Aunt Vadge: my girlfriend was sexually abused – how can I help her with sex?

Sexual Abuse Help My Vagina

Dear Aunt Vadge, 

My girlfriend was sexually abused and is a little wary of men and touch still. But she is very insistent on a normal sex life. Do you know of any ways I can help and/or make myself and sex less intimidating?

Yours,
Worried
Age: 17
Country/Area: USA

Dear Worried,

Thank you very much for your email. It’s a really great question that many of us have to ask when it comes to our partners. Men and women alike are sexually abused in tragic numbers, and dealing with the aftermath can be very challenging.

What your challenge right now is not sex, but trust. Good sex comes from trusting your partner, so here are a few ideas on how to foster a true, deep trust that connects you both in a way that is much greater than just the sum of your body parts. These tips can help you build solid physical and emotional rapport.

Building trust with people who have had their souls gnashed at by unworthy people in the past can be tricky. We are a little easily startled. Proving yourself worthy is the mountain you have to climb.

Your girlfriend has expressed her desire for a ‘normal’ sex life, but how you both go about this without adding to her trauma is the real question. The thing that will make your sex lives ‘normal’ is for there to be a great deal of trust and communication between you. Normal here means healthy, in that that each person feels safe and comfortable, and knows that their boundaries are respected. Each of you should be able to express yourselves and feel heard.

How to build trust and physical rapport

Spend time together learning about each other’s bodies and hearts. It can sound really trite, as if snuggling, making out, talking about whether you prefer chocolate or vanilla, Coke or Pepsi, are somehow inferior to ‘real’ sex, but that is missing the point.

We build trust and warmth with each other through touch, care, talking and kindness. Lots of people have sexual hang-ups, and the only real way to get past them is by creating a truly safe space in which to explore. Take your time. Be slow and gentle and careful. Allow for false starts and embarrassment and hiccups. Learn to move through awkwardness using humour and warmth.

When we create physical rapport and trust, it means that when we touch someone else, they know for sure that if they don’t like it, they can ask you to stop, and you will. That you will do your best to make them feel good physically, because your purpose is to bring them pleasure, not bring yourself pleasure. They want to know that you can tell if they are having a good time or not.

You may wish to avoid touching typical ‘guy hotspots’ (vagina, vulva, clitoris, breasts) for a while, and focus on the rest of her body and making her feel nice. Spend two hours rubbing her feet – talk to them, give them names, tell her a story. Make her laugh. Show her that you enjoy all of her body, and that you are not just using her for your own end.

Be naked more often – it’s therapeutic!

Feeling loved for all of ourselves – especially women who are taught that their sexuality and beauty is their only currency in life – is truly magical. Play games with each others bodies. Learn how to be comfortable with each other in the nude by doing lots of things naked, not just being sexual. Lie naked spooning. Hang out naked. Play video games nude, roll around in bed nude. Eat a chicken sandwich off her stomach and laugh until your sides hurt.

Learn how to be bare together without nudity equalling sexuality. This builds confidence and trust, and can help ditch some of the body shame we can feel, along with the pressure to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’. It allows us just to be a person. It doesn’t take long to get good at being nude, but it does take practice!

Games we play

A game you could introduce just about any time is a scoring game (Scrabble, cards, even black-red or rock-scissors-paper), where each win means you get to ask the other person to do something for you for 30 seconds or a minute – with a timer. Anything you like, as long as the other person agrees.

Everyone likes different things, but this is a surefire way to A) not have to do anything you don’t want to, and B) find out what each other really likes. Over the game, you have a very slow, gentle, warm, loving way of connecting intimately. It’s not about sex, or there being something ‘happening’ at the end of the game (sex, orgasm). It’s purely about enjoyment, with no subtext, and rewarding the wins throughout the game (taking the focus off sex), instead of there being some grand prize of sex.

The game is the point, not working your way towards something else. This removes the goal and sequence-oriented way that we often think about and pursue sex. There is usually a certain expected set of events: we kiss, then I touch your boobs, you touch my penis, then I touch your vagina, then we have p-in-v sex, and so on.

You can get really specific throughout the game – ‘lick the arch of my foot’, ‘nibble my toes’, ‘massage my head’ or ‘listen to my heart beat’. This game isn’t about being sexual per se; it can just be fun and funny. This game allows for the unexpected and interesting, without the expectation that it will fit into any preconceived ideas about what people do and don’t like, and what ‘sex’ should look like. With a bit of healthy game-playing competition and short, lovely touch experiences, you have yourself a rollicking good time connecting and learning what feels nice and what feels weird. 

Who’s having all this good sex, then? All the freaky weirdos

Everyone wants to be able to have good sex when they want it, but the truth is, that isn’t what is happening in real life. In real life, we’re all a bit crazy, effed-up, shy, awkward and weird, with our own pet hangups, and some of the sex we are having is atrocious! The least we can do is make an effort to understand ourselves and our partners, instead of pretending we know what we’re doing. We don’t. They don’t.

When you think about your girlfriend as a unique individual, it allows you to really see her as someone who has at this stage an unknown set of conditions that must be met before she will feel good about sex with you. Not just ok, not just grinning and bearing it, but good.

You can take your cues from her, but jumping into penis-in-vagina sex could be very confronting and triggering for her. ‘A normal sex life’ is a lofty goal, but what your girlfriend may not understand yet is that there is no such thing!

Each couple has a journey of sex and intimacy, but there is no one-size-fits-all. P-in-v sex is not the be-all and end-all of sex. It would be wise for you to consider keeping your penis out of her body for a while yet. She is going to want to ‘please’ you, because that’s what we’re taught as women to do, but don’t let her get caught up in that. You have an opportunity to rewire yourselves and your expectations, and do better.

Earning trust and following through

There will be tears. There will be fear. There will be shame. Relationships are about connecting, so connect. Even if you don’t put your penis in her vagina anytime soon, learning how to touch another person is really fun when we drop the ‘shoulds’.

Your girlfriend – as with any of us – may benefit greatly by seeing a psychologist who can help guide her through to the other side of her trauma. We are just not equipped by ourselves to conquer trauma, especially at 17 – neither of you have much idea, so don’t try to do this by yourselves. Reclaiming her body will be a process your girlfriend goes through, and goes through again, and goes through again. It’s not a fast process, and cannot be rushed. It’ll work itself out over time, as and when she is ready.

Ask for help for yourself when you need it, too. You aren’t supposed to be able to deal with everything, and it’s important when caring for others that we learn how to take care of ourselves. Having a traumatised person in your life can be really hard sometimes, so if it gets tricky, ask someone you trust or a professional for some help and advice. There is plenty out there. You are not the first people to find yourselves in this situation.

You sound like you really care about your girlfriend, and that’s the best place to start. Forget whatever you think you know about sex and relationships – none of us knows anything. We are all different, weird, crazy creatures who deeply desire connection. This means we seek out closeness with others, even when it’s frightening to do so.

Don’t treat your girlfriend like a victim; treat her like the strong, beautiful young woman that she is. She won’t disappoint.

Write anytime.

Warmest regards,
Aunt Vadge

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)
Read more about Jessica and My Vagina's origin story.
Jessica Lloyd - Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

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