Sex Q&A

Sex Question Friday: I Have Trouble Getting Physical Because of My Past. What Can I Do?

June 1, 2012 by Justin Lehmiller

Every Friday on the blog, I answer questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader of the blog who is having issues expressing physical intimacy as a result of a previous sexual trauma.

I have a problem getting physical with anyone because of my past. I was molested and almost raped when I was younger and anytime I try to be physical with my partner, I start having a panic attack. Are there any studies about this kind of thing about a solution? It doesn’t help that my partner isn’t as understanding as they should be, but I would really like to get past this. Thanks for any help you can offer.

Thank you for your question and for sharing your story. It is an unfortunate reality in our world that childhood sexual abuse is a common occurrence. In fact, a recent study considering data from 22 different countries found that about 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 12 boys were sexually abused before the age of 18 [1]. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse often experience physical and psychological aftereffects, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. Many survivors also have difficulties developing and maintaining sexual and romantic relationships as adults [2,3]. Thus, you are certainly not alone in your experiences.

You are doing the right thing by seeking help, and you will be relieved to know that the effects you are experiencing are likely treatable. It has been well-established in the scientific literature that adults who seek clinical treatment for childhood sexual abuse typically experience a significant reduction in psychological symptoms as well as improvements in developing relationships [4]. Thus, the best advice I can give you is to seek professional help. Please keep in mind that there is not a quick and easy solution to the difficulties you are experiencing, and it is unlikely that you will find the help that you need in a book or on the Internet. Your best bet is to find a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist who specializes in treating issues of sexual abuse and to begin a treatment program as soon as possible.

If you aren’t sure where to start with this, consider checking in with the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network or another sexual assault response center because they can assist you in finding a local counselor as well as provide you with additional information and resources that you may find to be helpful.

As for the issue with your partner, it is unfortunate that they are not as understanding as you need them to be. My guess is that he or she has simply never dealt with issues of sexual abuse before and does not know how to respond properly and be supportive. They may also be experiencing their own emotional reactions to your abuse that they are not sure how to cope with. If you feel comfortable doing so, you may wish to sit down with your partner and have a conversation about what you are feeling and what you need from them. Alternatively, you might send your partner a link to a webpage about how to help a loved one who has experienced sexual abuse (such as this one). If you try these things and your partner still isn’t being supportive, then you may need to reevaluate whether this relationship is right for you because you need and deserve an understanding partner.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here. To send in a question for a future edition, click here.

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[1] Pereda, N., Guilera, G., Forns, M., & Gomez-Benito, J. (2009). The prevalence of child sexual abuse in community and student samples: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 328-338.

[2] Leonard, L. M., & Follette, V. M. (2002). Sexual functioning in women reporting a history of child sexual abuse: Review of the empirical literature and clinical implications. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 346-388.

[3] Colman, R. A., & Widom, C. S. (2004). Childhood abuse and neglect and adult intimate relationships: A prospective study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 28, 1133-1151.

[4] Price, J. L., Hilsenroth, M. J., Petretic-Jackson, P. A., & Bonge, D. (2001). A review of individual psychotherapy outcomes for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 1095-1121.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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