What comes to mind when you think about sex?

The excitement of your first time with your best lover? The bliss of a recent romp with your long-term sweetie. Maybe the anticipation of letting loose with a new boo?

Unfortunately, for some survivors of sexual assault or abuse, such feelings sound like unrealistic fantasies. The mere idea of sex can take us back to the absolute worst memory of our lives. Thankfully, not all survivors experience a disruption of healthy sexuality. But more than a few equate sex with dread, shame, disgust, fear or pain. For some others, sex doesn’t evoke any feelings at all. They might have disassociated from their own bodies.

Having a healthy sense of your sexual self can be tricky even if you’ve never experienced sexual violence thanks to the schizophrenic elements of our culture. It’s virtually impossible to avoid hypersexual images of African Americans in media, yet it can be a struggle to get basic sex education taught in our schools. Add to this reality the trauma of someone forcing unwanted sexual activity on your body. Inside your body. No wonder, for some survivors, the idea of sex being pleasurable just doesn’t compute.



Do not feel pressured or rushed into rekindling sex after assault. Even if you decide to pursue sexual healing, if there are resources, exercises or activities that feel as if they are retraumatizing instead of helping you, be fiercely committed to your own sense of security and back away until you are ready.

If sexual victimization damaged your sexuality and you feel the time is right to reclaim it, why not make an effort to heal? Adults who wants physical intimacy, but don’t know how it can become a healthy, positive experience in your life, know that it is possible to find your own path to joyful, life-affirming sex.

De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson, a St.Louis-based sex therapist, is full of wisdom about reclaiming your sexuality—mentally, spiritually and physically. She’s a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, a member of the Women of Color Sexual Health Network and host of the YouTube channel Ask a Sex Therapist. Blaylock-Johnson spoke with Ebony.com about why healthy sexuality matters for survivors and how to achieve it.

EBONY: Some might feel that for people who have been sexually assaulted, becoming sexually healthy and enjoying sex should be the least of their worries. How important is it to be a sexually healthy person?

De-Andrea Blaylock-Johnson: Often people compartmentalize their sexuality. Having a healthy sexuality can support you in having a healthy sense of self. It’s [important] to understand how integral their sexuality is in how they see themselves and even how they interact with other people on a day-to-day basis. In understanding that they can reclaim their power, that they can take charge of their sexuality, that it’s not anyone’s to take away from them, that can help with total healing.

EBONY:  For a person who has experienced either sexual abuse as a child or sexual assault as an adult, how can she know if she needs to work on healing her own sexuality?

DBJ: If you feel inhibited in any way when you are looking to relate to someone, whether that’s sexually or emotionally, when you feel that there’s a block there, then it may be time to speak with a therapist or a professional just to work through whatever may be blocking you. Whether it’s difficulty with trusting people, difficulty with opening up when you get close to someone or even pushing people away before they get to close. There may be different physical things that may occur. Some people may experience vaginismus which is the involuntary restriction of muscles within the vagina which can make penetration impossible. It just really depends on the individual.

EBONY: For survivors who do feel that they want to heal their own sexuality, would you say that there’s a right time? Can it be too soon after a rape?

DBJ: For someone it may be a month. For another person it may be 10 years. Maybe 20 years. Change is a self-willed action. No matter what anyone may say. It really depends on the individual and when they’re ready to deal with whatever it is they need to face.

EBONY: Are there any problems that adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to have in common?

DBJ: Not really understanding why there may be issues relating sexually with a partner. Maybe not even understanding the connection between childhood sexual abuse and sexual problems they are having in a relationship. And then if they do come to that realization, sifting through all of that to be able to relate sexually with a partner or even with themselves.

One thing that some people may struggle with is they were sexually aroused during the abuse. A lot of times the perpetrators will use that as a manipulation to say because you were aroused, because you had an orgasm, that means that you liked it. So then you may have someone that will avoid sexual arousal or orgasm because it becomes a trigger. Just because arousal or orgasm happened, that doesn’t mean you enjoyed the abuse. That is simply a physical reaction. Reclaim that for yourself, as a physical reaction that happens in my body that I can enjoy.

EBONY: For survivors, whatever type of sexual victimization they experienced, what are some of the most common responses related to sexuality?

DBJ: Experimenting with different people, not using methods of safer sex, not even being [selective] with partners because they may feel that part of them was taken from them so it’s not special. Another response could be someone completely shutting down, not wanting to explore that side of themselves at all. So it can be either end of the spectrum and anywhere in between.

EBONY: What problems might be common for male survivors?

DBJ: One is the idea that boys and men can’t be victims of sexual abuse. There’s a lot of shame related to it. Also, let’s say a teenage boy is victimized by an older woman—the idea that he should enjoy it because this older woman wanted to initiate you sexually, when in reality it’s abuse. [And] that negative stigma that if you were sexually aroused and had an orgasm and the perpetrator was male, that that automatically means you are homosexual. I remember Todd Bridges talking about his abuse and that was something that he had to deal with.

EBONY: What about girls or women who are abused by someone of the same gender. Does that come up for them as well?

DBJ: It’s a lot of the same issues. If you’re abused by a woman and you had a sexual response to that, then [you] may think, “Now I’m a lesbian because of it.” Or if someone is a lesbian and they have a history of sexual abuse, people try to correlate the two. But there’s tons of research that shows that there is no correlation between history of sexual abuse, sex of the perpetrator and orientation. No correlation.

EBONY: An example that I’m aware of is that a particular touch or action may have a negative connotation associated with it. That negative mental or emotional association prevents you from experiencing pleasure, even with a partner you love and trust.

DBJ: It’s almost as though you have to re-learn touch. Sensate Focus is a method that’s used to help partners re-learn touch. I wouldn’t say that it’s traditionally used for survivors of sexual abuse, but I definitely see how it can be. It’s done in graduated steps. It starts off with no sexual touch. One partner is lying down while another is exploring their body. And so the explorer is not doing it for the pleasure of the other but really just in the sense of exploring. “What does this feel like to my hand? Is this cool? Is this warm?” And the person that is being explored, they have power to say, “I don’t like that. I do like that.” It’s an opportunity to go slow and to re-learn touch and to change the circuits in the brain. Instead of that one touch only reminding you of past abuse, maybe realizing, “That touch on the shoulder, I actually do like that.”

EBONY: What other advice do you have for survivors, especially those that can’t or don’t want to see a sex therapist?

DBJ: There are a lot of different websites that can help people through their own healing, even if they’re not comfortable speaking with a therapist. SexSmartFilms.com has a lot of educational videos available. People can pay per view, 99 cents, or purchase a viewing plan. Here's one that I think gives in-depth info [on Sensate Focus]. Here's a video where [sex therapist] Marty Klein describes Sensate Focus. [This Sensate Focus] video would be fine as long as the couple has an outline with it, explaining what activities occur when and that the activities are mostly completed while laying down if that's a comfortable position for both partners. [See outline below video. Also, see list of additional resources at the end of this Q&A].

EBONY: How can survivors benefit from working with a sex therapist?

DBJ: There are a lot of self-help tools available but if you are able to connect with a therapist that is knowledgeable, then that would probably be best. Although most therapists may have a general idea about sexual functioning, a lot do not. A sex therapist has specialized training in sexual disfunction and ways in which to treat them where as a general therapist does not. Also, sex is still a taboo subject for some people. So, if you are presenting with an issue specifically related to sex or sexuality, you want to speak with someone who can provide a safe and healing place to speak about those issues and work through whatever issues may come up. Not someone who may be embarrassed or just not skilled enough to talk about that.

EBONY: Talk about the decision regarding seeing a sex therapist versus not seeing any kind of therapist.

DBJ: Therapy is hard work. I think that a good [analogy] is someone who’s suffered a stroke and has to go through physical therapy or physical rehab. Although the exercises are helpful, it can be painful at times. But the end result is fabulous. It hurts. You get tired easily. You’re not sure if you can go on. But a good physical therapist is there to guide you through it. They may tell you some things that you don’t want to hear like, “Keep going. One more breathe.” And you want to cuss them out. But the end result is to strengthen that muscle. And so talk therapy is the exact same way. It can be better to have someone guide you through it.

EBONY: Any guidance that you might have for finding a sex therapist that’s a good fit for you?

DBJ: Not being afraid to basically interview the therapist over the phone. They may give a free 10-minute or 15-minute phone consultation, just so you can get to know them and ask questions, from insurance coverage to their philosophy on providing therapy. And then asking a therapist, “Do you feel comfortable and competent with treating these issues that I may bring?” I think that’s a very fair question to ask a practitioner.

EBONY: Are there any main issues that come up for the partners of survivors, whether they’re with the person when the abuse or assault happens or whether they come together later?

DBJ: Really just understanding that they are part of the healing as a team effort. Acknowledging that role and accepting it. Being understanding and caring throughout the process and just really knowing how to recognize different automatic reactions that may come up with touch, but then working with your partner to re-learn healthy touch. It’s definitely a joint effort. If you’re in a partnered relationship, it’s something that you work through together.

Let’s say that someone decides to work with a therapist and possibly having a session with your partner, just so they can understand what’s going on and that if there are different exercises or homework assignments that the therapist may give, then they can get explicit directions or instructions on that.

EBONY: What should Black survivors know about how stereotypes of Black sexuality affect us?

DBJ: If you’re trying to be Melyssa Ford, trying to be that fantasy for someone, it can really set you up for failure because you’re not reaching this unrealistic expectation that you’ve set for yourself. Or it can just be really unhealthy if you’re looking to others and comparing yourself to what you think your sexuality should be. It’s important to honor where you are in your process and make self-defined expectations as opposed to comparing yourself to these unrealistic expectations.

EBONY: How do you describe a person who is sexually healthy and whole?

DBJ: A person who is sexually healthy and whole is comfortable in who they are or are becoming as a sexual being. They understand that sexuality is an integral part of their identity and are able to accept themselves, their desires, and even their insecurities.


RESOURCES

Books

Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines

The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Wendy Maltz

Sexual Healing: Transform the Sacred Wound by Peter Levine (audiobook)

Website

Healthy Sex

Find a Sex Therapist

Women of Color Sexual Health Network

American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists

Good Therapy

Psychology Today

Ask a Sex Therapist (St. Louis area only)



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