Ask a Lady, Special Edition: The Repercussions of Sexual Abuse

I have been with my fiance for 2 years and we are getting married in 2012. Last month she told me that she was severely (s.e.v.e.r.e.l.y.) sexually abused from age 7 to 12. Many many men, her father “renting her out,” making gangbang movies, etc. After something like a 72 hour crying fit, I recovered enough to be in awe that she is so well adjusted. Amazing educational background and career, no history of risky sexual behavior, and a really really nice, warm person. The problem is that our sex life has always had some level of daddy daughter role playing theme because this is the only way she can orgasm. Since I found out the details of her past, I CANNOT DO THIS EVER AGAIN. I even went through a brief (an hour or so about a week after hearing the details) period of being enraged with her for basically having me unwittingly reenact her abuse. Since the revelation, we haven’t had sex, though there’s a lot of cuddling and touching. She knows I’m not sexually rejecting her or anything and she says that she can have sex without the daddy daughter thing but that she just won’t orgasm.

I’m a mess.

She won’t go to therapy with me because she had mandatory therapy until the age of 18 after her ring of abusers was discovered and prosecuted and the therapy itself was traumatizing to her. She’s supportive of me going by myself and is actually spending way too much time making sure I’m handling the emotions of all this when it’s definitely more about her than me. I’m confused and don’t know what to do. I don’t want her to never experience sexual pleasure when we’re together, but I will not let her call me daddy again. Ever. She is willing to at least consider sex therapy to see if there are other ways for her to climax but she hasn’t decided yet and doesn’t want to think about it right now.

Do you have any advice? Not really sure what my question is. I just love this woman and I’m horrified and my heart is broken.

Oh. Gosh. My heart is breaking for both of you.

My heart is breaking for both of you and I think that you need to find a way to deal with this together or your relationship — your marriage — will be at risk. And that’s not because — I want to make this absolutely, abundantly clear — it’s not because the abuse has somehow “damaged” her. I in no way want anyone, including you, to think I’m implying that. Survivors of abuse, who do tremendously difficult and painful work every day, can and do go on to have healthy, thriving relationships of all kinds, including those with intimate partners. And clearly your fianceé has done a really amazing job of finding a way through life that balances the need for engagement with the world with the imperative of keeping herself safe. Who she is — how she is — where she is — is totally, completely fine. But she might not be ready to do some of the work that an ongoing intimate relationship requires, work that will revive trauma and refresh pain but that is an essential part of building a deep emotional, psychological, and sexual partnership with another person.

There’s no judgment about that at all. It’s not bad or wrong that she might not be ready. It could just be where she is right now. I think this is a really serious and important opportunity for you both to think about what your expectations are for your marriage. Right now it sounds like she is using the relationship as a shield — as a way to protect herself from having to get close to her trauma and, ultimately, in a way that eventually forestalls intimacy. That she seems to think it’s workable to just never have another orgasm with you, like it’s reasonable to expect to limit her capacity for pleasure for the foreseeable future, is a symptom of this shielding.

I mean, look, I understand that sexual pleasure for people who have been abused is incredibly loaded and difficult and complicated. I understand that one of the legacies of abuse is that your body is so, so confused about what’s pleasurable, what’s arousing, what’s good, what’s bad. I totally understand why calling you “Daddy” is the only way she can come, and that she probably experiences a confusing and overwhelming flood of shame and pleasure when she orgasms. Our bodies betray us in this way, and I understand that, and I don’t judge it.

But it troubles me that she has made you the silent partner in re-enacting her victimization for two years. Of course you feel sick and scared and heartbroken. You feel like you’re abusing her! And now she’s telling you that this is something she will not discuss with you in couples counseling, that it’s not something she’s even sure she’s willing to discuss with a sex therapist? Instead she’s just encouraging you to focus on your feelings? Oh, honeypie, it’s too late. The toothpaste is out of the tube. And if y’all are gonna get married, this problem of hers isn’t just hers anymore. That’s not how marriage works. Or it’s not how marriage works when it’s a marriage that lasts.

What distinguishes an intimate partnership (like a marriage) from a dating relationship is that — and this is a really clumsy metaphor, so please bear with me — is that there’s almost a third person, a third thing, that you together have to tend to. You don’t lose (in a healthy relationship, anyway) your individual identities, needs, desires, or dreams. I’m not suggesting that I think your fianceé has some obligation to completely open up to you, to tell you everything, to cross boundaries she’s not ready to cross yet. Much of her work around her trauma and abuse was, is and will remain solely hers. But this third thing that you’re creating together does require that you both do what you can to be open to each other, available to each other, safe with each other. And I don’t see how you can really build that when she’s telling you that there’s so much she isn’t willing to do, when it makes more sense to her to just never have another orgasm with you than to do painful work that might contribute to the growth of your relationship. That she might find that work scary or difficult — that it might be slow or painful — those aren’t problems for me. What’s a problem for me is that she’s saying she won’t. And while we always get to decide that we won’t or can’t do something before even trying, there are consequences to making such a choice. In this case it may be that she’s just not ready for an intimate partnership. And as heartbreaking as that is, it’s not good or bad. It’s just where she’s at. And recognizing it now could save your relationship, could even save the possibility of someday marrying.

Update: There’s also a wealth of useful (and different) information over on Scarleteen.

Update 2: The post has been edited.

Previously: Paying for First Dates and Asking Out Your Barista.

A Lady is one of several rotating ladies who know everything. Do you have any questions for A Lady?

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