Healing the Roots of Women’s Sexual and Relational Struggles
Girls are often born into this world surrounded by messages about who they are supposed to be, and who they should become: Be cute. Smile. Be a nice girl. Just give them a hug. Don’t make a fuss. Suck in your belly. Be the ideal body type. Look sexy. Stay pure and innocent. Be good in bed. You can have it all, if you do it this way.
Is it any wonder why girls and women struggle with feeling comfortable in their own skin? There is such a deep, and contradictory, connection between the messages they receive about their bodies, emotional expression, and how to be sexual and relational. Girls and women are set up to be at odds with themselves inside, to question their own experience and reality within.
Those messages are tiny ruptures in the attachments girls and women have with the people conveying them. They’re conveyed through words or examples. Subtle hurts, that develop insecurities. They may be layered on top of even more abandoning or abusing experiences from family members, friends, teachers, coaches, spiritual authorities, leaders and authority figures, intimate partners, bosses, colleagues, and strangers.
1 out of 3 girls will be sexually abused before they reach age 18 (dosomething.org, 2018).
1 in 3 women ages 18 to 34 have been sexually harassed at work (timesupnow.com, 2018).
80% of 21-year-olds abused as children met criteria for at least one psychological disorder (dosomething.org, 2018).
The “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” movements today are reflective of what many girls and women have long known, that it’s difficult to move through the world without having your body, sexuality, identity, and more, be objectified or used in some way. These movements’ encouragements to step out of isolation, into shared truth and support, are ones that are useful for all.
Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) shows that women who experienced these messages, abandonments, and/or abuses when they were younger are very likely to struggle with being sexual and relational as adults.
“Among individuals with a history of adverse childhood experiences, risky sexual behavior may represent their attempts to achieve intimate interpersonal connections. Having grown up in families unable to provide needed protection, such individuals may be unprepared to protect themselves and may underestimate the risks they take in their attempts to achieve intimacy” (Hillis, Andra, Felitti, & Marchbanks, 2001).
These childhood experiences can develop into adult intimacy issues – ranging on a spectrum from attachment disorders (over or under-connecting with others) to sex and love addiction issues (confusing sex with love, being compulsively sexual, fearing and avoiding sex, inconsistent boundaries in and around sex, and more). Girls experience early life attachment ruptures, and carry them into womanhood. Adverse childhood experiences shape how women see themselves, see the world around them, and see themselves in relationship to the world. They may find themselves with unconscious, seemingly body-driven urges to over-connect with some people, and under-connect or wall off with others. They may even find themselves seeking validation and closeness from people and situations that could cause further hurt, as they strive to fill unmet needs from childhood. Sometimes the only way for a woman to feel a sense of power and control over the world that has exploited her, is to become the exploiter of herself – of her body, emotional expression, and how she is sexual and relational – this is often how eating disorder and sex addiction issues arise.
In sex addiction, women essentially reenact the trauma they’ve survived, or try to avoid more of that trauma, by using their bodies. A woman may use the sex appeal she’s been taught to develop, to build intrigue with a sexual or relational partner, and have a brief encounter seemingly without strings attached by remaining emotionally walled off – to try to avoid possible hurt. She may do this over and over again. For the same intention, a woman may get involved with a partner who’s already involved in a primary relationship, lending itself to limited emotional entanglement for her.
Or a woman may feel over-connected emotionally to a long-term relationship partner who gives her more affection and attention than she can handle. It feels engulfing and unsafe, but she doesn’t want to make a fuss, like she was taught. So she may need to get away to breathe, and act out in an affair that seems simpler. Or a woman may find masturbation as a way to soothe herself, without having to be relational with others – especially if she has a negative body image – yet find herself needing more frequency and intensity to feel the same degree of soothing. She may need to use a substance or another process to take the edge off of being sexual, because she feels scared, ashamed, or overwhelmed. And so many other examples.
These kinds of sexual and relational experiences are just an illusion of power and control of course, because in trauma reenactment and addiction, women are not operating from the frontal cortex of the brain where logic and intentionality live. Instead, they are very much out of control, or hijacked, by the limbic brain that holds implicit memories, drives, distorted perceptions, and survival modes of fight/flight/freeze. They’re unable to decipher what their body and emotions truly tell them. All the messages, abandonments and/or abuses they’ve carried are a barrier to their true needs. Women with this lifelong set-up are bound by the type of soothing and relief that sexual and relational acting out seems to provide, however briefly. This brings susceptibility for unsafe sex, sex with unsafe partners, exploiting others and being exploited by others, infidelity, and more – and at the root, it is a woman’s best attempt to feel comfortable in her own skin, while actually sacrificing that very body which is her home.
Devastating as this cycle is, there is hope.
Just as women’s realities within are shaped by hurts, their realities can also be shaped by healing and recovery.
Ironically, healing and recovery for women’s sex addiction is rooted where the seeds of the hurts began – in the body, emotional expression, and sexual and relational attachment templates. Working slowly, and with a strong, safe, and qualified support system, women can explore the early messages, abandonments, and/or abuses they’ve carried. Expert therapists, somatic and experiential practitioners, 12 Step fellowships, and groups of women who have walked this path themselves are so valuable. This is a somatic healing process, using the body’s inner wisdom as a guide – attuning to grief, heartache, suppressed anger, and a core of shame and worthlessness that is often old and familiar. Experientially, this history can be moved through, to bring shifts from the inside out. Honoring and acknowledging what has happened. Using experiential processes to move carried toxicity out of her worldview in a fully embodied way. Developing healthy attachments that provide repair. And addressing real and tangible boundaries to change her future. This is a recovering path, built on a woman’s newly developing trust in herself, and her reality within. This is a path that allows a woman who has survived struggle, to overcome the messages and hurts, and find comfort in her own skin as well as recognition that she is deeply worthy of that comfort, and the boundaries to protect it. This is freedom, from the inside out.
11 Facts about child abuse. Retrieved January 2018 from http://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-child-abuse.
Cosmopolitan survey of 2,235 full and part-time female employees, 2015. Retrieved January 2018 from http://www.timesupnow.com.
Hillis SD, Andra RF, Felitti VJ, Marchbanks PA. Adverse childhood experiences and sexual risk behaviors in women: a retrospective cohort study. Fam Plann Perspec. 2001 Sep-Oct;33(5):206-11. PMID: 11589541.