Conversations: How Past Sexual Abuse or Violence Affects Relationships

By Kiki Zeldes —

A woman in a white tank top with her knees up and her head laying against her knees. She is sitting on a bed, and the white sheets are wrapped around her waist.
Andrea Pacquadio/Pexels

The conversation below is excerpted from an online discussion on relationships, identity, and sexuality that took place while compiling the last print edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” You can learn more about the discussion and read bios of the participants.

Jordan: Cultural acceptance of sexual assault and violence has made it really complicated for me to talk to partners. I fear discussing my rapes with partners because I think, even when my partners are good people, that I will encounter “Why didn’t you do this?” “Why didn’t you report it?” “Was it really rape?” It means that I can’t talk with my partners about why sometimes I freeze up, or shut down, why certain things trigger me, why sometimes I really do not feel like being physically intimate at all. I always feel like I have to hide part of myself in my relationships and as a result it makes it really hard for me to be fully invested on an emotional level because I am constantly performing. And it makes me question how much I can expect a partner to give when I cannot and will not give all of myself.

Astrid: I have been married twice (with a child from my second marriage). I have been beaten by both of my husbands and raped (only once, at least as far as I remember) by my first husband.

I am trying to not let the past experience of physical violence impact my sex life. Much of this abuse I try to simply forget. I have been working with a wonderful, caring therapist ever since my second marriage came to an end, and I am quite confident that I won’t fall into the same traps again. Perhaps I am now too cautious and have blocked decent, kind possible partners from my life in the last years—but I’d rather err on the side of caution these days.

It is strange how time can heal. I am 47 years old and at least the rape I encountered is more than twenty years in the past. I am convinced there will be more men, more relationships, even some playfulness in my life in the years ahead. The older I get, the more I enjoy sex and the less vulnerable I feel. Perhaps it helps that I have learned to pick better and to say no. Perhaps it is a cheap fix to try to shut out off my mind, as best as I can, those past experiences of violence. But I cannot—I just cannot—allow the men who hurt me in the past to take away the pleasure in sex that I am looking forward to in years to come.

Gemma: He was only the second person I ever had sex with. He played rugby with my best guy friend. I wanted to have sex with him. I’d been flirting with him for weeks, and I was excited when it finally seemed to have paid off.

But once we were in my room, it wasn’t what I had been hoping for at all. He was really forceful. He held my arms down at my sides; he pushed me onto the bed face-down at one point. I didn’t think it was okay to stop him at that point, because I didn’t want to seem like I was a prude who couldn’t handle a little rough stuff. But I tried to draw the line when he wanted to take off the condom I’d put on him. Unfortunately he didn’t listen to me.

I was so confused by it, because it didn’t seem to fit a “normal” definition of sexual assault. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that I’d said yes to the sex but no to sex without a condom. I didn’t realize until two years later that that wasn’t okay. I went to a counselor on campus right after it happened and he asked me all these questions about what I was wearing, what I did and said— things that made me feel like I’d made it happen. (I didn’t go back to the counseling center until I was a senior.) At the time I was a resident assistant, and I had a hard time asking for help because it was my job to help other students.

I got into my first serious relationship senior year, after a couple of random hookups that I think I engaged in mostly to prove I was still okay with sex. I told him about it the night we were roughhousing on my bed, and he ended up on top of me. He jokingly said, “What am I gonna do with you now that I have you here?” I felt like I needed to explain why I looked so scared.

It was there all the time for years. I hated being anywhere but on top during sex at first. I hated being in crowds, where it felt like other people’s bodies were restricting my movement. It was like a third person in the bed with every partner. Finally, about eight years after it happened, I got sick of that. I can’t say I’m over it—you never are—but I made a decision not to assume every guy has the potential to be that guy, to not be nervous and scared, and it has helped. So has talking about it, to friends, partners, and a counselor.

I had an experience just a few months ago that scared me, but for a different reason. I was with a guy who I’ve known for about seven years. We ended up in bed and it was a little like déjà vu—very forceful, very rough stuff, and not in a way that was sexy or fun at all. I stopped him and made him leave, and he didn’t seem to understand that shoving me around and penetrating me so hard that I bled wasn’t okay. What scared me about it most was that I knew he’d done it before and would do it again, and maybe with someone who wouldn’t feel like she could make him stop. I’m lucky I could. I’m not better than anyone else because I could. I’m really just lucky.

It’s there all the time—anytime I hear about a person who’s been the victim of sexual assault and hear people asking what she was wearing or why she was walking home alone at night. I make it my business to speak up when I hear that. I don’t necessarily tell my own story, but I speak out against victim blaming whenever I hear it, because I’ll always remember that counselor who asked me what I was wearing.

Heidi: I have an alarm system that comes with a remote control panic button that I sleep with, which will dial a close friend’s number if I push it, because I am still afraid he will make good on his threats to take my daughter.

In a relationship, I have trouble giving up control. Sexually, I cannot let go enough to really enjoy myself, and I am therefore content to abstain from sex. I need to have my own money and I kept my own bank account even when I was married, which I am told is a smart thing to do, but I did it because I did not trust my spouse to pay the bills. I was afraid that I would end up getting evicted yet again. I don’t care about little decisions—what movie we watch, where we go for dinner, things like that—but when it comes to big decisions, if I feel as though I was not allowed to make the decision to a large extent, I end up getting extremely nervous.

I also can get triggered rather easily. If a person I am with gets angry or has a behavior that seems aggressive, even if they are playing around, I get very nervous and can have panic attacks. I consider myself to be a very strong person, and I am very vocal in my feminist beliefs and active in the community with anti-violence awareness campaigns, but when something triggers me I can feel so small and insecure again, regardless of how far I have come.

Nidea: I got separated from my parents and I got lost. We always had a safe spot in case that happened, usually in front of the store. I sat there and waited for my parents, a bit frightened because this was the first time it had ever happened to me. I was a little girl who knew no English in this huge store, but someone found me. A man, a bit older than my father, he knew Spanish and somewhat comforted me. As he spoke to me, he would touch me. I didn’t understand what he was doing, his hands moving all along my legs and under my skirt. I didn’t know what to think; he was saying many nice things to me but at the same time he was touching me. Maybe that was the way in America. No one seemed to notice so I thought maybe it isn’t bad. I was in a crowded department store. If it was bad someone would say something, right? By the time my parents came, he wasn’t touching me anymore. My parents thanked him, and I got yelled at for getting lost. I got sneakers that day, Patrick Ewing sneakers. Those sneakers always carried those memories attached to them.

Soon after, I met some of my distant cousins. They touched me every single time they visited. In the beginning it was more like a brush against my breasts or my butt. Then they wanted to bathe together, told me it was normal. We were cousins and this was what cousins did in America. It didn’t feel bad, but I felt bad, I didn’t know why. I wanted it to stop but they would just hurt me; they were older.

One day, my mother had a talk with me. A girl I used to go to school with got raped while waiting for the bus to go to school. My mother then had the sex conversation, what was rape and why it was wrong. The whole purity thing, staying a virgin until you marry, not letting anyone touch you. When you buy something from the store you want it new, right? Not used. I then realized how disgusting I was, how used and violated I had been. I didn’t know what to do with myself and just got angry. I would hurt myself; I even attempted suicide. My parents didn’t really understand what was going on with me. I was always a quiet child, so I didn’t say a word. I just wanted to die.

My boyfriend of four years was willing to understand. I bared my soul and in return he taught me how to love myself, touch myself, and accept myself. But even at times when we were the most intimate with each other, when we wanted to touch each other, I would struggle. I would cry and he just let me. He was sometimes frightened, he didn’t know how to deal with it. Sometimes I would be scared of the slightest touch, and to an extent I think it hurt him.

Rebeka: I just want to say thank you for telling this story. A very similar thing happened to me, and to this day I feel disgusted with myself. The whole “it felt good but it was wrong” thing was exactly how I was feeling. I can’t have sex out of fear of being touched. Your story gives me hope that I can make it through, and it really helps to know that I am not alone.

Nasir: I too had a cousin who touched me inappropriately a few times one summer. I didn’t keep it in, though. I told everybody that it was happening, and my mom and aunties dealt with him and the situation quickly. What makes me sad, frustrated, and upset is that the way my cousin was dealt with and the way I was able to say something at age twelve before things really got out of hand is not the norm. I unfortunately know several people who were the victims of rape and sexual assault or abuse who kept it in-side for a long time. No one should ever have to deal with that kind of trauma, especially at a young age.

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