When sexual unfolding occurs prematurely and in a context of force, coercion, brutality and objectification, elements become intertwined that under healthy, developmentally natural circumstances, would not. According to Dr. Mark Schwartz the Clinical Director of Harmony Place Monterey, the most damaging fusion of elements may be the pairing of terror with sexual arousal.
It is important to keep in mind a child’s limitations in processing and coding overwhelming sensory-affective experiences, ie primary process thinking… When an adult sexually abuses a young child, the child does not always perceive what is happening as sexual. He/she sees threatening movement, objects, and shapes coming at him too fast, feels overwhelming stimulation, too much too fast to process. He/She is flooded, immobilized, panicked and, psychologically catapulted beyond any known frames of reference. He/She has no basis for understanding these actions, can’t breathe, the body is crushed under the adult weight, his orifices are violated, he/she thinks they will die. And amidst all this annihilating havoc, there is the birth of sexual arousal, classically and operantly conditioned, paired now and ever after with images of violence and feelings of violation, humiliation, unbounded terror and fear of death. In the future when feeling scared, feeling arousal. Since there may be many scary things in the environment of a child being chronically sexually abused, he is often scared and may begin to touch himself or move in ways that provide some temporary resolution of this genital sensory overload that continues to occur out of nowhere in his perception. The child does not know that what he does is compulsive masturbation — he simply seeks relief from what is overwhelming him sensorially. If in response, he is punished or humiliated, or his actions are used by the perpetrator to convince him he “wants” more abuse, then the damage is exponentially compounded.
One “solution” to this situation of irreconcilable conflict and shame is that the dissociative child may split, and a part of self encapsulates the belief system or cognitive distortions propagated by the perpetrator. This part of self may claim to “like” the abuse, welcome it, view his or her own existence as centered around performing sexually, and claim to view the perpetrator as an ally or “my only friend.” This adaptation is not uncommon when the sexual abuse is escalating and at the hands of a particularly brutal father or father figure in the context of little available nurturing by other caregivers. It permits the child to not have to relinquish a beloved and needed love object, the father. The cost, however, is a part of self that continues to enact its role over and over (often into adulthood), even after the abuse that originated it has ceased. In so doing, the self-attributions of badness become increasingly entrenched, and the individual is drawn to circumstances likely to culminate in revictimization after revictimization.
Prerequisites for Healthy Sexuality vs. Trauma Learning
To feel intimate with another individual, one must feel safe. Simply lying naked next to another person involves a tremendous degree of vulnerability. Ideally one should feel that his being, both physical and emotional, will be respected. To safely transcend the physical boundaries that separate two bodies, one must initially feel a sense of and a right to bodily and emotional integrity. One must feel entitled to have feelings and sensations, to say yes, to say no, to set limits, to protect self from harm and to move to enhance comfort and pleasure.
For an individual whose sexuality unfolded in the context of violation, these are foreign concepts. Sensation has been annihilating, feelings suppressed, comfort, and pleasure an illusion quickly giving way to escalating danger. The right to say no is unknown. The sexual connection has not been about two individuals of equal power and capacity entering into an experience by mutual agreement. Sexuality has consisted of subjugation and
submission, with any early attempts at struggle giving way to a robot-like endurance of acts of violation and devastation.
Teaching healthy sexuality to survivors of sexual abuse must involve basic information giving, and permission within a context of affection giving, because what they learned and experienced regarding sexual bodily response was steeped in shame and misinformation. Often there were implicit messages that one must barter one’s body for safety. Any act of kindness by an authority figure is suspected of leading, sooner or later, to a demand for “payment.” Sexual interaction is not perceived as an autonomous act for self but rather a choiceless conditioned response to certain stimuli.
Much of the possibility for healthy sexual functioning involves unlearning the lessons of trauma and learning anew about respect for the body, entitlement to boundaries, intimacy as a function of consistent respect and earned trust, and sexuality-based in sharing and safety rather than in coercion and victimization.
At some level, before we can learn to trust another, we must be able to trust ourselves. A survivor who feels unentitled to say no cannot afford to say yes. A survivor who chooses partners out of trauma-bonding to the original abuse continues to be in danger. A survivor who relives rape with every sexual touch cannot feel safe enough to explore his sexuality. A survivor who is continuously at war with her body cannot also be its defender.
The basic philosophy of treatment at Harmony Place Monterey is that sexual problems are a subset of disorders of intimacy and require disorganized contradictory dissociated systems to become “Integrated” in what Mary Main described as “earned-secure” (Main). Attachment “Earned secure” refers to a “fresh” look at ones past and a metacognitive shift to make meaning of recollections. Also critical to recovery is formally breaking the trauma-bond, in which the therapist identifies the dissociative parts of self-involved in destructive choices of reenactment and enables the client to attach the contradictory cognition and affect the actual childhood events that contributed to their origin. Even with time-limited therapies, newer techniques of psychotherapy can greatly facilitate recovery from trauma.