How I'm Rebuilding My Relationship With Sex After Surviving Child Sexual Abuse

The foundation of my sexuality was forged in a nightmare. I’ve grown, but every day I’m fighting to remind myself I am worthy of love, writes Hannah Shewan Stevens.
Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

For three years of my childhood, I was groomed and sexually abused. As just a child, my bodily autonomy was snatched away, and a path was set for my sexuality before I ever consented to a sexual act.

Many things are impacted by childhood sexual abuse and the effects do not disappear once you hit adulthood – long after the abuse stopped, the impact of my abuser’s actions haunted my every step.

My sexuality and my self-esteem were irrevocably changed by the abuse, and I have spent years working through it. My abuser trained me to be passive in everything, and that sexual placidity has been hard to undo. The manipulation I endured also made me believe that I had some control over the abuse, which ensured I laid the blame at my own feet when it abruptly stopped. Those years of grooming left me prone to manipulation and reliant on male approval for validation.

But I turned the abuse on its head and found a road to healing: self-pleasure.

As a teenager, I had no tools to navigate the world of sexual intimacy. I knew what sexual acts were biologically – but I didn’t know that emotions were supposed to be involved or that mutual respect was crucial. And, most damagingly, I had no clue what consent was. All I’d been groomed to do was obey the whims of men.

“I had no clue what consent was. All I’d been groomed to do was obey the whims of men.”

I lost myself in a flurry of dangerous sexual situations. I would sacrifice my comfort for the pleasure of others, accept being pursued by older men, fall into a pattern of sexual objectification.

The only explanation I can give for my state of mind is the nickname I gave the mask I slipped on during sex – “prostitute mode” – a name I found after seeing Pretty Woman for the first time, listening to Julia Roberts explain the mindset she switched to when servicing a john. That one scene resonated with me more than any teen rom-com ever had.

A vicious cycle of sexual chaos ruled my life for years and, during my first relationship, I struggled to connect emotion with intimacy. I could feel the pleasure of sexual intimacy but, emotionally, I was numbed.

Through intensive ‘inner child therapy’, I began to connect intimacy and romantic feeling and eventually I was able to ‘feel’ something while having sex. But that was just the beginning of my journey. I had to learn how to work with my traumatised mind, instead of against it, and I did a mental deep dive to confront the emotional detachment that had prevented me from engaging with emotions while sexually active. I continue to work on it every day.

Alongside the shame I felt over the abuse I endured, I was also deeply ashamed of my high sex drive, a well-known effect of childhood sexual abuse. I became terrified of my own sexuality.

“To reclaim my body, I had to develop self-respect and stop self-objectifying my body on behalf of others. Self-pleasure was the only place to start.”

The abuse made me feel as though I had lost ownership over my own body. I felt like an object first and a woman second. To reclaim my body, I had to develop self-respect and stop self-objectifying my body on behalf of others. Self-pleasure was the only place to start.

After years of prioritising my partner’s pleasure, I knew I had to learn what pleasure really meant to me. I spent a lot of time with myself to explore and determine what it was that I enjoyed. I embraced masturbation and, slowly, I learned what worked for me.

The process helped me to understand my body, and reclaim it as my own. As I developed my sexuality, I finally learned how to have sex freely and with complete respect for myself. However, to this day, I still need to carefully monitor myself during sexual encounters in case I start to disassociate.

While constant vigilance may not sound freeing to many, I have never felt so liberated in my sexuality. I get to enjoy the intense power of sex combined with feeling and I finally understand why love and sex are meant to intertwine. It’s a beautiful, powerful act and I feel privileged to get to partake in a healthy way. I fight hard every day for it and I will never take it for granted.

Reclaiming my sexuality has also instilled a greater sense of confidence in all areas of my life. Considering the war I fight inside my head every day, I know that I can tackle anything else life decides to throw at me.

“Healing from any kind of sexual trauma is not a simple process. Trauma does not disappear overnight.”

Then I met someone who revolutionised the way I saw myself. Slowly, he set me on a path up a mountain I had no idea I needed to climb. I embraced my body with him and, finally, I learned what it’s like to feel sexy. He was the first partner I’d ever had who genuinely wanted to share in my pleasure, rather than use me for his own. With him at my side, I harnessed the power of my own sexuality for myself and, in time, it has helped to heal many wounds.

I’m living with complex PTSD, and I have nightmares so intense that I procrastinate sleep to avoid them. But I’m growing – healing from any kind of sexual trauma is not a simple process. Trauma does not disappear overnight. So while I have to train my brain every single day, self-pleasure remains my key to survival.

Any time I feel like I am slipping away from reality, I use self-pleasure to ground myself and to reconnect my mind with my body. And, on particularly bad days, I put myself in front of a mirror and remind myself I am stronger than the abuse. I am worthy of love. I am a powerful woman with agency and autonomy. I am a sexual survivor and I am not ashamed.

I never will be again.

Hannah Shewan Stevens is a freelance journalist, press officer, and campaigner, producing workshops to help others develop healthy sexuality following sexual trauma. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahshewans

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