It is no surprise that after being sexually abused as a child, many times sexual behaviors become an issue in adult intimacy. In fact, it is not uncommon to have flashbacks during lovemaking. That’s because as strong emotions came to the surface when young children were being sexually assaulted, they learned to associate sex with the emotions of terror, confusion, helplessness, and/or hopelessness.
What is hard for children to unlearn is the confusion around liking the attention from the “loving” parent, but disliking the hurtful behavior caused by sexual molestation. Add to this the dimension of denial because a child can’t reconcile the fact that the person who is supposed to be loving and taking care of them is also abusing and neglecting them.
It is no wonder than that having sex with someone can bring forward all kinds of unprocessed memories. It is very disconcerting to be making love to someone you feel safe with and trust only to get flashbacks sometime during the lovemaking. Those strong emotions that come forward are rooted in the past, for example, when you see your abuser’s face as you make love.
It is only natural to feel the old shame and guilt for having been made to be a part of their assault(s). It helps to understand that these unwanted memories are directly related to childhood experiences, and with an understanding partner who doesn’t push you, but instead takes it slow—over time, those old associations will recede as you put them in the past.
A partner can help most by first noticing when their partner either seems to be frozen or has a far-off look on their face. When this happens, it might be best if the lovemaking were to stop and that the survivor be reassured that they are in the present and things are different now. Being defensive doesn’t help. It is not something the survivor can help but something they need to work through over time.
For one survivor, it was very helpful for her to learn she could say “Stop” and the lovemaking did stop. For another who couldn’t verbalize anything, the act of holding up her index finger or tapping her partner with her hand was enough of a signal to stop. The survivor is very appreciative about how these signals will be interpreted by her partner, so it is important to talk about it afterwards when the survivor is ready.
Just remember, this is not unusual, and it can be worked through. As long as your partner is respectful and understanding, the old behavior can gradually recede to the past. It can be done.