Childhood Abuse and Sexual Fears

August 12, 2004

The incident of abduction, rape and murder of an 11-year old girl in Florida prompts me to bring up the subject of subconscious fears. Here’s a fact that you need to know if you didn’t already: growing up female almost always involves at least one incident of feeling sexually afraid or vulnerable. The vast majority of women (I’m tempted to say all, but there are undoubtedly some who have led extraordinarily sheltered lives) have had a personal encounter with a deviant of some kind at some point in their lives, and the most aggressive deviants tend to be male.

Most men have no idea how many penis exposers and gleeful public masturbators there are in the world, routinely working out their obsessions in front of us. Every woman I’ve ever talked to about this subject has a story or two (or three) about “the guy in the movie theater” or the “pervert at the park.” Scary-looking guys whisper obscenities at eight-year olds as they pass by. A filthy vagrant (or, perhaps worse, a guy who looks like a Wall Street banker!) presses his erection against a twelve-year-old on the subway. An exposer reveals himself to two teenagers playing tennis on a public court (as happened to me). A new boyfriend turns suddenly, stunningly rough and hurtful with a sixteen-year-old. A college girl is followed in a parking garage, but after a few heart-pounding minutes the guy seems to decide she won’t make a good victim (also my own experience). Even in a nice, “normal” life these brushes with terror and perversity are virtually inevitable costs of doing business as a woman.

Although a stranger raping and murdering a random child is a very rare event, most women recognize such horrors as the far end of a continuum of sexual ugliness, an atmosphere of subtle threat, that most of us have dealt with all our lives. Although some boy children are also made to feel sexually fearful, it is not as common, and usually the internal reaction is not quite the same.

The noted psychoanalyst Erich Fromm noted in his book On Love that the idea of attack or “invasion” is a particularly important source of anxiety for women because of the basic facts of female physiology.

There is reason to assume that in everyone there exists a potential anxiety about injury through the openings into the body. But, although other openings may be more or less adequately protected, this is by no means so the case with the vagina — as first parental strictness and then rumors and fantasies of criminal assault have tended to impress upon the child. Woman’s normal anxiety is not castration but defenselessness toward an internal injury — such as the incurring of pregnancy against her will.

It’s interesting that Fromm believes that it is only parental rules and “rumors and fantasies” of criminal assault which create a woman’s fears. Like so many men of his era, Fromm simply didn’t know that the vast majority of women have had at least one real-life experience which contributes to their concerns. But “rumors and fantasies” do play a role, of course. Very few women have been able to avoid seeing movies or reading books in which a woman is sexually threatened, attacked or raped. And the surrounding culture sometimes seems to enjoy reminding us that we can be victimized all too easily.

The innate interior vulnerability of womanhood, Fromm believes, is one of the crucial differences between men and women’s differing approaches to sex. It’s not that women consciously believe their loving partners will hurt them “in there,” any more than a man consciously believes his partner will cut off his penis (the equivalent instinctive fear for men). But knowing and coping with those possibilities is part of the fundamental, underground struggles of our psychological existence as men (penetrating partner) and women (the penetrated).

If as a child a woman was sexually abused, if she once actually experienced sexual fear, guilt, disgust, or pain at the hands of someone bigger and stronger, her underlying sense of vulnerability and insecurity in the sexual realm will be even greater. A woman can overcome such deep difficulties during the courtship phase of any relationship, when she trusts and delights in her new love. But when the relationship becomes more difficult (as relationships almost inevitably do), the subconscious concerns raise their heads again.

Even when a woman feels she has been strong enough to put her bad sexual experiences behind her, they will nevertheless be standing by to interfere with her libido whenever she begins to doubt the good will and emotional gentility of her partner. When that insecurity surfaces, when she feels unloved, when she senses that she is being viewed as a mere “contractually obligated” vagina, a woman’s open, life-affirming erotic self will want to close and protect itself.

Under the surface of the marital conflict, and often in a way she can’t understand or acknowledge to herself, she may feel that her husband is “no different” from the sexual exploiter(s) in her past, that he really only wants to use her flesh and responses for his own selfish gratification. So it is that a man’s insistence on his rights, his pressure on his wife to — as her subconscious sees it — be open and vulnerable to his potentially harmful penetration, will only make her concerns about being sexually exploited that much worse.

As I noted, all women have some small element of this fear in their erotic background because of the reality of their bodies, their develpmental experiences and their cultural conditioning, but for women who have actually been overtly abused it is much, much worse. At the far end of the spectrum of reactions to sexual and other abuse, you get the histrionic withholding of an Andrea Dworkin, who believes that no act of penetrative intercourse can be anything but an expression of dominance and exploitation, and who evidently lives her life in terror of malevolent men. But even ordinary women with benign sexual backgrounds can feel some whispers of that concern.

Another very dark, very difficult problem for some abused women is the fact that the abuse was not always a totally negative or painful experience. Some children, especially at first or before grim understanding dawns, experience erotic responses or otherwise enjoy the sexual activity their abusers force on them. The guilt and horror a woman may feel when she remembers her supposed “complicity” with her abuser’s sexual sickness can significantly interfere with her healthy enjoyment of eroticism later on.

COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG POST:

You should listen to Loveline, with Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla. It isn’t on here anymore and I miss it. The show is a window into the world of very mixed-up adolescents and taught me a lot about what my daughters face.One “bit” on the show is that they bet based on the caller’s voice. Basically, they can guess from a girl’s voice a) whether she was abused, b) the type of abuse and c) her age when she was abused. They are frighteningly accurate.

Unfortunately, this skill is also easily and perhaps naturally acquired by predatory males. I’ve seen this in action. Some of my daughters’ friends have suffered and the predators pick up on it – like sharks sniffing blood.

It starts at least as young as 10. That’s when I first saw it – a 10 year old (older looking but still . . .) being hit on by 3 or 4 street kids from the projects while I was shepherding a bunch trick-or-treating 5th grade girls. They went right for her, ignoring the rest. She had no idea how to respond and I stepped forward and pushed her along with our group.

I’ve seen it get worse over the years. And it feeds a cycle of worthlessness that leads to more self-hating behavior – however it’s justified at the time.

I’ve known women who’ve, to a degree, pulled themselves out of it. They’ve built self-esteem, moved away from their pasts (whether that be drugs, sluttishness, total emotional shutdown, you name it), but it never goes away completely.

My wife compensates for fairly severe emotional abuse and abandonment issues. Yes, it dramatically affected our sex life for a while. Now it affects her ability to communicate with her daughters. She over-loves, over-protects, over-plans. Better than the opposite but she’ll never be as happy as she could be.

I’m no longer, unfortunately, surprised to learn that a woman has been sexually and/or emotionally abused as a child or sexually taken advantage of while a teen.

jonathank 2/7/04; 10:36:51 AM

A friend and I discussed the “sexual predator” issue recently regarding a problem he had with his 16 year old daughter. After he descibed the situation, I immediately identified the boy that was involved as a “predator”. I knew of his disposition, because to some extent it is taught or is somehow inate behavior of a boy growing up. This boy had a goal and had a mission to complete.It is used as sitcom themes, played out in movies, and shown on MTV! I live in Colorado where we get to hear of sex as a recruiting tool. The theme of “trying to get into her pants” begins with puberty and apparently, does not end after marriage.

Most men have that little voice that controls their inner predator. Obviously, some men don’t have the voice as is the sick predator you discuss in the opening. Your blog title could be changed to “Why can’t I get into my wife’s pants?” In schools of young verile men, the locker room banter is rampant. Jokes of being a virgin and the peer pressure of losing your virginity at all costs goes on every day. It is a societal rite of passage. The lesson derived from your post is that there are predators and prey. Human instinct being what it is, flight is the natural response.

Genuine 2/7/04; 2:24:43 PM

There is a not too subtle inference from this thread that a man who is trying to have sex with a reluctant wife is engaged in sexually predatory behavior. Maybe by today’s evolving ethical standards this is true. But there is something troubling about that conclussion. At least historically, regular sex (more than once a year) was a reasonable expectation for married couples. Now this seems to be changing, at least for some.More and more I think sexlessness in marriage is just plain old symptomatic of a dysfunctional marriage and if one partner or the other is discomforted by the sexlessness, then the best course of action is disolution of the marriage. Otherwise one seems to be inevitably drawn into a circular path of examination, re-examination and counter re-examination of how the husband can improve his behavior so as to become acceptable to a woman, who had already indicated to him that he was, at least at one time, acceptable (long sentence, take a deep breath). Once a woman has lost sexual interest in a man, it is rarely found again.

Please do not think I am trying to make light of the horrible crimes that truly predatory men inflict on their victims, but most guys are nothing like that. While most woman may have had scarry encounters with sexually deviant men, it is hard for normal men to know what they can do to help their women (possesiveness not intended) in this case. It’s not like keeping your smelly feet off the coffee table or brushing your teeth before bed.

My guess is that if a guy wants to stay married to a woman that does not want to have sex with him because of her past experience with deviant a–holes, then he should get an infinitely refillable perscription for sleeping pills and give up on ever having sex with his wife.

Jimoak 2/7/04; 9:15:55 PM

There is a not too subtle inference from this thread that a man who is trying to have sex with a reluctant wife is engaged in sexually predatory behavior.You’re inferring things that I didn’t mean to imply. I was certainly saying that a wife might SEE it this way. A man’s feelings and actions in such a situation (insisting on what he sees as his contractual rights, for example) are perfectly normal and completely understandable. But saying that they are “okay” in that sense doesn’t mean those normal and understandable actions are the best way to deal with his problem.

You see the difference?

There ARE things a guy can do, first among them coming to some understanding of what’s going on in his wife’s head (no matter how “crazy” or stupid HE thinks it is). But if he’s determined to find a statement of hopelessness or personal helplessness in this post, he’ll find it.

Nobody can scold anyone for feeling the way they feel or having the needs they have. IF men have a somewhat “predatory” sexual instinct deep in their innermost beings (I believe these things are part of our evolved natures), it is not something on which anyone can pass judgment, because it is merely a fact of life.

However, “what is” does not equal “what ought to be.” Because an action or reaction is normal and understandable as a result of a person’s nature (OR her experience!) DOES NOT mean they always will or must act upon it. We all have a lot of deep animal instincts that the privilege of being sentient enables us to control and channel in marvelous ways.

Animals can’t figure out another way to look at their problems, they have to continue on the same predictable treadmill of action and reaction (although they can be trained to control them).

Humans, on the other hand, can consciously change their reactions and behaviors. We can, in essence, “train” ourselves. Women can overcome their fears and men can overcome their impulse to pressure. It’s part of the beauty of being intelligent creatures with inventive, sympathetic brains.

Once a woman has lost sexual interest in a man, it is rarely found again.

Not true. My own experience is proof.

But by all means, feel free to give up. Go ahead and take sleeping pills or get a divorce. “Flight” is a common human reaction to a difficult or troubling situation, especially one in which the solution might require us to be disciplined and intelligently act against our deepest initial instincts.

Julia Grey 2/8/04; 9:19:46 AM

Perhaps women love the chase. It makes them feel special to be wanted, to be needed. Perhaps she does it to make us crazy?Genuine 2/8/04; 10:18:57 AM
Once a woman has lost sexual interest in a man, it is rarely found again.Not true. My own experience is proof.

Same here. What was once lost (or put on the back burner to simmer) WAS found. Funny thing is despite my being ready, willing, and able, my husband is the one who doesn’t want to have sex as often now.

VelvetPear 2/8/04; 11:54:57 AM

Perhaps women love the chase. It makes them feel special to be wanted, to be needed. I think you’re on to something here. It might be another of those instinctive realities we have to deal with.

If we accept this theory, wanting to be pursued and “specially wanted” is the same kind of impulse in women that the single-minded pursuit of sex for its own sake is in men. Not something that can be judged in an of itself because it just “is.”

However, there’s a crucial point we can’t forget. The WAY women want to be needed is not just as the handiest vagina (there’s no “specialness” about that!), but as individual female PEOPLE.

How men convey their longing for a particular woman rather than just her sexual organs is a big part of this problem, I think. Approaching the matter as an act that is owed by contract or as a “logical” trade-off will tell a woman that the WHAT is the crucial thing for you, and that the WHO is irrelevant.

Then you can become (in her mind) just like those creepy guys on the street. The perverts don’t care about A woman, they’re only interested in getting their kicks from ANY woman.

Perhaps she does it to make us crazy?

I doubt it. Not in a way she could recognize herself, anyway. When you’re brought up to feel guilty, shamed, “responsible for” or fearful of sex, you’re unlikely to want to consciously or deliberately extend your rap sheet in your own mind.

Just rejecting the whole process and not thinking about it at all is a much easier “solution” to a woman’s inner fears and conflicts.

Julia Grey 2/8/04; 11:58:40 AM

If I were to pick an undercurrent, it would be that most people need to work through many obstacles to be happy. Enjoying sex, without it becoming the be all of existence – and particularly in the context of a loving relationship – is a form of happiness. For men, the obstacle is often the intense pressure of work, so fierce they alienate the man from the family and from himself. This particular thread is about women and abuse. Most of us are damaged to some degree.I’ve thought a lot about the various women I might have married. I’m not one of those who believe my wife, whom I love, was the only choice in this vast world. I admit that I shied away from several very interesting, very attractive women because I didn’t want to deal with their issues. I drew the line, for right or wrong, at getting too involved with women who had been abuse beyond a level I was comfortable with. I’m not proud of that.

On a few occasions the abuse was physical and a couple of times it was emotional. One girl responded to the physical abuse by sleeping around while another still has trouble having sex. The responses aren’t hardwire programmed set in stone and neither are the results. The first girl now has several kids and is, at least superficially, doing well. The second is also doing well but lives alone.

I sometimes think, “I could have been stronger. I could have helped her through this.” Maybe. Maybe not. Is it ego to feel you could and thus is it ego to feel bad because you didn’t?

I didn’t realize the extent to which my wife had been abused until we were already involved. I considered getting out but, honestly, didn’t think that I could put her through that. She was completely committed and perhaps it was a measure of my feelings for her that I couldn’t hurt her.

I would recommend to husbands that they talk to their kids. My daughters are very aware of my wife’s issues. My oldest sometimes rages against them, though she knows her mom is over-compensating and that she’s repeating destructive patterns. My youngest daughter just says no. I’ve found that discussing these issues with my girls has helped them deal with their mother and helped me deal with my wiife. She is trying, after all.

One side effect of my wife’s emotional history – this is supposedly a sex-oriented blog – is that she approaches foreplay in a male way. In other words, most of the time, she just wants to cut to the chase. I used to wonder why and then realized that often when she’s treated in a soothing, carressing, feminine way it calls up vulnerabilities that she’d rather bury. When your guts have been ripped out too many times and by the people who were supposed to care for you, the last thing you want to do is show your belly.

jonathank 2/8/04; 7:29:32 PM

Jonathank: Somehow I don’t see your ego ever getting in the way of being a good husband and father. Your heart is in the right place. Thank you for sharing.I have a simple question though, were your choices in women similar? I look back on the relationships I have had, and there is a common theme. This may be psychology 101, but we tend to choose women with the same traits, and I was just wondering whether you saw these common denominators. I am married for the second time and I thought I married an antonym of my first wife. Underlying criticisms I had with my first wife showed in the second as well. I am wondering if this pattern behaviour has anything to do with my latching onto this site (pun intended)?

Genuine 2/8/04; 8:39:00 PM

Say jonathank, poke around here, and you should be able to reunite with your old buddies Drew and Adam. They’ve provided me with nightly-low level (free!) therapy for about a decade, and honestly, I think it had something to do with ditching a cruel, icy alcoholic for my current sweetheart of a husband.Another big turnaround for me was getting involved in some hardcore utilitarian self-defense training. It killed the “freeze response” dead (even better was going on to teach it — indescribably cathartic.) Just some food for thought for those of you with daughters!

bun 2/9/04; 10:59:36 AM

Ooooops, the page doesn’t want to be linked… but hit the “home” button at the top, and you’re there.bun 2/9/04; 11:01:39 AM
This is all resonating with me. My wife admitted to me early on that her father was a jerk and that he emotionally abused her by saying things like, “how could you be so stupid?” I guess my question is, why must I be blamed and held accountable (and withheld sex from) because of the sins of others? I am a nice guy. I married her for many reasons, one of which, admittedly, was because I liked having sex with her. Now, no sex. She says that I need to get over my need to have sex to feel loved. Only then will she feel a desire for me.It’s as if sex has become a dirty thing just because I like to have it with her. As soon as I don’t want/need to have it with her, it will, apparently, be okay again. No, she won’t get counseling. Any other bright ideas?

Harry 2/9/04; 11:29:25 AM

Two small, offhand, not-very-coherent observations…First, while I cannot deny that the bad sexual experiences you describe, and the emotional consequences, thereof, are real, there are many instances where women use such fears as a cudgel to avoid responsibility and/or maintain control of their men. The logic might go something like this: “You don’t have to live your life in fear of some violent pervert or rapist like I do, therefore you’ll never be able to understand my concerns, and you have no right to expect me to do anything about our problems. Whatever adjustments need to be made to make this relationship work, must be made by you.” Another manifestation: “I was a victim of some pervert, and you expect ME to get counseling? How dare you?!” I guess this is a manifestation of what psychiatrists call the “tyranny of weakness.”

Second, regarding your point that “…the surrounding culture sometimes seems to enjoy reminding us that we can be victimized all too easily.”

Sometimes it seems that a lot of this “reminding” is done by people who consider themselves advocates for the victims of sexual predators. Perhaps, like most demagogues, these advocates want their “people” to feel helpless so that they will stay under their “protector’s” wing, rather than strike out on their own; or perhaps the “protectors” themselves are so locked into this psychology of victimhood that they are unable to lead their “people” out of it.

Raging Bee 2/9/04; 12:19:57 PM

I guess my question is, why must I be blamed and held accountable (and withheld sex from) because of the sins of others?Because, Harry, it’s ALL ABOUT YOU, and your wife doesn’t suffer any pain or anxiety AT ALL; she just does this because she’s feeling spiteful and doesn’t want to “give you” what you’ve “earned”. Here’s my bright idea: love your wife UNCONDITIONALLY and show it. I think you think you’re doing it, but it’s more like “I love my wife and I do the dishes and I don’t expect anything, but I’m going to complain because when I do these things I don’t get sex in return”. And you know what? “Martyr” and “passive-aggressive” are not attitudes that are attractive. At all.

AuntieEm 2/9/04; 2:22:19 PM

I hope the following observation is not solely a result of my testosterone level, but consider the following:Human relationships exist on many levels. You have acquaintances, friends, Close Friends, etc. The vast majority of posts on this site lead me to believe that we think there is something different about the Marriage Relationship. I submit that intimate physical contact is one of the elements that make the marriage relationship different from *any* other. Many experiences we have with other people could be shared between “friends” as easily as between husbands and wives. The idea of the “emotional affair” notwithstanding, sexual intimacy sets a relationship apart from others (*all* others, in my opinion).

Don’t hear me say that fitting plumbing together is what makes a marriage. I’m talking about the “oneness” that occurs when two people break down *every* barrier between them. What I hear from some of the frustrated husbands (myself, included) is not so much that they think they’re owed sex. They do, however, view the marriage covenant as the one way that they can share this extremely exclusive behavior with this person they love so much and to whom they have committed their life.

When that’s denied (regardless of the reason), it shifts the balance. Men get frustrated and angry. That anger leads them to begin mistreating their wives.

Doesn’t it come down to “When you love me the way I need to be loved, it allows me to love you the way you need to be loved”?

That’s the ideal, right? But when that cycle breaks down, it’s a self-sustaining nightmare: “I can’t love you the way you need to be loved until you love me the way I need to be loved.”

No offense to the atheists, but I think God made us this way. Both must give of themselves in order for both to get. Cute, huh?

Duke 2/9/04; 2:38:56 PM

Duke, your theory about what makes marriage special is completely shot down by the swinging community. I’ve recently become acquainted with some swingers who don’t mind talking to me about their lifestyle, and they are in committed, loving relationships…and have a shared hobby of having sex with other people. One thing swingers say is that if you’ve got problems in your relationship, nothing will bring them out for discussion like swinging, and then either you solve them or you split up (whether you continue swinging or not).I think sexual intimacy is a tool that *can be* used to form and strengthen a special bond between people who want to have one. But it’s just one tool, and not the only important one. Ever hear the expression, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”?

Kris Hasson-Jones 2/9/04; 6:00:18 PM

The hammer had plenty of nails and then moved into a glass house. Hammer obselete.Genuine 2/9/04; 7:31:22 PM
AuntieEm: all Harry seemed to be saying is that he feels he is being blamed and punished, intentionally or not, for the misdeeds of another man over whom he had no control. I don’t have to think he’s right and blameless to agree that he has a valid point. MCPs have rights too, and among those rights is the right not to be blamed for the actions of others. Why must his concerns be greeted with such mindless accusations as yours?The attitude of your post reflects a double-standard (or perhaps I should say bigotry) that poisons many relationships: when a woman complains, she must be respected and loved unconditionally; when a man complains, he’s a selfish pig; and whatever the complaint, it’s the man’s fault.

Raging Bee 2/10/04; 7:31:04 AM

Whoa, Auntie Em…what exactly set you off? I do love my wife unconditionally. She seems to be setting all sorts of conditions about showing me love in the way I want to be shown love, while I continue to show her love in her love languages, which are acts of service (laundry, housecleaning, parenting) and quality time (spending time talking, going fun places). Right now, as far as sex is concerned, it’s all about HER, since we don’t have it. I would like it to be about US, which is a compromise that two committed parties should be willing to make in order to work together on a marriage. As far as complaining when I don’t get sex, I’ve tried being quiet for up to six months…no pressure, but she sees pressure in the most benign looks, gestures, and silences. I’ll admit to being passive aggressive at times. I never said I was perfect. I just miss her touch, her kisses, the feel of her naked body next to mine. Is it so much to ask for these things from your wife?And Duke, despite what Kris says, (which is, I think, representative of a small minority of people in the world), I think your view of the marriage covenant as “the one way that they can share this extremely exclusive behavior with this person they love so much and to whom they have committed their life” says it with clarity, precision, and passion. Furthermore, I think that anyone who doesn’t share this belief has a duty to clearly state to their prospective spouse that they don’t think of sexual/physical intimacy this way. Otherwise, they should endure and admit to the charges of “bait and switch” which they will inevitably hear.

I love my wife, of this there is no doubt in my mind. I just suspect that, for some reason she refuses to admit to me (past abuse? poor self image?) she doesn’t feel that she deserves to be loved. Her refusal to admit this to me or to herself is one of our biggest roadblocks to a fantastic marriage, rather than our current state, which is an “okay” marriage.

Harry 2/10/04; 7:35:01 AM

I wonder whether you’ve asked yourself this question: if my spouse were physically incapacitated in a way that made any kind of sexual pleasure shared between us possible, would I be making the same arguments?Then ask yourself: is it different if my spouse’s problem is psychological? If so, why?

I also wonder whether for a lot of these non-sexual spouses the problem is partly inertia. Like when my son has been home sick from school for a couple of days, he gets scared to go back to school. He’s afraid to an irrational degree and not necessarily of anything specific.

Kris Hasson-Jones 2/10/04; 9:54:11 AM

That’s the ideal, right? But when that cycle breaks down, it’s a self-sustaining nightmare: “I can’t love you the way you need to be loved until you love me the way I need to be loved.”Yes. It’s often exactly this kind of Catch 22 cycle that sustains a sexual problem. Many women don’t even recognize their own Anger but in any case, what might be called Disappointment In Love is the mainspring of the entire business. The sexual instinct in women tends to be more dependent upon feeling loved, and in men love is more dependent upon being given sex. It’s a terrible dilemma.

Harry, when you talk about being “blamed and punished” you are speaking in terms of conscious choice. As if your wife is DECIDING to react the way she’s reacting to the idea of sex, in some kind of malicious or deliberately negative manner.

My whole point in this post was that a woman’s responses to prior abuse and ugly experiences tend to be the kinds of emotions, concerns and fears that have NO voluntary component. I didn’t want to judge or excuse anything by anybody, I only wanted to provide INSIGHT into what could be happening inside a woman’s head, maybe give people something to think about that hadn’t occurred to them before.

Yet the response from some folks seems to be essentially: “Yeah, but she SHOULDN’T feel that way. Society encouraged her, she’s over-reacting, I’m not the guy who did it to her, so she should just snap out of it.

Good luck with that.

I’m sympathetic with BOTH sides of this dilemma. Honest I am.

All I was trying to do was illustrate a reality of female existence/ experience that I hoped would be helpful to some men who hadn’t considered this aspect of their wife’s inner life. And some guys seem to have taken it All Wrong.

What else is new, she said wryly?

I think that anyone who doesn’t share this belief has a duty to clearly state to their prospective spouse that they don’t think of sexual/physical intimacy this way. Otherwise, they should endure and admit to the charges of “bait and switch” which they will inevitably hear.

You know, Harry, there might be such a DUTY (fascinating word) if these feelings and reactions were voluntary, or if a woman could somehow be aware before she married of exactly how she will feel after a few years intimate cohabitation, but given that they aren’t and she can’t, I think you’re just justifying your own end of the anger/resentment cycle.

As much as I SYMPATHIZE with that anger and that attitude, I have to repeat, once again, that it isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good.

Did you notice that in this paragraph you were not only setting up the terms of a particular kind of (impossible-to-fulfill) “duty,” but the proposed punishment (“endure and admit to the charges”) if that duty is not fulfilled to your satisfaction? You are not only quite preoccupied with issues of obligation, justice and punishment, but that this kind of talk betrays a wish to (re)gain power.

Like our friend Ricky from the notorious masturbation thread, you would like to force your wife to make an “admission” to you (in your case, you want her to say that SHE is the one who’s really at fault here). You secretly and perhaps unknowingly want to make your wife “endure” some kind of punishment for being so darn mean to you.

I hear you say that you are a perfect husband and there is therefore no reason your wife should be refusing sex with you. Yet SHE could be thinking you are still fixated on pussy and/or that you don’t actually love her. Maybe she’s still pissed about something that happened six years ago. Maybe she’s just bored to death with you. Maybe she’s hopelessly neurotic. I can’t know what the reality is and I can’t pass judgment. I can only say that from here it looks like you still do not know what the problem REALLY is from her point of view.

YOU are angry, though, and despite your protestations of undying love, I think your wife knows you’re just plain pissed at her on a pretty continuous basis, and that (again, from her point of view) you’d like to punish her for her unfixable FEELINGS. It’s that old vicious cycle again. She can’t trust your love and she doesn’t want to open herself to you when she knows how much you are blaming her for the erotic death of your marriage. And of course you remain preoccupied and resentful as long as she remains sexually closed and protective of her (in some sense literal) inner life.

My job on this site is to give you possibilities to consider in order to break that cycle of resentment. If you don’t think any of these ideas are valid in any way or that there is anything more you can do, feel free to ignore all this.

Your feelings of anger and resentment are natural too, and I don’t judge them, either. I just want you to take a look at what they really are (or could be) and thus what they might be causing you to do or convey to your wife. They might be prompting you to DO or EXPRESS in ways that will only increase her attempts to hide and close herself.

Remember that women are (either naturally or by training) exceedingly — sometimes “overly” — sensitive to other people’s emotions and attitudes. You “speak” to her every time you come near.

So what’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure and can’t be totally specific, but here’s a start: Stop thinking so much about what other people owe you, what THEY are doing to you, and how you’d like to control them and their actions and reactions.

Work on having control over your own life, actions and expressions. Concentrate on being honest with yourself about your own feelings, needs, and errors, no matter how ugly they seem at first and how much you want to deny them. That way, you can eventually understand and have confidence in the real person you are.

In the end, even if your marriage doesn’t happen to work out, you are going to be a better MAN.

Julia Grey 2/10/04; 10:24:11 AM

bun, thanks for the loveline link. I found it on WAAF out of Worcester – and at a rational time of night. Never listen to that station – testostorock. Prefer FNX, which now markets itself as “real alternative”. Okay. Thank god for my ipod. And for the guy who posted the White Stripes Liverpool show.Julia, you’re beginning to sound born again, with the capital letters and the take charge advice. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Try this: in the Iliad, Achilles responds to a group of young Trojan prisoners who are pleading for their lives: “We all have to die. Why not now? Why not me?”

Translate this through the Romans – more our spiritual ancestors – and it becomes carpe diem. Pale shade. So easily corporate and imperial. Pip-pip, cheerio and all that rot.

If a man with a sword stands over you – and he does – then why not now?

jonathank 2/10/04; 11:49:00 AM

Julia: As noted above, I’d been laying low for about 6 months, not pressuring my wife at all (in my view), letting her decide on her own timetable when and if we would have sex. We never did. During that time period, I tried to be my usual loving, funny, engaging self, acting “as if” everything was going great. About two weeks ago I gave her a copy of “The Sex Starved Marriage” with a note asking her to read it, as I thought it did a great job of expressing my feeling about intimacy, and also did a good job of explaining where my wife’s perspective might be coming from. You’d have thought I gave her some sort of leather sex-slave outfit. Her reaction was over the top. But she finally settled down and has read the first chapter.Despite the fact that she disagrees with the author’s basic premise that both parties must compromise in order to address the sexual desire discrepancy, it has at least given us a reason to communicate about this issue, which had not been broached in the previous six months.

Harry 2/11/04; 8:22:30 AM

When people become legalistic in trying to get what they want, they turn to third parties to adjudicate the conflict. One of the important discoveries for me–one that changed the character of our 40+ year partnership– is that no matter what my friends say, no matter how logical my argument, or how strong my evidence there is no third party that can declare one of us the winner.What I am having a hard time saying is that there are only the two of us in this marriage, and somehow we have to work it out. When the conversation works we get a better understanding of each other. When it doesn’t it’s usually because one of us is not open. That’s the time to let it sit for a while because to keep hammering away doesn’t get us to a resolution. We never reach a understanding when one of us is closed, and in the heat of the moment that is easy to forget.

Bottom line, like most folks we both want to be happy. It was the getting there that was hard, and least someone think that I am claiming that we have it all worked out, that just ain’t so. I have yesterday as evidence. The best advice I ever got was “expect to fail”. Then get up and go on.

Jack 2/11/04; 8:26:42 AM

Harry, I think we are both in the same boat: our wives have an *aversion* to sex. It means there has been enough negative or painful (whether physical or emotional, it doesn’t matter) experiences associated with intimate contact that she now associates sex with negative feelings or pain. *I* don’t have a sexual aversion, but I know how one might develop. When I was about 10, I went out for pizza with my family. After gorging myself on a great pepperoni pie, I went home, got gravely ill and threw up most of the night. Turns out the pizza itself didn’t make me sick, I had picked up a stomach bug earlier, but didn’t feel sick until later. Didn’t matter — I didn’t eat pizza for A WHOLE YEAR!I overcame my aversion to pizza, but how does one overcome an aversion to sex? I ran across an article by “Needs Guru” Willard Harley (www.marriagebuilders.com) that describes sexual aversion and some techniques to overcome it.

So what? Like I said earlier, it’s not *me* with the Aversion. So, chiming in with Jack’s post, you fall into the trap of trying to show your wife some “third party” solution that might help, but if she doesn’t buy into it, the Outside Help might as well not exist. Does the act of offering this resource get interpreted as a heartfelt effort to help solve some problems in the relationship or does she see it as just another maneuver to get into her pants?

And, once again, I’ve highlighted problems, not solutions.

By the way, my wife and I have been sloowwwly working our way through Dr. Harley’s “Basic Concepts” articles on the website. We discuss them via email because face-to-face conversations get way too emotionally charged and turn into arguments. She was actually *not* offended by my suggestion that she is suffering from an aversion to sex and has indicated that she is willing to read the article on how to overcome it. Ironically enough, the article describes relaxation techniques very much akin to Lamaze.

I’m not taking this as some magic bullet, but I can still hope it helps bring us closer together.

Duke 2/12/04; 2:50:18 PM

Julia, you’re beginning to sound born again, with the capital letters and the take charge advice. Today is the first day of the rest of your life.Well excuuuuuuuse me. Heh.

Maybe you’ve just been reading me too long, Jonathan. For some folks I don’t wear well.

Not to worry, I’ll have a crackerjack editor if this goes on to “real” print. <grin>

Duke, oddly enough I think email is an ideal way for couples to communicate about this sort of thing. It is absolutely true that face-to-face can make such discussions far too uncomfortable. Remember what I said about some of us having a really hard time talking about it? Email or instant messaging can remove some of that reserve.

It’s a bit like how much easier it is to confess things over the phone. It would be interesting to research why that’s so.

Julia Grey 2/13/04; 7:40:12 AM

Hey Duke, I’ve read that “aversion” article and she may be suffering from that. Unfortunately, I think she would be offended by my offering it to her for her perusal. However, I’m getting used to her being offended as merely the first reaction to my efforts to improve our situation. After a day or two, she will usually calm down enough to discuss things. As for “magic bullets” I know there is no such thing out there. This is one of the biggest challenges facing our marriage, and it will take hard work, persistence, and patience to work through it.Harry 2/13/04; 7:45:47 AM
Harry, one of The Most Important Things I’ve learned in my 25 years of marriage is that you can almost NEVER expect your partner to react well the moment you bring up a painful subject.I had to learn to be brave enough to speak up and endure the conniptions or the cold shoulder or whatever else while my husband worked through the “data” I had just given him.

Almost always, the blowup or fuss or yelling-and-stomping would be followed a day or so later by a rapprochement. He would accept at least part of the original point I was trying to make, and he could then talk about it in an adult manner. I think my husband’s ability to eventually calm down on his own (even though from my point of view his immediate reaction was almost always an OVER-reaction) is a major reason our marriage has survived so well.

It takes teeth-gritting patience sometimes to see this lengthy scenario through every. single. time. I want to bring up something difficult, but now that I know it’s Just His Way, I can anticipate it and wait him out.

But the fact that the process is such a pain in the ass has also taught me to pick my battles carefully. He in essence protects himself by being an immediate over-reactor and a later considerer.

I have to be sure of my own motivations and be positive that what I’m going to be asking for or criticizing is genuinely important. It always goes faster (one day of sulking/thinking rather than, say, three) when there is a very visible positive outcome available for him, too.

I think offering a written explanation of your problem/request is a very good way to approach your wife if you’re bringing up something difficult. Ask for a written reply (as I said, email can be a very good method).

But I think being (or just SEEMING) too bluntly confrontational or demanding is as problematic in writing as it is in face-to-face. One of my readers emailed me with a list of sexual acts he wanted his wife to essentially “check off” as okay for him to do with/to her.

Under the circumstances that he had explained to me, that seemed a bit pushy or scary as a first step in their sexual discussions, and I advised against it.

To a woman who is having trouble dealing with her sexual self, a request to essentially give blanket permission for any given act without regard to either person’s situation or emotions can feel just as threatening, overbearing or invasive as an unexpected viewing of a dirty penis at the bus station.

So talk about other important things first.

Think of it as foreplay.

Julia Grey 2/13/04; 10:10:06 AM

As a Church leader of a Church, which accepts homosexual marriages I’m disappointed in Kerry’s cynical and distasteful behaviour. He has made liberals seem sleazy, untrustworthy and unelectable. Kerry can’t even keep a vow to his wife, so how are we supposed to believe him when he vows to uphold the constitution? The girl was only 20 years old. Kerry is 60 for goodness sake. He was banging a baby. Isn’t Michael Jackson in court for that? But I guess Creepy Kerry can always flee the country and hide in France, like Roman Polanski. So the rumors about Kerry using Botox are true after all. Though looking at the age difference he probably wasn’t using Botox to stiffen his forehead.Ricky Vandal 2/13/04; 4:33:47 PM
Okay Ricky, you are scaring the children!Genuine 2/13/04; 7:26:59 PM
Despite the viral smear-spam that just appeared, I wanted to say that I can vouch for the non-direct communication method. I’m very much a talker, and my partner .. basically isn’t. (She keeps telling me that I need to recognise non-verbal communication more, and I tell her she needs to be more verbal.)After a 14-month ennforced seperation (she was studying in another city) that involved lots of phone calls, we had found that we weren’t communicating as well as we used to when we started living together afterwards. So we started pretending that we were talking to each other on the phone – even though we were laying in bed next to each other. Amazingly it helped.

More recently, talking through IM clients or similar methods of online communication have also helped broach the dicey subjects that get bad initial reactions (we’ve both used it).

Shadow 2/13/04; 11:40:23 PM

Shadow: That’s pretty cool…pretending to talk on the phone next to each other. I might have to try this.And what the heck was that anti-Kerry rant about? Did you go to Ricky Vandal’s website? I guess it takes all types to make a world.

Harry 2/17/04; 6:31:47 AM

Since when was a twenty-year-old a “baby?” Since some men want to deny that adult women have thoughts, and desires, of their own, that’s when. Raging Bee 2/17/04; 11:38:28 AM

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2 Responses to “Childhood Abuse and Sexual Fears”

  1. Jim Says:

    And now consider the inverse of all of this conversation; do you think these women who refuse sex with their husbands are on forums trying to learn how their husbands think, why they want (need) sex, or why THEY should change things in the marriage? It’s a two-way street and, problems or not, a woman needs to actively work on moving forward – not living with the misdeeds of others a s a shield to legitimate intimacy within a marriage. I can understand it, have compassion but I don’t have to condone it.

  2. Mark Says:

    Yes it is a two way street and if either party does not want to provide for the needs of the other then what is the point? If your happy in a sexless marriage be prepared to be alone.


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