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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Healthy Sex Life

Q. I find myself to be a pendulum between promiscuity and aversion to sex. I was abused at a young age and wonder if I will ever be able to have a normal, healthy sex life. What causes this and how do I snap out of it?

A. As you may well understand already, physical or sexual abuse during childhood usually leads to serious impairment in the ability to trust--and trust is the cornerstone of any intimate relationship. The two poles you describe--promiscuity and aversion--may represent opposite ways of coping with this lack of trust. For some victims of abuse, the best defense is a good offense--that is, they seize the initiative sexually, become overly seductive, actively seek out questionable sexual relationships, etc. They may realize, on some level, that this pattern of behavior is destructive, but at least they feel a sense of power and control.

On the other hand, their sense of revulsion at sexual activity--which they may understandably associate with loss of control, domination, pain, etc.--may lead them to a sort of hibernation mode, in which all sexual activity is fended off. Unfortunately, this kind of life-long pattern is not like a bad mood that one can simply snap out of. It usually requires a long-term commitment to re-building one's sense of trust--and sometimes, one's sense of self--by means of professional counseling.

While I recommend getting involved in psychotherapy, you may also learn some important things from Dr. Jon Allen's book, Coping With Trauma--including some of the treatment approaches available to you. Over time, you may well be able to find your way back to trust, intimacy, and sexual fulfillment.

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October 2001

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