How to Replace Shame-Inducing Sex With Healthy Sex

Strategies for former victims of child sexual abuse.



  • Components of a healthy sexual experience include safety, body awareness, and connection with your partner.
  • Breaking free from unhealthy relationships and choosing healthy partners is crucial for well-being.
  • A holistic approach to sexuality integrates emotional intimacy, respect, and mutual pleasure.

The following are a few of the components of healthy sex:

  • Safety
  • Awareness and connection with your body
  • Connection with your partner
  • Equality and mutuality
  • Open communication



The following strategies apply the most to women and those with a more passive way of relating to others, but they also apply to men and those with a more aggressive stance in life. Although you may feel perfectly safe when you dominate and control others, remember that there is a fragile, wounded part of you that is hiding out inside you, and that needs to feel safe and protected.

First of all, you need to make sure you don’t passively or aggressively set up situations in which you are re-wounded or re-traumatized. This includes working on weaning yourself from past or present partners who have been rejecting, humiliating, or abusive toward you. It also includes choosing partners who have a healthy outlook concerning sexuality and who are able to be emotionally intimate and focused on receiving and giving physical pleasure instead of focusing primarily on techniques, performance, domination, and control.

Awareness and Connection With Your Body

Healthy sex is the ability to create an “embodied” sexuality, in which you are in your body, present for the sexual experience, and doing what you enjoy and desire based on your individual needs. In order to facilitate this, it is essential that you break your habit of dissociating. This is especially important for those who have taken on a more passive or victim-like style.


If you aren’t in your body, you won’t know when you are in an unhealthy or dangerous situation, and you won’t know when to say no. You need to be in the present and in your body to make sure you aren’t unconsciously reenacting the sexual abuse. And just as important, you need to be in your body in order to connect with an intimate partner.

Each time you have a sexual encounter, make sure you do the following:

  • Breathe. Notice when you hold your breath and when you are breathing naturally. Make sure your breathing isn’t too shallow but is filling your belly and chest.
  • Stay in your body. Make sure you can feel sensations in your chest, arms, and legs. Move around if you need to. Being connected to how your body feels is your reference point for knowing what you want and where your boundaries are.
  • Be present. Notice your surroundings. Make sure you aren’t dissociated; if you are, ground yourself so that you will return to the room and to the present. Look at your partner and connect with them.
  • Have your wits about you. This means not being too drunk, too high, or too dissociated to be able to protect and defend yourself.

For those with a more aggressive style, it is important that you be more aware of how you are feeling in order to detect any anger or need for power. If you aren’t in the present and in your body, it is more likely that you will unconsciously act out the abuse in some way—for example, taking your anger at your abuser out on your sexual partner. The more you are in your body and the present, the more you have an opportunity to open up and be more vulnerable with your sexual partners and, ironically, the more physical pleasure you will receive.

Connecting With a Partner

The more you are present with yourself, the easier it will be to be present with your partner. All too often, former victims get in the habit of distancing themselves from their partner while engaging in sex. It is as if their body is present, but their mind is somewhere else. An additional problem is when you become triggered while having sex and are no longer in the present but instead are back in the past, being sexually abused by your perpetrator. When this happens, I suggest that you do the following:

  • Stop all movement.
  • Tell your partner you need a time out (the optimum would be that you discuss this plan with your partner ahead of time.).
  • Open your eyes.
  • Look around the room and notice where you are.
  • Look at your partner’s face and notice that they are not your abuser.
  • Don’t resume sex until you are clear that you are not with your abuser.

Truly connecting with your partner involves intimacy, which requires being willing to be vulnerable and transparent with your partner. Lasting intimacy is built over time and involves allowing yourself to be known to your partner. This includes:

  • Taking your time to get to know a potential partner
  • Communicating your sexual preferences, especially the things you don’t enjoy
  • Deciding whether you wish to disclose the fact that you were sexually abused
  • Exploring alternative ways of touching and being together before engaging in oral sex or penetration
  • Showing your partner how you like to be touched. Guide his hand by letting his hand rest on yours
  • Focusing on being in the present and in your body when you begin to share physical intimacy
  • Practicing being able to pay attention to your own sensations and also being attentive to your partner


Equality and Mutuality

One of the best ways to reduce and eliminate shame from your sexual relationships is to ensure that there is equality and mutuality between you. Equality means that neither of you controls, dominates, or abuses the other. Mutuality means that you and your sexual partner reach a consensus on what kinds of sexual activities you will engage in prior to beginning the activity and that you agree to end the activity when either wants to stop. To achieve these two things, you will naturally need to learn how to communicate with one another.

Open Communication

Open communication runs counter to the dynamics that existed in the sexual abuse: secrecy, silence, shame, manipulation, and victimization. When you are communicating with your partner what your wants, needs, and desires are, you are no longer being a victim who has to give in to your abuser’s demands. And you are doing the opposite of having to remain silent and having to keep a secret. When you communicate openly, you step out of the victim role and are instead an equal and willing participant.

By communicating openly with one another, you build emotional intimacy with your partner. In order to achieve open communication, you and your partner will need to create a climate in which open communication feels safe.


This post is based on my latest book, Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse.



Engel, Beverly. (2022). Freedom at Last: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Guilford, CONN. Prometheis Books.