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Sex, Intimacy, and Sexual Violence Survivors - Chat Transcript

The Pandora's Aquarium chat room welcomed Wendy Maltz, MSW, as a guest speaker on January 31, 2008.   An internationally recognized writer and sex therapist, Maltz is the author of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Learn more on her website: healthysex.com.

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Whitney: Hi Wendy - we have some pre-submitted questions that I'll ask for the group

If you can, just focus on the present - and let the past compost.
Wendy: Okay

QUESTION: "I started dating a new partner. How do I tell him/her about the assault?"

Wendy: You have lots of options as to when how and how much. I'd wait until you feel like friends first and begin by sharing in general terms--too much info too soon can be risky.

QUESTION: "I am in a healthy relationship, but I experience pain having sex. What can I do about it?"

Wendy: See a doctor and make sure you don't have a nagging infection and that your vaginal walls are in good shape. Some survivors suffer from a condition called vaginismus that involves the involuntary contracting of the outer third of the vagina upon attempted entry. A treatment program using vaginal dilators (don't be scared--we call them "miracle tubes" can be helpful. You can find information in my book The Sexual Healing Journey on them and how they work.

QUESTION: Can that be treated medically or is it more of a therapeutic issue?

Wendy: A certified sex therapist or physical therapist who works on women's health knows about dilators.

QUESTION: "I was recently raped and I can't let my partner touch me. What do I do?"

Wendy: That's understandable. Sorry to hear about the rape. Touch issues are common, especially in the beginning of healing. It's important that touch be very nurturing and not sexual until YOU feel like exploring sex slowing in steps.

QUESTION: Speaking of therapists... How do therapists perceive us when we share that we do things to ourselves that are unhealthy sexually, specifically self-harm type of things. This feels so dirty and shameful and I worry about being seen differently by my therapist. How can we feel "safe" in bringing this up to a therapist, even a trusted one? Or for that matter, address any sort of sexual question without shame?

Wendy: Most good therapists understand self-harm as a repercussion of sex abuse. The key is whether you convey you want to heal and stop the behavior or not. It's hard to work with someone who is not at all committed to healthy change.

Wendy: It's good to check out a therapist with experience with sexuality issues and sexual abuse recovery--they understand and are easier to talk with and can help more.

QUESTION: Moving backward for a moment, can you give a specific example of how to tell a new partner about your assault in "general terms?" This is where many members have issues.

Wendy: "Something happened to me as a child/teen/adult. Someone else hurt/violated me sexually"

QUESTION: How can we let them know that going into detail about the abuse/rape is too painful, but that we still want to have the topic on the table?

Wendy: Potential partners can hear it better if they know you are in recovery or have done some recovery--details about exactly what happened to you can come as you get to know the person better. I was raped by a relative vs. my uncle did this and this and this.

QUESTION: "Can you give an overview of what you call the "relearning touch techniques"?

Wendy: It helps if a new partner is willing to do some reading about sexual abuse so you have a common understanding of it and the healing process before sharing a lot. You can let a potential partner know you appreciate his/her concerns and interest, but that you still want to reveal slowly.

QUESTION: How our partners can help us heal sexually comes up often for many of us - what resources would you suggest for partners?

Wendy: Relearning touch techniques are described briefly in an article on my website healthysex.com and in detail in The Sexual Healing Journey and on a video (see website). They are a great way to make up for lost learning due to abuse and learn how to approach sex slowly and in a way in which healing can occur. Laura Davis's book Allies in Healingis good. I have a chapter for partners in my book--see resources section in The Courage to Healfor more.

QUESTION: "I want to begin to heal, but I get triggered and embarrassed reading, talking, etc about sex. How can I get comfortable enough with the entire issue so I can start to unravel sex from rape; what’s healthy and what’s not?"

Wendy: Don't confuse sex (healthy sex based on caring and respect) with abusive sex (domination/exploitation and pain). Begin with developing a positive concept for what you want to experience. I have a comparison chart of abusive/addictive sex with healthy sex on my website. Also the free article on the site: "The Maltz Hierarchy of Sexual Interaction" can help make important distinctions.

Whitney: thank you, that sounds wonderful!

QUESTION: "-How do I work on sexual healing if I don't have a partner right now?"

Wendy: Lots you can do. Learn about healthy sex. Focus on good self-care and having a healthy sexual sense of yourself. Develop good boundaries and assertiveness skills. Develop ways to pleasure yourself that enhance your self-esteem both sexually and non-sexually. Get strong in body, mind and spirit. Focus on what you want in a partner and go for it, don't settle for less.

QUESTION: "-How can you start a healthy sexual relationship after a long absence? How can you re-establish comfort with your partner and not feel as though you’ve regressed?"

Wendy: Begin with the relearning touch exercises or some other kind of progressive way of moving from nurturing touch to more sexual touch that you invent on your own. Sleeping together can be just sleeping together --:-). You know we use the word "making love" a lot in our culture--but how many of us really take it to heart when we are relating sexually?

Whitney: I know that Jennifer has been receiving many questions from the members here, so I'll turn the floor over to her now that you've answered so many of our preselected questions - thank you so much!

Jennifer: Thank you! Most of what I submit will show up in the members' own words, but some questions I will have to re-format for the room.

QUESTION: How can you locate a sex therapist? Does insurance pay for it?

Wendy: You can contact aasect.org for a list of sex therapist in your area. But interview them first as to how much they know and have helped survivors (one's who are familiar with my work are good bets). Insurance companies don't cover sex problems per se, but since sex problems cause anxiety and depression, when given those kinds of diagnosis, it can get covered. Also post-traumatic stress condition is widely covered.

QUESTION: How come minimizing or denying past abuse does not work?

Wendy: The abuse is your truth--and truths can not be denied or minimized. You want to move beyond the trauma, but honor it as well. Abuse is a betrayal and emotional abandonment. Denying and minimizing are ways we betray ourselves. So being truthful and real about it overcomes shame and is healthier.

QUESTION: My boyfriend tells me that I am great at giving him oral sex, which makes me feel good to know he is happy and I enjoy it. The problem is oral sex was part of my rape and hearing that I am "good" at it bothers me. How do I tell my boyfriend?

Wendy: You want to make your emotional connection take precedence over physical acts. Let your boyfriend know thanks but what would be best is if he just said he likes all the ways you love him and that he loves and values you in many ways too. Though the sexual acts in abuse and healthy sex may functionally look the same or be done similarly--there is a world of difference. When you are doing any sexual "act" focus on the positive qualities of what's going on. And focus on the differences with the past. Actually, if you can just focus on the present..and let the past compost.

QUESTION: How can I overcome my fear of a partner using knowledge of my past to hurt me or take advantage of me?

Wendy: If you think your partner will use past knowledge to hurt you than the level of trust in your relationship is very low and should be a red flag to get out---or at the least get to know him better before becoming more emotionally or physically intimate.

QUESTION: would you approach telling your longtime (several years' relationship) partner in a different way than you would a new partner?

Wendy: Yes. "There is something I'd like to tell you...may come as a surprise...but now that we are so close I feel a need to tell you..." And again, share in steps going from general information to details according to how informed about sexual abuse healing your partner is.

QUESTION: how do you work with a partner who struggles to not "feel sorry" for our sexual trauma?

Wendy: Varies on the person....a survivor may hold on to feeling sorry because no one else is. Or it may be a way of resisting making changes that seem overwhelming, etc....

QUESTION: Sometimes when I'm in the midst of a sex act with my partner, I have a physical reaction such as vomiting or crying- when I may or may not have been knowingly triggered. How can I work on this and how can I help my partner support me through?

Wendy: You probably need to track your feelings and thoughts in sex more so as to slow down or stop before getting triggered. If you are having such strong reactions it can be a sign that you have more emotional healing work to do before you are ready to be that sexual with someone else. You and your partner need to check in more and become a team in this. You may have a dissociative part that is having trouble handling the sex and needs healing.

QUESTION: How would you explain to a long-term partner that you want to re-learn and slow down - when you have already been very sexual with them, without making them feel rejected or pushed away? How do you "go backwards" sexually in the relationship?

Wendy: you might share that in order to continue feeling safe and open in sex and to develop more intimacy you need this healing work. My husband and I had to take a break and do sexual healing work when I was writing the The Sexual Healing Journey and realized I needed some of my own medicine of the relearning touch exercises. It was a hard time, but has enriched our experience for many years and now I'm glad for it. Every couple can benefit from relearning touch---it strengthens intimacy.

QUESTION: Why do some survivors hate their body parts that have been abused?

Wendy: I think it's a kind of internalizing the perpetrator-victim dynamic. You need to realize it was not your body part's fault what happened. Body parts are innocent, like children and didn't cause or deserve abuse. Learn to love your whole self. Reactions that occur are natural consequences of stimulation and stress in abuse...forgive body parts that may have responded...it was all part of taking care of self and coping.

QUESTION: During my assault I had an orgasm. Now, when it comes time to orgasm I end up having a flashback. This usually makes me dissociate or push my partner off of me. I don't want to do either, I want to enjoy sex. What can I do to overcome this?

Wendy: Practice imagining having an orgasm and couple those thoughts with something else that relates to your life now or something nice in nature. For example, a beautiful sunrise, words "I love you", etc. The next time you have an orgasm with your partner insert your new association as fast as you can....also have a plan "B" of your partner just holding you and taking time to remind yourself that that was the then, this is the now. Orgasm is neutral.... Like with shaking hands---the behavior can be creepy and negative or warm and loving--it's not the response, it's the context that matters.

QUESTION: How can I involve my partner in my healing without it reaching a level where he's "caretaking"?

Wendy: Assume responsibility and action for your own healing. Tell your partner that while his support is helpful---this this and this is what works and this this and this isn't necessary. The more loved ones see the survivor moving forward in healing the more they tend to step back.

QUESTION: I tend to detach during sexual acts how can I work on that?

Wendy: Focus on your breathing more and positive thoughts of caring and connection that have been built with your partner (or self if self-loving). Music, candles, eye contact, smiling and words of love, can also help. Take breaks, too. To rest and listen to each others heartbeats.

QUESTION: I've been married for a long time. for many years, I had a sexual relationship with my spouse, but we have been abstinent for three years. Is it possible to resume a healthy sexual relationship? Can you give me hints?

Wendy: Boy, you'd need to explore why things died sexually and deal with unresolved issues that caused the loss in the first place. Then work together, with the help of a therapist ideally, to reapproach sex and sexual loving together.

Wendy: I can do one more question, that's all.

QUESTION: How do we start rebuilding trust within ourselves, and with potential new partners?

Wendy: Trust relates to being honest and consistent. Follow-through on your commitments to self and partners, speak the truth even when it's difficult, respect yourself and partner.
Wendy: I read a quote recently, I think it was from Adoul Huxley. He said that years of experience taught him mainly one thing: be kind to yourself, life isn’t easy. I like that.

Whitney: Wendy, we are so grateful that you’ve shared your expertise with us tonight. As you know, sexual healing is a difficult part of healing, and being able to talk about it openly is a wonderful step for all of us in our recovery. Thank you so much for coming.

Wendy: My pleasure, all best to everyone. Bye!!!

Whitney: I like that too. What a wonderful note for us to close on tonight. Thank you for coming.

Jes: Thank you very much, Wendy! We've appreciated this opportunity!


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