How Survivors of Sexual Abuse Can Stop Being Re-Victimized
Remedies for passive re-enactors.
- Both female and male survivors are especially vulnerable to being re-victimized as adults.
- Learning how to react to sexual coercion is an important step.
- You also need to learn what parts of your body and what sexual activities are off-limits for you.
The following information and suggestions are specifically for those who re-enact the sexual abuse they experienced by being passive or being re-victimized. Both females and males who were sexually victimized in childhood are vulnerable to re-victimization.
Step 1: Learn How to Deal with Sexual Coercion, including How to Say No
Sexual coercion is unwanted sexual activity that occurs after someone is pressured, tricked, or forced in a non-physical way to have unwanted sex or sexual contact. This pressure to force an individual into sexual activity when they don’t want it can take many forms—from pressure and flattery to threats of violence. It often comes in the form of statements that make you feel pressured, guilty, or ashamed.
If you have sex because you cannot say “No” you have been coerced. If you are pressured to have a type of sex that repels you, you have been coerced. If you have sex because of a guilt trip your partner has laid on you, you have been coerced.
One of the reasons so many women, in particular, get into sexual situations where the other person goes too far is because of a reasoning process that goes something like this: “It’s no big deal if he touches me. He likes it and it doesn’t hurt me.”
It may seem like it doesn’t hurt you if you allow someone to do things to your body that you don’t really want them to do, but the truth is, it can hurt you. It can lower your self-esteem because it causes you to begin to lose respect for yourself. It can humiliate you and add to the shame you already feel about your body or your sexuality. Most important, it is a re-enactment of the sexual abuse you experienced as a child or adolescent. In essence, you are being re-traumatized each time you are coerced into sex you don’t want.
Like rape, sexual coercion is never okay (some consider coercion to be a subset of rape). You don’t owe anybody sex, no matter how they feel, what they want, what they’ve done for you in the past, or if you’ve had sex with them before. Remember, you are the only person with a right over your body and over your decisions concerning whom to share it with.
Because sexual coercion can feel exactly like the ways the perpetrator manipulated you or threatened you, it is vital that you learn how to handle these situations in a healthy, assertive way. You can easily become triggered or dissociate when you are being coerced and this makes it even more important that you be prepared for each scenario and that you practice what you are going to say.
The following exercise, taken from my book, I’m Saying No!: Standing Up to Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Pressure, will help you become stronger in your resolve to stop allowing men (or women) to pressure you sexually.
- Think of a situation in which someone recently disrespected, invaded, or abused your body.
- Imagine that you are saying “No!” to this person.
- Now say it out loud. Say “No!” as many times as you feel like it. Notice how good it feels to say it.
- If you’d like, in addition to saying “No!” add any other words you feel like saying. For example, “No! You can’t do those things to me.” “No! I don’t want you to touch me like that!”
Practicing saying “No!” will help you gain the needed courage to say it when you need to—whenever someone is trying to coerce you into sex when you don’t want it.
Step 2: Know What Is Healthy for You and What Is Off-Limits
A fairly common scenario is for former victims of child sexual abuse to be able to enjoy having their partner touch those parts of their body that were not touched by the abuser, as well as enjoy engaging in sexual activities that the abuser did not impose on them. For example, if the perpetrator did not penetrate your vagina with his finger, his penis, or another object, having vaginal intercourse may be your “safe zone” and may be quite pleasurable.
In addition, there may be certain sexual activities that you enjoy or find exciting that may not be good for you, in the sense that they may be re-enactments. For example, if you and your partner have been engaging in bondage and discipline or sado-masochism, I encourage you to seriously think about whether it is healthy for you to continue these practices because you are likely re-enacting the abuse and are being re-traumatized. If you prefer the “top,” or the domineering role, an aspect of the sexual excitement you feel may be that you like “turning the tables” and feeling what it is like to be the one in power. It is understandable that you might want to experience this, but think about whether there might be a healthier way of feeling in control or expressing your anger at having been sexually violated. If you are the one who is being dominated, it may feel familiar and thus comfortable or arousing, but it is likely a re-enactment of the abuse you suffered and may cause you to be re-traumatized each time you engage in this behavior.
Exercise: What’s Off-Limits
- Make a list of the parts of your body you find uncomfortable to have touched. Don’t worry if you end up listing many parts of your body. This is common for former victims and is a reminder of just how traumatic the abuse was.
- Try to find the reason why someone touching a particular part of your body is uncomfortable for you. It probably is due to the fact that this part of your body was involved in the sexual abuse in some way.
- Now make a list of sexual activities that are uncomfortable, shaming, or triggering for you. Try to be as honest as you can, even if it means listing activities you believe you “should” like to do or have been doing.
- Write about the reasons why you think these sexual activities are uncomfortable, shaming, or triggering for you. The more connections you can make, the more in charge of your sexuality you will become.
- Finally, list the parts of other people’s bodies that you find uncomfortable to touch. Think of the possible reasons why these body parts are uncomfortable for you to touch.
Step 3: Learn to Communicate Your Preferences
While it is vitally important that you know what you like and don’t like, it is equally important to be able to communicate your preferences to your partner(s). Ideally, this conversation should be a direct one, with your partner agreeing to listen to you without interrupting you. You can also do this in writing. Do not justify, get angry about, or apologize for the boundary you are setting.
Telling your partner one time what is off-limits should be enough, but it rarely is. He or she can legitimately forget what you’ve said and make the mistake of touching you in an area of your body or in a way that you find uncomfortable or even threatening. But if he or she continues to “forget,” this is more serious. He or she may be the kind of person who can’t take no for an answer because he or she needs to be in control.
Learning to set boundaries, to say “No!” in an assertive, strong way takes time and practice. Don’t get discouraged and don’t become critical of yourself. Just do the best you can.
Step 4: Keep Your Wits About You: Booze and Drugs
Alcohol and drug consumption are important issues when it comes to remaining safe, avoiding rape, and avoiding shame-inducing behaviors. It is especially important for you to stay alert when on a date, at a bar, or at a party. The association between alcohol consumption and sexual assault is an important one, and it’s one that both women and men need to be aware of. Here are some important things to know:
- Because intoxication lowers inhibitions and decreases mental awareness, women and men using drugs or alcohol are at a much greater risk of being sexually assaulted.
- 43 percent of sexual victimization incidents involve alcohol consumption by victims.
- Women need to not only watch how much alcohol they consume, but how much their date is consuming. One out of three sexual assaults is perpetrated by those who are intoxicated.
The truth is, if you are drunk or high you cannot be aware of your environment and be alert to the dangers around you.
Step 5: Identify and Eliminate Shame-Inducing Sexual Compulsions
Some former victims find themselves locked into compulsive sexual behavior that can perpetuate feelings of helplessness, a sense of being bad, or out of control, resulting in further shaming. The list below contains some of the most common shame-inducing sexual compulsions—sexual activities that can cause you to repeatedly re-enact the pain, fear, or humiliation of the sexual trauma you suffered.
- Engaging in humiliating sexual practices.
- Combining sex with physical or emotional abuse or pain.
- Frequent use of abusive sexual fantasies (either seeing oneself as the abuser or the abused).
- Charging money for sex.
- Having anonymous sex (in restrooms, adult bookstores, telephone sex services).
- Using rape or other types of fantasies to gain sexual arousal or increase sexual arousal.
- Allowing your partner to continually use sexual slurs or degrading sexual comments.
- Engaging in secretive or illicit sexual activities.
- Relying on abusive pornography in order to become aroused.
These sexual compulsions happen outside of conscious awareness and are often characterized by dissociation of thoughts, emotions, and sensations related to the traumatic event. Remind yourself of this when you begin to be self-critical for engaging in these compulsive practices.
In my next blog, I will offer remedies for those who re-enact their experiences of being sexually abused by taking on a more aggressive stance.
Engel, Beverly (2023). Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Guilford, Conn: Prometheus Books.
Engel, Beverly (2019). I’m Saying No! Standing Up to Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Pressure. She Writes Books.