In Canada, 1 in 3 females experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18. We are all aware of the devastating emotional and psychological long-term effects of child sexual abuse, but what about the effect it has on the woman’s intimate relationships in adulthood? Unfortunately most survivors who feel that there is something wrong, do not feel comfortable raising the issue with their family physician, so they are left unsure as to whether the problem they are experiencing is related to their past. So how can sexual abuse in childhood affect a woman’s later relationships and what can a woman do that has concerns about what she is experiencing?
Attachment and nurture are so important to humans, especially in infancy and early childhood, that without both, serious developmental issues can develop. From infancy we need to know that we can trust the world; it is crucial for the development of self-worth. This need for closeness, to bond with another is known as “attachment theory”. Research into attachment has shown that unhealthy attachment bonds in childhood can continue throughout adulthood. According to attachment theory, having a history of sexual abuse will result in more negative perceptions of the self, intimate relationships, and their emotional experiences within the relationship. Unfortunately, many abused women are less likely to be in a committed relationship. Invasive thoughts and defensiveness as a result of childhood sexual abuse make it difficult to form close relationships. Even though they are capable of having healthy attachment bonds, it is much more difficult for them. These women are more likely to live with someone for a short period of time, leave them, and shortly thereafter move in with someone else. Some of these partners may be abusive. When an abuse victim does marry, there is a much higher rate of divorce compared with non-abused women. Unfortunately when they find themselves in abusive relationships whether physical, sexual or emotional; many find it difficult to leave these relationships. How the individual views their past, adversely affects their view of the present. This means that the quality of adult relationships depends on how the survivor viewed their childhood experiences. If the child believed that this form of attention was normal, they may not be as affected as a child who was traumatized by the experience. The child’s age, the frequency of the abuse, and the severity of the abuse also play a role in the effect the abuse has on the child. When a parent or other family figure is associated with the sexual abuse, the child’s ideas of nurture and love can become quite distorted. Intimacy as well as sexual problems can develop in adulthood.
Sexual abuse can significantly affect a female’s sexuality and will present in many different ways. If the perpetrator was a male, the woman may be very cautious toward men and her desire for sexual activity may be low. The woman may also experience painful intercourse, which would certainly decrease her interest in sexual activity. It should be noted however, that not all cases of sexual trauma lead the individual to a decrease in desire. In fact, many develop a higher than average libido. Associated with an increased sex drive is risky sexual activity with multiple partners. Sexual risk taking reflects a difficulty in establishing stable and safe relationships. Women may experience high levels of sexual guilt with the increased number of partners. This guilt tends to emphasize their low self-esteem, depression and difficultly establishing boundaries. Although they may have more sexual experiences and relationships, they do not derive as much satisfaction as a non-abused woman.
For women who are experiencing any of the problems listed above help is available. If a woman has never sought help for the trauma she experienced as a child, it is advised that she do this as a first step. A counsellor can be a great source of support and can help the woman move through her feelings of fear, guilt, depression, or any other feelings she may be experiencing. Once this is completed, the woman can address any problems she may be experiencing in her relationship. Issues such as intimacy or communication can be addressed further as a couple in couple’s counselling. It is also recommended that the couple seek sex therapy. A sex therapist can help with any sexual problems the couple may be experiencing. A visit to the family physician should however be the first step in order to rule out any physical causes for the sexual issues. Most importantly the woman should not give up. Reaching out for help can be a very frightening experience for the woman and it is vital that the partner be supportive during this process. It is usually a slow process, but with patience and hard work the woman can have a deeper more intimate relationship with her partner.