people have experienced it. It's true that vibrators have helped some women learn how to have an orgasm. But they are also powerful devices, and if they are used too hard or for too long, they can cause irritation, burns, or bruises. If your body feels numb, you aren't going to be able to tell when you've reached the point of self-injury.

But simply telling you not to use vibrators doesn't sound very helpful to me. You're recovering from a painful past. I know that some therapists would tell you to avoid sex because it might trigger flashbacks or disassociation. But you say you want to reclaim pleasure for yourself, and I think is an important aspect of happiness and self-esteem.

Let's start with what is going on about sexuality in your own mind. When you think about sex, what kind of images are pleasing or arousing to you? If you keep a journal, make some notes about this. Then ask yourself what you think might help to wake up your body and give you the ability to feel what is happening to you.

Repeated trauma affects body and brain chemistry. The person usually has a sense of hypervigilance. They expend a lot of energy scanning the environment for potential threats. There's also an involuntary response to "trigger" sensory experiences. A sight, sound, smell, or sensation that reminds you of traumatic experiences floods your system with adrenaline. Often, this will also cause the person to feel as if they have left their body and are safely watching what happens to them from a great distance.

The key word here is "safety." It's a "fight or flee" danger recognition reflex that causes the adrenaline to be released in large quantities. But you were in many situations where you weren't physically powerful enough to fight your attackers, and you couldn't physically escape. So you created a kind of mental escape hatch. The most effective therapy for these reactions is cognitive-behavioral work. A good therapist trained in these techniques can help you to learn how to determine when you are safe or not, relax when your system is triggered by something that doesn't really threaten you, and help you to create other kinds of responses to triggers.

Once you feel able to identify when you are triggered, what does it, and what you can do to calm yourself down and function in spite of being scared or angry, you can set some small goals for yourself that are possible to achieve. That is the key to progress. It's fine to have long-term goals, but you have to break those down into smaller steps. For example, being able to remain present during lovemaking may be too much for you. But can you remain present during a five-minute shoulder massage when you are fully clothed?

You can also practice touching yourself. If fingertips are not effective, try using something soft like a piece of velvet or a bit of fur. Practice your relaxation exercises, remind yourself that you are safe, and just experiment playfully with your own body. I think you will know when you are ready to try to have an orgasm; don't be in a hurry.

It's really unfair that you have to do so much work to repair the damage that other people did. But I do think that you need some kind of additional support, just to keep yourself on track with this work. You probably feel a lot of social pressure to look like everybody else, to have lots of friends and a lover and appear just fine from the outside. But isn't that what you were expected to do to keep the secret of your abuse? For you, developing friendships may be very hard. Finding a lover who is understanding, patient, and empathetic can also be a real challenge. But you are an important person, and you do deserve to have love and desire in your life. Stay alive, don't give up, and love yourself. Good luck on your journey.

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