What not to say to survivors of childhood sexual assault…

Do you have a friend, relative or lover who survived childhood sexual assault? Here’s 6 of the top 10 things not to say or do.

1) Breaking the kvetching order  – Don’t expect the survivor to provide emotional support to you about your feelings about their trauma. Go to other people with that.  Support her or him, but refrain from offering advice or judgement.

2) Giving advice. If you haven’t survived childhood sexual abuse, really you’ve got nothing useful about this. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Keep your advice, particularly about forgiveness, moving on, or dealing with abusive or complicit relatives and parents to yourself. For more information on why this is so, please read this post on what it’s like to have PTSD and complex PTSD.

A related issue is platitudes. Phrases like “Parents do the best they can with what they know at the time.” “Mothers/fathers always put their children first.” “Family comes first.” for example, are often completely false in families containing abusers and can make your loved one feel like they are an alien from another planet.

The closest experience a non-survivor can get to what a survivor is going through are experiences of deep loss and grief. Think about how you felt when someone close to you died, or the biggest tragedy you have experienced or could imagine experiencing. That’s probably closest to the experience your loved one is having. If you’ve had one or more experiences of trauma  then you might also be able to relate. By trauma, I don’t mean just stressful events. Here’s what I mean by trauma:

direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury, or other threat to one’s physical integrity; or witnessing anevent that involves death, injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of another person; or learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threatof death or injury experienced by a family member or other close associate(Criterion A1). The person’s response to the event must involve intense fear,helplessness, or horror (or in children, the response must involve disorganized or agitated behavior) (Criterion A2). (p. 463 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR; American PsychiatricAssociation [APA], 2000))

3) Investigating – It’s not your job to determine if your loved one is telling the truth about what happened to her or him. She or he is probably doing a good job doubting his/her own reality right now. Just stay out of grilling her him for details and trying to make sense of it. She/he will sort most of it out eventually, but based on how the memory works in cases of trauma, it’s not as straightforward a process as you might expect.

4) Not wanting to talk about it – Yes, child sexual assault is disturbing, but it’s a fact of your loved one’s reality, and part of her daily existence. She/he should be able to refer to it in conversation without a big ‘disturbance in the force’ or you changing the topic. It’s a big deal, but don’t make a big deal of it either.

5) Trying to fix it. – You can’t. The best you can do is to walk beside your loved one, to listen and to care.

6) Expecting it to be over quickly – grieving childhood sexual assault, particularly recurring assault, takes about 10 years from the time the person is actively healing. Think about people who have tragically lost one of their children to accident, illness or murder. Do you expect them to ever stop grieving? Yes, it may die down, but there will always be times when grief is active.

I am sure there are more of these – anyone got any others to add?

Rules of kvetching: applied to CSA survivors

The rules of kvetching. Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times
The rules of kvetching. Illustration by Wes Bausmith / Los Angeles Times

My neck has been particularly seized up since I found out about the appointment with the gynecologist. Coincidence? Not likely. Since the assault that caused the tearing in my vagina also caused a neck injury, the two are definitely linked.

I believe in the saying “trust in God(s) but tie your camel”, which means to consider both the practical and the mystical in life and cover both. So I did.

I went to both the chiropractor and massage therapist. The chiropractor assessed my neck and said my alignment was fine and that the issue was muscular. She referred me to the massage therapist and wrote down what muscles to work on. They both gave me exercises to do.

I also did a very powerful cleansing and healing ritual in my bath, praying for help from my matron and patron gods, in the journey of restoring the damage to my body from the abuse. I metaphorically let the gunk fall from me, and my body be whole.

And I told/tell myself that my emotional processing system is likely to be taking up a portion of my mental and physical space, even when I’m not aware of it, between now and the appointment, and of course afterwards, until I sort out what there is to do. This is completely normal.

I’ve been a lot more open about my injury in the past several months, which gives me a larger pool of people who I don’t have to ‘come out to’ about it when things get more intense in order to have some support. The isolation of having an injury that it freaks people out to discuss just makes things more difficult, so creating some pockets of awareness is part of my support system. However, it does come with risks. There is always the risk of people negatively stereotyping me because of my injuries and experiences and treating me like ‘damaged goods’ in one way or another. I’d prefer people see my considerable strengths instead.

I found this image and explanation online and thought it was an excellent resource when applied when survivors disclose or are going through PTSD related gunk. It’s called ‘how not to say the wrong thing’. The idea is that you draw a circle around the survivor/person with cancer/bereaved person etc… and then a circle around that that contains the the person who is next closest to the trauma (spouse, for example), then a circle around that that has the people next farthest out and so on till you get out to the level of coworkers and acquaintances. The authors called this circle the ‘kvetching order’. Everyone is allowed to both complain or vent but they can only do so to people in a larger circle than them. To people in a smaller circle than their own, they can only offer comfort, not advice, emotional venting or complaint. Comfort in, kvetching out. The person at the centre can kvetch to anyone about the issue. It is apparently called the ‘silk ring theory’.

So let’s see if I can imagine applying this to myself…

I’m in the centre – I had the sexual assault that ripped my vagina and healed badly, plus the strangulation injury that makes my neck vulnerable now. I’m the one with the scary appointments and needing to advocate for myself to try and assess the damage and fix what I can. I am at the top of kvetching order and theoretically can complain to anyone and accept support from everyone. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? In the circle around me is my wife. I don’t have any other partners, but if I did, she might be here. Around her is my close survivor friends, women and men who have experienced childhood sexual assault too, and get it but also might be triggered, and who I might share the more graphic details with because even though it might freak them out, they won’t judge me or say dumb things. Around that is maybe my Aunt and cousins, who know and are reasonably supportive, around that would be my non-survivor friends who know. Around that are nice people who care about me but don’t know the details. I would say that the perpetrator is always in the largest circle. Everyone can complain to him (survivor, her supporters, society at large), but he can’t complain to anyone.

Hmm… this is a lot different from a cancer diagnosis isn’t it? If I had cancer (Goddess forbid) my wife could put something out on Facebook about it for example, and everyone would know. Casseroles might arrive. People would still behave weirdly, and perhaps even blame me for the cancer if I was say, a smoker, but certainly it could be talked about. As a survivor, even accessing support about something heavy creates the risk of someone breaking the kvetching order and dumping their gunk/misconceptions/discrimination about child abuse survivors who disclose back on me.

The people who say dumb things to survivors are usually breaking the kvetching order now that I think about it. For my aunt to want me to take care of my mother’s feelings about my mother losing her idealized (and fictional) happy family is breaking the kvetching order. My mom has every right to complain to her therapist or friends, but not to me or my wife or my survivor friends. And my aunt has every right to complain about the impact the abuse has had on her family, but not to me or my wife.

Missing the Freakin Point! Same-Sex Boundaries and Sexual Abuse Survivors

Apparently, at a recent Pantheacon, there was a scuffle between trans activists and women who want to have a women’s skyclad (nude) ritual without penises and testicles. The theoretical  penis and testicles in question that so many people were up in arms about women excluding from pagan ritual would belong to a transwoman who had not yet (or did not intend to) have them altered.  I don’t know if an actual transwoman was excluded from ritual, or just the idea that some poor penis-enhanced and vagina-challenged woman would be excluded from a ritual by feminists that got people’s knicker in a twist.

I think this is very much a sexual abuse survivor issue. The vast majority, although of course not all, of us were sexually assaulted by people with penises, who had more power than us not only because they were adults, but because they had male privilege.

There need to be sacred places where naked penises are not welcome.  There need to be places I can be energetically open without my inner survivor child freezing and fearful. I needed that a lot more when I was younger than I do now, but it’s still very healing. I’m not saying that a transexual woman who has fully transitioned (hormones, genital surgery) should not come to a skyclad women’s only ritual. Personally, I think she’s very welcome.

Below is the full comment I wrote on a pagan blog about this issue. The character limit cut me off so I only posted the first part. Here is the rest.

I want to add some perspective here. The first time I was raped by a person with a penis, I was five years old. Over a decade of my childhood, I’ve been raped several more times, always by a person with a penis, who had male socialization and attitudes, and believed he was allowed to rape me because he was a man. The culture around us permitted and condoned his ongoing rape of me implicitly because of his status as a male.  As a young woman, I had my body violated by grabbing, leering, rape threats and unwelcome comments several times, all of which by someone with a penis who had male privilege, and who got away with it because of that.

I am very concerned that tearing down women’s healing places comes from a place of mysogyny and discounting women’s actual reality under sexism. I have seen this process in effect with rape survivors and the battle to end rape is not over.  I am not a victim. I am strong, but I needed women’s space, completely and utterly free from penises and internalized male sexism, to heal. Feminism has been very important to me, and so has spaces that feel safe because I cannot be raped there. The Goddess has healed me, and I could not have experienced that healing without women’s mystery ritual. 3 out of 5 women are sexually violated by the time they are 18. We don’t talk about it much in public, and  we can’t enter into arguments like these without exposing something painful, private and often misunderstood, often to a culture that discounts the importance of what we have experienced. This is not right or fair.

A woman would understand the fear, and the need for body safety at a skyclad ritual. A woman with a penis should also understand this and respect this. If she doesn’t, she misses an key part of the experience of being a woman, and until she gains it she will likely not be experienced as an an ally of women like me who have survived rape.

No, I don’t even remotely think all men are rapists or potential rapists, or that men are evil. In Canada, where I live, a person needs to have bottom surgery to legally change their sex to female on their birth certificate and drivers licence. I think this is a good and clear boundary. I’d like to see pagans holding an equivalent of menarche rituals for transwomen who have taken this step, and the reverse for transmen who had completed physical transition. Once a person had had this ritual they would be considered their target sex and would be welcome in same-sex ritual of their target sex only after that.

The tool of air is discernment and boundaries, as represented by the knife that cuts the circle, so that some are in and some are out. There needs to be a place to draw a line and I don’t think a person’s declaration that they think of themselves as female alone, followed up with nothing permanent, is enough of a commitment to justify the harms to sacred healing space women like me would experience.

  • What about people who do not think of themselves as either female or male? Should they be in the boundary of a ritual designed for women if they do not even include themselves there?
  • If a trans-specific ritual were held, could ciswomen and cismen crash it?
  • If a person of colour specific ritual were held, could a white person with a black ancestor ten generations back crash it?
  • If specific ritual was held to connect with biological ancestors and gods from a particular pagan tradition practiced in a particular place and time, would that be racist? (Eg: a ritual to the Greek gods open only to people of Greek heritage?

Rather than attack women creating spaces for ourselves, can we please attack rapists, mysogynists and pedophiles and their apologists? Once those are gone, we will have no need for this debate.

I was at a first nations gathering where there was a moon lodge (a secluded space for women who are currently menstruating, where they are tended by other women. Menstruating women are regarded as being too energetically powerful to include in co-ed rituals, so at large gatherings, a moon lodge is built for them to do menstrual time specific ritual together instead.). The tradition held that the only people allowed to build or enter the moon lodge were women who had already menstruated or who were menstruating. I was honoured to be invited (as a white person) to help build the lodge. There was another white person who was transgendered (but not transexual by hir own report- more of a stone butch) who frequently would wear a penis prosthesis under hir pants. The elder crone in charge of the moon lodge said this person, who menstruated, was welcome to help build the lodge provided they did not wear the prosthesis, considered themself a woman and participated as a woman. This person agreed, respecting the culture and it’s gatekeeper. I do not think the elder would have permitted a naked person with a penis and testicles in the moon lodge. I do not believe it is possible to participate in a women’s mystery skyclad ritual with a penis and testicles, and not change it to co-ed ritual energetically. If a transwoman has had bottom surgery, that demonstrates commitment to being a woman, and I believe she should be included.

Feminists are easy targets in a culture that already hates women. Would we be so judgemental about a men’s ritual that excluded a female-bodied transmen who had had no hormone treatment or breast reduction? The reason this doesn’t happen is that a transman in such a situation would run a great risk of violence in participating and probably wouldn’t risk participating until he passed. Women like Z are used as the straw feminist to attack, so that women like me, who are wanting to have a reasoned dialogue about the actual impacts of including people with penises in women’s intimate spaces are silenced. I am beginning to very much resent it.


NOTE: By the way, before commenting on this post, please read the comments already posted. Reasoned and nuanced discussion of ideas are welcome.

Bountiful Abuse – why something stronger was needed to stop a religious child abuse ring

In Creston BC, which is in the western section of Canada, the country where I live, there is an organized paedophile ring masquerading as a religion. The fundamentalist church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) bills itself as an orthodox stream of Mormonism (The mainstream Mormon church doesn’t agree).

Mormons originally allowed/encouraged multiple wives for their most powerful and affluent male members, and that practice died out when polygamy was outlawed in the area of the US (Utah) where most of them lived. Most modern Mormons (LDS without the F) only have one wife, although their religious doctrines still permit or encourage more than one. Christianity and Islam, of course, also allowed their wealthy men multiple wives too in ancient times.  There are lots of men in the Bible with multiple wives, including Joseph, David and Moses. In Islam, their prophet Mohammed had multiple wives. Joseph Smith, the founder/prophet of Mormonism and author of most of their scripture, said that he had received a divine revelation that not only allowed him to have multiple wives, but to ‘re-assign’ wives who were currently married to his followers to himself. This reassignment of wives from one man to another by religious leaders still occurs within the FLDS.

Anyhow, in my country, a small group of affluent men are, in 2011,  holding marriage ceremonies and having sex with multiple young women and children, who have been groomed to accept this practice from birth, in a place called Bountiful, near Creston, BC. Female children and girls are illegally transported over the border from and to FLDS colonies in the US to serve as ‘brides’ for the creepy patriarchs of this sect.

Let me be clear, as a Wiccan, my religious beliefs are entirely in support of people having multiple partners of whatever sex, or recognizing additional spouses with a ceremony, as long as there’s no coercion and everyone is of age.   One of the most widely held principles of my faith is that all acts of love and pleasure are sacred to the Goddess. Since an even more widely held Wiccan principle (possibly our only real area of unanimous agreement)  is ‘as long as it harms none, do as you will’, we also are against child sexual abuse.  Of course, as a childhood sexual assault survivor, I’m absolutely against children or teens having sex with adults for any reason.

As a married lesbian, I also don’t take the right to marry the person of my choice for granted.

So I can say in all honesty, that I’m one of the ones affected. I’m the one losing religious and social freedoms here, and I’m completely fine with it.

Since recently I’ve been exploring being ethically non-monogamous with my wife, I’m in communication with some polyamourous folk. They’re all in an uproar about a new court decision in Canada that puts minor limits on our freedom (Canadians can now legally have multiple common law partners but still not marry them in a religious or civil ceremony). It’s another one of those situations where I feel invisible as a child sexual assault survivor, and  where you really want to say:

“As a person who was repeatedly raped as a young child by a much older man with the complicit support of her mother, and complicit non-interference  of her parent’s friends, and culture, I think I have something to say about the difficulties of stopping systemic child sexual abuse in Bountiful. I know from experience that the existing laws are useless and almost impossible to enforce in this type of situation. It’s the perfect racket for abusers. This situation needs something stronger. If it is heavy handed, so be it. I also have something to say about child sexual assault. It’s evil. It’s close to the worst thing that can happen to a human being, and your petty little ‘I can’t hold a ceremony to celebrate my multiple love’  problem can wait until the children have been rescued from rape and slavery. “

In Canada, polyamory has been illegal for many years, and the attorney general is hoping to use that law to wipe out the child and woman abuse perpetrated at the FLDS colony at Bountiful. However, the FLDS has challenged the law’s constitutionality, which on the face of it seems like an easy thing to do. I mean, shouldn’t people be able to do whatever they want for relationships and marriage, particularly a religious thing? Aren’t there already child abuse and child trafficking laws that take care of the child abuse part of things?

Well yes, and no. Those of you who are also survivors of child sexual abuse, particularly those with complicit families or even abuser collaborators beyond that, know that laws are worthless if they can’t be enforced or aren’t enforced.

If children can’t know that what is happening is illegal, if they have no-one to tell,  if they’ve been brainwashed from birth to accept abuse, if their religious authorities condone or support the abusers, and if their caregivers are all complicit in the abuse, then absolutely no one can and will help them escape.

This was my experience and I am sure the experience of many of those reading this. Even perfectly nice people aren’t doing squat to help children who are being abused unless it’s blatant and they have someone effective on hand and willing to intervene. Effective intervention doesn’t happen all that much in my experience and the experience of dozens of survivors of  incest and child abuse I’ve known.  So forgive me if I don’t want to rely on the existing laws about child sexual assault (and the paltry penalties for people who are convicted of one of the worst things you can do to a human being). 

Fortunately, the FLDS lost their argument. The court upheld the anti-polygamy law, but clarified it to exclude multiple common law relationships, which are now officially legal. I read the decision handed down by my country’s supreme court and I’m okay with it, despite the fact that it limits my personal and religious freedoms as a polyamourous person and a Wiccan. The Canadian law, which is an old law recently clarified by the supreme court, criminalizes having more than one wife or husband. If people have a civil or religious ceremony to get married to more than one person, or are recognized by their community as being married to more than one person, they can go to jail. There is no minimum sentence, so I’m assuming they can sentence based on the harm done, which in the FLDS case is considerable.

The good news for ethical, egalitarian nonmonogamists is that, it does not criminalize multiple relationships, provided you don’t actually marry more than one of your lovers. If you want to live common law with more than one adult, that’s not illegal, so most my acquaintances with multiple partners are not doing anything illegal. Those of them with child custody battles will be and are relieved.

Personally, I’d like to just see heterosexual polygyny (having one man with  more than one wife) made illegal, because that’s the sole practice that has been shown, across the centuries, cultures and religions, to lower the marriage age of girls, increase antisocial behaviour in the young men who are not permitted to marry, reduce paternal investment in children, increase infant mortality rates, increase domestic abuse and reduce the autonomy and personal power of women. There is no evidence that women having multiple husbands or wives causes any problems, or that harms are inherent in situations where both partners are free to love other partners. It’s just the ‘rich guy with lots of wives’ situation, particularly in combination with religious sanction, that seems to be the troublemaker. However, I realize that there’s no chance that this will actually happen, I’m just saying.

The court decision actually explored and addressed the rather well researched harms of polygyny in upholding the law’s constitutionality. Since polygamy is most often practiced by very privileged men, they also dismissed the idea that they would be discriminating against a vulnerable, oppressed minority. They also addressed the community aspect of polygamist abuse, pointing out that FLDS members, most of whom saw nothing wrong with a 15 year old girl marrying a much older man, are incapable of identifying child abuse when they see it.

If these FLDS child abusers are unable to have holy sanction put on their ‘marriages’ to children, then I don’t see how they’re going to maintain the abusive marital ponzi scheme they’ve created. One wife and a bunch of concubines just doesn’t come across as well in a church doctrine, although I don’t doubt they’ll try it. If these girls aren’t married in their own eyes and those of their families, then all the religious rationale goes out the window.

More importantly, it is far easier and more straightforward to prove a marital relationship than child sexual abuse. We can send these abusers to jail and get them away from their  victims, and perhaps give those victims enough time and space to reclaim their autonomy and personal power and crush the whole paedophile ring. May it be so!

Civil libertarians will never understand this. They say ‘oh my gosh, someone is being prevented from doing some relatively minor thing they want to do, their freedom is limited!’. They’ll do court challenges with nice wholesome egalitarian polyamourous families who are, in fact, truly doing nothing wrong, and would probably never be arrested or charged under the law since the police have better things to do. If they do do this, they would once again be choosing the child pornographers, pimps and organized abusers over our most vulnerable souls. And if they do, I will curse them for it, for once again putting someones comparatively inconsequential freedoms ahead of protecting children and women from systemic sexual assault.

What about my freedom to grow up without being raped? What about these FLDS children’s freedom to live without being sexually exploited and coerced into child marriage with the participation of everyone they know? Isn’t that more important? Any sane person would think so, wouldn’t they? If I didn’t know that every day, sexually exploited children are abandoned and ignored, I would think they would have no other sane choice.

I hope they arrest all of these rapists and throw away the key as soon as possible.

May it be so.

Primer for Partners of Sexual Abuse Survivors

Photocredit: Sebastian Crump: Glass mosaic in the Kew Gardens Rhizotron entrance to the treetop walkway

Unlike my other posts, this isn’t written for survivors, but for their partners. Okay, I lied, it’s really written for survivors to give to their partners, and has both answers to frequently asked questions and some helpful tips. I’m mixing up the pronouns here, because a lot of this applies to both women and men, but some of it will apply mainly to partners of women sexual assault survivors.

I’ve strugged for 20 years to explain adequately to my partners how it is to be a child sexual assault survivor and what this means in a relationship. First off, it was because I didn’t know. I spent a long time figuring out how to identify what I was feeling and needing, and how to take care of my own self, and in the interim I gave a lot of mixed messages.  Example: “I’m strong and independent but secretly want you to rescue me, but know that’s not a good idea, so when I feel needy I’m going to hide.”

If you love someone who was sexually assaulted as a child and don’t have related experience yourself, it’s going to be hard to get into their head and vice versa. Being abused makes it hard to have some of the illusions regular people have about the world, and this creates a kind of culture shock between survivors and non survivors.

Because of this, it’s really easy for even well-meaning non-survivors to have reactions and attitudes about survivors that are just not helpful. I had one boyfriend who told me, on seeing a cute picture of me as a child that “you were so cute that must be why your father loved you so much” Don’t say anything like this, he was an idiot and I dumped him. Two years of listening to me grieve and report my father to the police for rape and he says a dumb thing like that? Yikes. Some of my partners would kind of ‘go blank’ when I’d talk about anything abuse related because they didn’t want to ‘get me worked up’. Also not the best response.

My wife has had over ten years to get to know me, and she gets me as well as anyone ever has. Part of it is that she loves me and is a stellar human being, but the other part is I’ve gotten a lot more healed and better at explaining what I need and negotiating for it. I hope to share some of that with you to help you avoid some of the pain and misunderstandings my partners and I have experienced.

Here’s some common questions partners have.

1) Can’t my partner just stop focussing on what happened and get over it?

Post traumatic memories, flashbacks and all the other strange and emotional things that survivors do can’t be ‘forgotten’ or resolved with any quick fixes. Give up on that right now. Here’s  something to read that  hopefully will explain what it’s like to have PTSD and why that’s not possible. By trying to block your partner from getting into his or her feelings about the abuse, you’re just slowing down the process of working it through.

2) I find my partner’s emotional upheaval  overwhelming and I can’t seem to fix it. How long is this going to go on?

About five years for the most intense part of healing, if she or he is in good quality therapy with a qualified therapist on a regular basis and not numbing out with substances. Then another five years or so where she or he will have bouts of intense focus on abuse healing followed by times when things are normal. After that the bouts of focus will happen from time to time, but not as often, usually triggered by a major life event like having a child, experiencing something traumatic as an adult, or the death of an abuser.

If your partner was abused by multiple people, in multiple interpersonal contexts, the healing will be slower and longer. For example, I was abused by my father, severely, but so far as I remember, by no one else. As a result, my friendships, relationships with strangers and colleagues, and general social relationships are relatively abuse-toxin free.  I have a bit of an issue with older men who want to have authority over me, because that mirrors a father-daughter dynamic in some ways, but can tolerate it in contexts where it is necessary if I consent to it. If I had been abused by a relative, and a teacher and a boyfriend and a stranger, the result of that would be that there would be very few  interpersonal situations that weren’t fraught with triggers. This is much harder and slower to recover from, even if the abuse in all of those contexts, overall was not as invasive, because so many types of relationships have been rendered unsafe until they are healed, and are a source of triggers.

Five to ten years sounds like a lot of time, I know, but the good news is that it is very likely that things will improve steadily and rapidly throughout this time for your partner. She or he may not ‘fix’ all the things you find most distressing first, but if she’s in effective therapy and feels safe there will be lots of movement. It’s kind of exciting, really. Your partner is most likely going to continue to grow and heal for the rest of their life. Why not do the same?

It also bears saying that your role is not to be the one who fixes your partner. Yes, you may be a safe haven she or he goes to, the person who is there to hold her when she has night fears, or spot when he has gone numb. This is invaluable, but your partner will also need both a good therapist and other survivors to talk to, even if she thinks you are the only one she can trust. You can do a lot just by being grounded yourself and present, but you’re too close to the action, so to speak, to be her only resource. This ideally will help with the overwhelm, because you can do what is manageable – be present, non-judgemental and love her/him. She or he survived horrors. Your survivor partner is a lot stronger than they look at times. If you are not sure what to say, this may also be helpful.

3) Am I ever going to have sex with my wife or husband again?

Survivors often need to take a break from sex. This is for any one of several reasons. The main one is when a survivor is having intrusive flashbacks (emotion, sight, sound or touch memory fragments) that, unfortunately can be set off by intimacy or sexual touch. They don’t have much control over this yet, and part of healing childhood sexual abuse is learning to process these memory fragments so they stop intruding. It takes awhile to learn this control, to be able to pull oneself into the present day. Some of it is practice, but mostly it’s work done in therapy to hook the memory fragments to one another so they can be put to rest.

When she or he is doing deep work on the abuse, those memory fragments can be close to the surface and harder to dismiss for a while. This means that even if your relationship started with a sex life that seemed to work, she may go through periods of time where she can no longer have sex with you or do certain kinds of sexual activities with you. If she or he has been numbing out emotionally in order to have sex with you without triggering memory fragments (as many survivors do before they start healing) and then learns to stop doing that (which is an essential part of healing) things are going to be really raw for awhile. It will take time to learn the skills to adjust to this new way of being. This could entail drawing back from sex for a bit until she or he has a handle on the intrusive memories again from the new numb-free perspective.

Other reasons for a sexual slowdown are that your partner may have a hard time feeling physical sensations, and be physically numb. It’s hard to enjoy sex or have an orgasm when you don’t feel the pleasure. Often she or he will be numb specifically in the parts of the body most often seen as sexual, because that’s where she or he was injured. These injuries may be physical ones (as in my case) or emotional ones. Having sex without pulling oneself back into the present and feeling safe (as your partner may have done before she or he started actively healing) just makes things worse.

You can expect to have a dry spell of a couple of years at some point with your partner, longer if she or he is not in therapy. I’m sorry. Think of it as if she has a broken pelvis and needs for it to heal thoroughly before getting back in the saddle.

4) What do I do if my partner has a flashback during sex?

First of all, learn to notice when this is happening and check in. Your partner might stop moving or participating, look ‘spacey’ or get quiet. It’s a really good idea to notice this as soon as possible and check in with her or him.

If you don’t get a firm ‘go ahead’ from your partner, stop what you’re doing and back off but stay available. Remind him or her where and when they are, and who they are with. For example, “Susan, it’s okay, you’re safe now. You’re here in our apartment with me. I’m right here. That bad stuff is all over now.” A general term like “that bad stuff is over” is a good idea rather than say “I’m not your grandfather” because you don’t actually know what she’s reacting to. It may have nothing to do with the abuser or abuse you know about, for example. She doesn’t need the additional triggering of being reminded of specifics, particularly if she has multiple abusers or trauma incidents. However, you can always ask what would be comforting for her (when she’s not triggered) for you to say.

If you check in with your partner early enough into a flashback, sometime your partner will be able to stop it before it gets going too far and continue, but most often this is a game over situation, sexually, but not as far as intimacy is concerned. Try and be really really graceful about it, as your partner is particularly vulnerable at these moments. Somebody put their sexual needs before hers in a really traumatic way, so you need to be nothing like the abuser. Handling this gracefully and building trustwill help prevent further flashbacks while having sex with you. If your partner can figure out what triggered the abuse memory fragment, then you two can modify what you’re doing to avoid triggering it again. She might then bring that trigger up in therapy, and by processing it there, calm it down.

Making love with a survivor who is fighting to get her sexual self back might look like taking a break in the middle for her to calm down, have a cry and reassure herself she’s safe, maybe tell you what she experienced, and then going back to making love. This can be a very intimate way to make love if you’re open to it. You may find that by being open to her vulnerability, it makes you feel safe to express your own, or that you enjoy being the one who gives her safe haven, and sees the fierce beauty of her courage.

5) How do I help my partner to keep me separate from the abuser in her or his mind?

Physical differences between you and your lovemaking environment and the situations where your partner was abused are very important. I cannot stress this enough. It makes a huge difference.

The place where you make love should smell and feel different from where she was abused. It should have radically different lighting, colours, sounds. If  your partners abuser had a mustache, shave yours off. If drinking was involved in the abuse, never come to bed with alcohol on your breath. If she had to be quiet during the abuse, making a lot of noise might help keep her present. It will make your life together a lot easier. You and I and your partner know you are not her abuser, but her mind will be playing tricks on her, and the less it has to latch on to, the better.

6) How do we have the best sex possible with my survivor partner?

Make a written ‘safe sex’ list and stick to it. In this context safe means ‘no or low abuse triggers’.  The survivor can make a list of things that are sure fire abuse triggers and things you can do that have no abuse gunk attached to them. These will be unique to each survivor. Group the list by level of safety. Green light items are things that never trigger flashbacks. Red light things will pretty much always trigger flashbacks. Yellow light things might be possible from time to time but the survivor should initiate them.

If there is a sexual act or practice on the red light list that you really really like, give up all hope of ever doing this thing with your survivor partner. She or he might give in and do it, but it will do serious harm to your relationship if she does, and will set you back a lot. You can make a green, yellow, red light list for yourself too. Put on it things you really like (green), things you aren’t that into but will do to please your partner or things you like less than the green things but still like (yellow), and things you pretty much never want to do (red). If some of your red light things match with your partner’s that’s great, neither of you have to do that thing again. Find all  the mutual green light things you can and do them often, or things that are on your survivor partners green list and on your green or yellow list.

Be open to including in your lists activities and experiences that are sensual but not normally thought of as sexual. These will often be relatively trigger free and, especially when there is a dry spell going on, can help a lot to keep  you connected physically and build body associations of pleasure and safety between you that can ground you in your lovemaking.

One last thing, respect your partners need for control. She or he might have only one way that works successfully to make love right now, and which needs to be a certain way in order to come off without flashbacks or tears. Respect that this is the reality now and go with it. I’m not going to promise anything, but chances are that if you stick to the green things and go easy on the yellow ones, some of the yellow will gradually become green and maybe even some of the red will become yellow. However, that will never happen if you rush, pressure or guilt your partner into it.

7) My partner is so spacey and forgetful. I don’t think she cares about my needs.

Okay, spacey and forgetful is a symptom of PTSD – it’s called dissociation. Your partner can no more stop being spacey at will than a person with their leg in a cast can tap dance. It will get better as they heal, but is not under conscious control. It’s not about you. Some things my spouse and I have done to handle my inevitable spaciness is to develop a system of reminders. If she needs me to do something, she sends me an email and I put it into my calendar at work where I will be nagged to do it. We have a nag board where requests can be written down, because I will forget or not hear sometimes when she talks to me. I also now put my purse and keys in one specific place all the time (takes awhile to learn to do this consistently) so I can find it.

8 ) What’s good about loving a childhood sexual assault survivor?

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Your survivor partner is a veteran and deserves the respect of one. As she or he becomes more healed, she or he will have a great capacity to hear and understand the pain and passion of others, and as she heals, an almost super-human bullshit detector.  My wife values my compassion, and my willingness to do the hard things when they are necessary. Survivors make great activists, advisors and leaders.  When the going gets tough, you want a healed survivor at your back.

More Help for Partners of Childhood Sexual Assault Survivors

The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It doesn’t interest me
what you do for a living.
I want to know
what you ache for
and if you dare to dream
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me
how old you are.
I want to know
if you will risk
looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me
what planets are
squaring your moon…
I want to know
if you have touched
the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened
by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know
if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know
if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you
to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations
of being human.

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know
if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me
who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me
where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know
what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know
if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like
the company you keep
in the empty moments.

By Oriah © Mountain Dreaming,
from the book The Invitation
published by HarperONE, San Francisco,
1999 All rights reserved

Here is some other information that might be helpful:

Car Crash – or what PTSD is like – novel

Photocredit: Kel Patolog via Flickr

[Note: Since I first wrote this, this piece has gotten a lot of attention for being a really good way to explain to people in your life what it’s like to have PTSD and Complex PTSD in particular and why there aren’t any quick fixes. I hope it’s helpful for you and your loved ones.]

I’m writing a novel as part of National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org) and the following excerpt is what I wrote today on it.

The novel this year is about sociopaths, a people making sense of a past including child abuse, disconnection with nature and people trying to do the right thing in the face of it. I don’t know exactly what shape the pieces will take yet. I didn’t know last year at this stage iether really, but I suspect it will be more complicated this year. Last year was a simple time-travelling love story.

This is an installment of my novel, in progress. More pieces here.


It’s like this.

Imagine you are a mother driving home from a family function with your nine year old daughter in the passenger seat. You have had one or two drinks but it was awhile ago and you decided you were okay to drive.

The night is rainy and you get into a serious car accident. You are thrown forward in your seat and injure your body where the steering wheel strikes you. Your daughter is killed. You are helpless, pinned inside the car, unable to reach her as she dies before your eyes, convulsing, screaming, blood coming from eyes and ears.

The experience is so overwhelming, emotionally that your brain can’t process it, can’t store it in the usual way. The information flows in to fast and too intensely to be properly filed in one place, all together. The sensation of the steering wheel and the pain in your abdomen gets put in one place, completely separated from the visual memory of your daughters face as she struggled and died. That memory is separate as well from the contempt in the voice of the rescue worker who asked if you had been drinking. That memory is separate from the lights of the semi high beams in your eyes which blinded you for a moment, contributing to the accident. The pain from your chest. The emotional pain of watching your daughter die. Your daughter’s last words.

Those snippets of memory, and hundreds of others from that night are stored in little boxes in your mind, with no connection to the other pieces. They don’t form a whole memory at all, and you have no ability to put them in the correct order or link them to one another. It is too painful and overwhelming when you try, so you don’t.

You receive medical attention but everyone drifts away from you after that and you move to a new place where no-one knows. You vaguely remember that your daughter died in a car accident, but don’t remember details. People think you are lucky not to remember any of it, and are relieved you have nothing to tell them. Knowing it happened at all is bad enough for them, and the uncomfortable look on their faces soon teaches you to not even go that far with them. You can’t tell anyone about what you do remember, because it feels like it was your fault. After awhile you seem to forget it happened at all.

Then one day you are riding the bus and someone pushes you hard, in your abdomen. Suddenly the memory fragment of the crushing sensation in your chest is triggered, which in turn has a connection to the box holding the emotional pain that you don’t know is from watching your daughter die. They both ‘fire’ in your mind simultaneously.

You feel the pain in your chest as if it was happening now, along with a loss so great and horrifying that you panic. There is no other information to explain what this is about. You freeze, ashamed, and people are well meaning but think you are crazy, or think you need a doctor. You think you are crazy too.

Later on, this type of thing happens again and again. Lights in your eyes trigger some part of the memory, or a particular phrase, or seeing a simulated car crash on tv, or seeing someone who looks like your daughter did, seeing a rescue worker in uniform, or being around your family members at the holidays, who carefully do not talk about what happened.

You feel anxious and fearful a lot of the time, but couldn’t say exactly why.

If you are lucky, you will be able to stand the sensation during the gift of memory that is a flashback long enough to put the pieces together a little and don’t try to numb it very often with drugs, or alcohol, food or work. You do remember that your daughter died, and you think that maybe this has something to do with it.

You find a therapist and tell her what you remember consciously, which isn’t much. Your daughter died. You were driving. The rest is a blank. One day you have a session after a particularly intense flashback. While telling her about it, in the safety of a non-judgmental relationship, you have another flashback that fits with the first and make the connection with what you already know. You realize that the lights in your eyes you’ve been having nightmares about are the headlights of the truck you saw that night. The next time you have a nightmare about them, you tell yourself this and it calms you down. The better you get at doing this, the less often you have these nightmares, and you gradually find you can look at headlights at night without feeling much panic. Eventually they are sometimes just headlights, unless you are having a particularly stirred up day.

One day, with a lot of support from your therapist, you get the courage to ask after the accident reports. You travel back to the town you lived, practicing deep breathing to keep from having panic attacks when you see familiar landmarks. The day you go to the station and get access to the report, you are terrified. Some of what is written is not exactly as you remember it, it is told from a different perspective. It reads like it happened to another person. When you read in the police station archives, that it said you’d indicated you’d had a drink at the party prior to driving, you become unable to read further and freeze. You run into the bathroom, find a stall and break into deep sobs in the police office. You hope no-one comes in and hears you, or worse, asks what is wrong.

However, the report helps because it gives you a framework to attach the snippets of sensation and memory that intrude into your consciousness or have been invited during therapy sessions. You find that they all fit at some place in the story, and you begin to have compassion for the woman who experienced this tragedy, that woman who doesn’t quite feel like yourself.

Now imagine that the situation is not a car accident, witnessed and documented by police, so you can check the validity of your memory fragments. Imagine that an incident equally horrifying or worse was perpetrated on you by a loved and trusted person while you were a child under their control. Imagine that there was no medical attention, even though you were seriously injured, and no one to help or tell. Imagine that it wasn’t a single traumatic incident’s worth of sensation fragments to piece together, but fifty, spread out over a decade or more. Imagine that as a result of the first couple of incidents, you had walked around in a self-protective haze for most of your childhood. Imagine that as a result, your brain didn’t bother to store the kind of information that provides context and meaning for these later traumas, but only the sensations of pain or horror. You are missing a large number of key pieces of several of the memories, meaning that without outside validation, you will likely never be able to explain or integrate them fully for yourself, make them whole and stop them from intruding into your life.

Imagine that your family members refuse to talk to you about what they remember of what happened, because it is too painful for them, or because they don’t want you to remember what happened, they blame you or they don’t want you to remember their part in condoning it. Imagine that they tell you that you are lying, making it all up, that you are crazy, either directly or indirectly. Or imagine that instead they say they believe you that this person hurt you, but don’t think it was a big deal and still spend christmas every year with the family member who hurt you. They expect you to do the same.

If you are lucky, you will divorce your family, get good therapy, and find some friends with similar experiences who understand and normalize what happened. If you are lucky you will have a spouse who becomes trained to hold you and calm you at night when you have nightmares, or if you have flashbacks during lovemaking, does not take it personally and learns not to touch you in ways that trigger the minefield of memory fragments. With luck and time, you connect the puzzle pieces you can, and develop what explanation you can for those you cannot connect. You learn, in the midst of the panic, to tell yourself, “this is abuse stuff” and that you are safe now, and most of the time that helps enough. If you are lucky and face it as square on, for as long as you can, then the memory fragments intrude less and less, and eventually they stop. You make peace with the mysteries you can’t solve, and protect yourself from further harm effectively.

You don’t tell most people about all this, as it upsets them and often they say stupid things that make it worse. They ask why you aren’t over it by now. They say “parents do the best they can with what they know at a time” or “forgiveness will set you free”. Their own experiences with minor wounds and misdeeds tell them that these are the truth, so they think it applies to you.

Friends you trust enough to tell how it really is are uncomfortable with the anger you have worked hard to feel and express, because turning it inside poisons you. They tell you that forgiving the sociopath who hurt you solely for his or her own enjoyment will magically make all the aftereffects disappear, forcing you to make the decision to tell them what naïve fools they are or just change the subject. Sometimes you want to ask them, “will forgiving the truck that hit you make the broken bones go away?”

If you are lucky, you will have some people in your life who never say these things, or you will soon have no friends at all. You learn not to tell most people things they can’t understand, which means that sometimes your behaviour is unexplainable.

Without being able to share the facts, it becomes impossible to explain in a compelling enough way to strangers, that unless they want to hold your hand, remind you to breathe, listen to you tell them the disjointed snippets of what you remember about being trapped and tortured in a small box, and comfort you afterward, all of which would actually healing, you simply cannot ride in an elevator today.

Some days you can do it with no more than some attention to deep relaxing breathing, and focusing on the elevator musak and the knowledge that you are safe and an adult. Doing this often enough will make things permanently better, but takes a lot of internal fortitude each time. However, you know from experience that if you do succumb to pressure and ride in the damn elevator (or whatever) when you’re not ready, you will pay by going numb for days, and spend days on high emotional alert and nights of nightmares. Because  they don’t or won’t understand why you have needs they don’t, people find you rigid and odd. They have no idea how courageous you are.