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Many adult survivors of sexual abuse find that their sexual attitudes and reactions are impacted after a sexual assault or sexual abuse. While these effects are not permanent, they can be very frustrating as they can decrease the enjoyment of one's sexual life and intimacy with others for some time. Fortunately, even if one does not actively work on sexual healing, as the sexual assault or abuse is healed, the sexual symptoms will diminish.

Experiencing sexual symptoms after sexual assault or abuse is not only very common, but it is also understandable; "sexual abuse is not only a betrayal of human trust and affection, but it is, by definition an attack on a person's sexuality."2 Some people may react to this attack by avoiding sexual activity and isolating their sexual selves, perhaps fearing losing control of their body or feeling vulnerable to someone else. Others may react by having more sexual activity than they had before this experience; possibly because they may feel that sex is less important to them now or that it is a way for them to regain a sense of power. No matter what your reaction after a sexual assault or sexual abuse, it is important to remember that it is part of your healing, helping you process what happened to you and regain a sense of normalcy.

Common sexual symptoms

The sexual effects that a survivor may experience after sexual abuse or sexual assault may be present immediately after the experience(s), or they may appear long afterwards. Sometimes the effects are not present until you are in a trusting and loving relationship, or when you truly feel safe with someone. The ten most common sexual symptoms after sexual abuse or sexual assault include:

  1. Avoiding or being afraid of sex
  2. Approaching sex as an obligation
  3. Experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
  4. Having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
  5. Feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
  6. Experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
  7. Engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviours
  8. Experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
  9. Experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
  10. Experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties

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Discovering your specific sexual symptoms is an important part of beginning sexual healing. It can be very upsetting to think about all the ways that the sexual assault or abuse has influenced you sexually, yet by knowing, you can begin to address those symptoms specifically. One way to uncover your sexual symptoms is to complete the Sexual Effects Inventory in The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz. This inventory is a tool to give you a general picture of your sexual concerns at this time, and it will indicate to you how the sexual assault or abuse may have impacted your attitudes about sex, your sexual selfconcept, your sexual behavior, and your intimate relationships. Although completing the inventory can be overwhelming, it can be a good place to start in understanding how your sexuality has been impacted by the abuse.

Many of the effects of the sexual assault/abuse on your sexuality are a result of the sexual abuse mind-set. This mind-set consists of false beliefs about sex, and it is common to experience after a sexual assault or abuse. False beliefs about sex are commonly developed because the sexual assault or abuse is confused with sex. It is important to remember that while sexual activity was a part of the sexual assault or abuse, it was not healthy sex because it was not consensual and the perpetrator used sexual activity to gain power over you, making it abusive sex. The following table summarizes the differences between healthy sexual attitudes and sexual attitudes that equate sex to sexual abuse. With time, and the suggestions given later, it is possible to shift a sexual abuse mind-set to healthy sexual attitudes.

Sexual Attitudes3

Sexual Abuse Mind-set
(sex = sexual abuse)
Healthy Sexual Attitudes
(sex = positive sexual energy)
Sex is uncontrollable energy Sex is controllable energy
Sex is an obligation Sex is a choice
Sex is addictive Sex is a natural drive
Sex is hurtful Sex is nurturing, healing
Sex is a condition for receiving love Sex is an expression of love
Sex is "doing to" someone Sex is sharing with someone
Sex is a commodity Sex is part of who I am
Sex is void of communication Sex requires communication
Sex is secretive Sex is private
Sex is exploitive Sex is respectful
Sex is deceitful Sex is honest
Sex benefits one person Sex is mutual
Sex is emotionally distant Sex is intimate
Sex is irresponsible Sex is responsible
Sex is unsafe Sex is safe
Sex has no limits Sex has boundaries
Sex is power over someone Sex is empowering