How do you get closure about something you're not sure even happened?
March 9, 2009 7:35 PM   Subscribe

I may have been abused as a child, but I'll never know for sure. How can I stop worrying about it?

I may have been sexually abused as a young child (up until the age of about six) by a close relative. I have no memories of any abuse, but one of my parents was worried enough about changes in my behavior that they brought me to a therapist to get her opinion. The therapist's opinion was that I hadn't been molested but I *do* have memories of playing games in her office that in retrospect must have been designed to provoke reactions in me to sexual stimuli - I remember being incredibly uncomfortable but feeling like I had to pretend like I didn't notice anything because it was wrong for me to know what the words and pictures meant.

Whether or not I was abused, I have long known it was a possibility that I was (and I have also always known that someone else in my family had been). We have slowly reconciled with the family member in question to the point where everything is pretty much normal with them. It has been almost twenty years since this all came out.

I have never really tried to deal with my feelings about the whole thing. I tend to feel like if I can't remember being abused then for all practical purpose I wasn't abused and I shouldn't worry about it and it would be silly for me to try to access the resources for "real" survivors of abuse and it would make things harder for the family as a whole to heal.

The reason I'm asking these questions is that I've recently become sexually active for the first time and the way I behave in bed worries me. I go beyond shy - I have difficulty speaking at all, telling my partner what I want them to do, what I don't want them to do, that I want them to stop. I had an experience a couple years ago where it took me ten minutes to work up the courage to tell a boy I didn't want to have sex with him.

Obviously this is something that I need to work out regardless and I have faith that I can. And I know it is likely that what's happening now and the possible abuse aren't connected.

I guess I wonder whether it makes sense to dredge up this old topic or whether I should just do my best just to forget about it, since I'll never know? Or whether I'm making a big deal out of nothing by worrying about it and being a drama queen? Whether I should talk to my partner about this (the possible abuse, obviously I will talk to him about the problems I've been having in bed)? Whether I should see a therapist?

I know you're not experts, I just want to get some advice, and I don't have many friends I can talk to about this. Also I know I've been kind of vague here and that it's a touchy topic so I made a throwaway email account - - and I can also follow up with the mods. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The good news is that you're new to sex and therefore still learning and figuring out what you like and how you like to communicate about it. I'm totally different in the sack than I was when I started, as I'm sure is the case for many people. If being sexually non-functioning is something you're really worried about, I'm here to say that's something you'll very likely grow out of. Try not to be scared!
posted by lizzicide at 7:40 PM on March 9, 2009

Well, it really doesn't matter whether or not you were abused - about that much, you're right. But what does matter is that you don't feel comfortable with your sexual self right now -- you have memories of your childhood related to sex that are confusing and uncomfortable and are recurring to you right now. And you haven't yet developed a comfort level with communicating about your sexuality. Can you get some help - therapy? Aimed at making you feel more comfortable with this whole topic area, which seems pretty fraught for you? And in the meantime - is your difficulty communicating about/during sex serious enough that maybe you should consider not being sexually active? It really is something I often say to people when they're younger and getting started with partnered sex -- if you can't talk about it, or talk about it with X person, are you sure you're ready to be doing it?
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

My response was incomplete and I don't seem to be saying it right - what I'm saying is that the feelings about sex you seem to have picked up in childhood, confusion and shame (feeling that you had to pretend not to know what you knew), are troubling you now. The childhood and the present situation probably are connected, but maybe not by abuse - just by the simple fact that you were first learning about the sexual world in a fraught and anxious time in your family's history and I bet there was plenty of concern and anxiety and fear shone in your direction when it comes to sex. Therapy could help you look at this again and recontextualize all of it. It might help. If not, maybe just trying to address the feelings of shame, embarrassment, or fear in whatever way works for you is another way to go.
posted by Miko at 7:52 PM on March 9, 2009

Whatever happened, the main thing to remember is you are not your past. Talk to a therapist who's not pushing "recovered memories" on you, and work on creating the confident, joyous, and meaningful future you most certainly deserve.
posted by aquafortis at 8:08 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's possible it happened, and it's possible it didn't.

What is DEFINITE is that you feel very shy about expressing yourself NOW, and it makes perfect sense to focus on addressing that. You may find a root cause for it, or you may not, but either way you will have addressed this shyness.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

In the past, especially in the 1990s, there were popular news stories about people having repressed memories of sexual abuse. Many, if not most or all of these were false memories, planted either intentionally or accidentally by therapists or others. It was actually very horrible because in some cases, parents or others were charged with crimes and had their lives ruined based on these "memories," when in actuality they were completely innocent.

It's possible that you were abused at such a young age that you have no memory of it, but it's not as likely that you would have been abused at an age that you would otherwise remember it, but have "repressed."

I'm not saying you weren't abused, but it's not uncommon for young women (and men) who were not abused have the same feelings you have experienced.
posted by fructose at 8:10 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

OP: I tend to feel like if I can't remember being abused then for all practical purpose I wasn't abused and I shouldn't worry about it

Miko: Well, it really doesn't matter whether or not you were abused - about that much, you're right.

hortense: If you were the victim of abuse you would know it, it is not the sort of thing that one forgets ever happened.

Look, you could fit everything I know about abuse and psychiatry into Freud's pipe. But I'm dubious about the OP's feeling -- which s/he also doesn't entirely buy -- and even more so about the above replies. Is there nothing at all to the notion of repressed or suppressed memories, and to their lingering effects?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:16 PM on March 9, 2009

fructose: It's possible that you were abused at such a young age that you have no memory of it, but it's not as likely that you would have been abused at an age that you would otherwise remember it, but have "repressed."

My first thought upon reading the OP's question was that the abuse was too speculative, and that the prospect had been inadvertently planted by the parents' inquiries. But come on: I'm not precisely sure what odds you're comparing here, but how on earth do they follow from any facts you have at your disposal?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2009

Having difficulty expressing your feelings about sex is pretty normal. Many people go through this phase and often don't get through it until they are in a committed, long-term relationship. If you are really concerned, do seek out a little therapy -- someone to help you sort out your feelings on sex. Just because it seems like sex comes so easily and openly to other people, that's really sort of rare and especially when you're the age that you're just figuring out how you feel about sex. We are all a product of our upbringing and it sounds like your first real introduction to sex was very uncomfortable.

Could you maybe ask your parents about this incident? Maybe the more grown-up you could better understand their fears and motivations at the time and get beyond this issue. It does sound like it was very confusing. I don't think you were molested. But, I do think that you can get beyond this. Lots of people are "late-bloomers" and you'll eventually find a committed, loving relationship and things will get easier and better.
posted by amanda at 8:21 PM on March 9, 2009

hortense, that's not actually true. while there's a wealth of controversy about recovered memories, the going wisdom is mostly that it's not happening as much as people think it is, but it still does happen. as i understand it it's the same sort of thing that triggers PTSD, but with the underdeveloped mind of a child, memories can be blocked until something triggers it late in life. if it stopped when she was 6 it is totally possible that she doesn't have those memories. how many things to do remember before you were 6? i can count mine on my hands.

now, to the poster - whether you were abused or not, as miko states, you had some confusing times with sexuality and how to express yourself as a child. this is coming back up now that you're sexually active. i was abused and this same thing happened to me. part of it was the abuse and part of it was the culture of abuse that my family exists under (there a lot of abuse and abusers with my last name). it was an often talked about topic and one filled with shame and hand wringing and books and talks about therapy and the whole nine. everyone wanted the gory details and then they didn't want to listen when i actually tried to talk. and so, yeah, when i started having sex there was a mountain of confusion and shame and triggering moments and hyperventilating. and little by little as i grew up and learned and had more sex i slowly grew out of it. i guess i base it on creating a sexual identity of my own and realizing that it was ok to be sexually stimulated and the feelings and thoughts i have now about sex don't have to relate to the feelings and thoughts the 8 year old me had about sex.

if you go the therapy route, i would make sure to find one that isn't going hunting for recovered memories. there are certainly shrinks out there that can fuck you up and get you believing things that never happened. the important thing is your now and how you take your past and integrate it with your future.

i feel like i'm all over the place, but if you want to talk more about this - memail away.
posted by nadawi at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2009

hortense--you can be the victim of sexual abuse and not remember. look here.
posted by 6:1 at 8:35 PM on March 9, 2009

I'm not precisely sure what odds you're comparing here, but how on earth do they follow from any facts you have at your disposal?

She might have been abused and she might not; I'm admitting that I have no way of knowing and it's certainly possible given the circumstances. What I'm saying is that she's very aware of feelings of shame and discomfort about sex, regardless of their source. Whether she was abused or wasn't abused, those are the issues causing problems right now. Therapy could help. I also agree they're not uncommon; I wasn't abused, but I had a family that thought sex was pretty shameful, and that took me some time to work through. I don't think a therapist would spend much time trying to determine whether there was or wasn't abuse; I think she'd spend the time examining the OP's beliefs or questions about her family history and providing some ways to view this particular history, as well as tools for dealing with today's sex life. That's what I meant about 'doesn't matter' - it might not matter all that much to the treatment plan what did or didn't happen in a objectively unknowable long-ago reality.

I'm speculating here because I'm not a therapist, but I think that it's never the exact events in our past that cause us problems, but present attitudes, questions, and unresolved feelings that cause the problems. Therapists can help with that regardless of the event.

On the other hand, so can friends, honest conversation, trusted elders, internet message boards, healthy partner relationships, and other good coping mechanisms. Starting with the question "How can I reduce anxiety, fear and shame around sexual activity, and where did those feelings come from" gets you to a different place than starting with "Was I or wasn't I abused?"
posted by Miko at 8:41 PM on March 9, 2009

also - ignore everyone in here who says "i think you were molested" or "i don't think you were molested". there is not enough evidence in your own mind to make a determination about that and there is certainly not enough details in your post to draw a conclusion. one of the most hurtful things that others have done to me in the name of "helping" me with my recovery is giving me their dimestore opinions on how real or bad my abuse was (from, it didn't happen and you misunderstood to omg that's the worst thing i've ever heard!). the best advice i heard on the topic was from one of the many books on our bookshelves, to paraphrase, it doesn't matter if it was a one time touch on top of your blouse or if you were raped every single night by every male in your family - what matters is how you feel about it and how you're going to make yourself better. some people can get abused for 5 years, have 3 years of therapy and never think of it again. some people can have one bad interaction with a teacher and spend their life under the trauma of the situation.

for this topic in particular, the only thing that matters is you getting your brain ok and feeling better in your body.
posted by nadawi at 8:43 PM on March 9, 2009 [2 favorites]

oh, and as miko points out - it doesn't have to be therapy. therapy absolutely didn't work for me. i went to a number of different doctors and i never got a thing out of it. i got the most from friends, partners, and helping others. i learned how to cope by examining how i felt about things and how those things could be unfairly weighted by how i felt about them 5, 10, 15, (and now) 20 years earlier.
posted by nadawi at 8:48 PM on March 9, 2009

Abuse or no abuse, the feelings you are having about sex and your shyness are entirely within the realm of normal. If your partner is a long-term kind of thing, I bet you two can work on this problem during a couple of lazy Saturday afternoons to the delight of both parties. Familiarity brings confidence. Perhaps it might make things easier on you if you made your boy blindfold himself and fold his hands over his head, then you are entirely in charge of what happens between the two of you.
posted by Foam Pants at 9:47 PM on March 9, 2009

In my opinion, it *does* matter if the OP was abused. Of course, it can be awkward when one first starts being sexual, and that does not prove anything about whether abuse did or didn't happen. But it matters because when one is abused, trust is violated and barriers and protections that should have been in place were not working. This has a *lot* of implications in terms of the OP's path onward from here.

A good therapist can help, and I agree with the others - I would tend to avoid anyone who seems to have something to prove about recovered memories. The research is mixed, but skeptical on the subject. And, in any event, the point of the therapy is not to determine the facts of the issue, but to help the client understand, and move through, the trauma of abuse and the family culture that allows abuse to occur. The walls of denial and shame that surround abuse are thick. It's really helpful to have a knowledgeable third party on your side, both to help you think about what you want to do and to give you support in doing it.

OP: And I know it is likely that what's happening now and the possible abuse aren't connected.

How do you know this?
posted by jasper411 at 9:53 PM on March 9, 2009

For the most part the concept of repressed memories of sexual abuse has been debunked. That is not to say that it never happens, but that the widespread hysteria over it being common was shown to be just that, hysteria. You very likely had no sexual abuse as a child. Even if you did, you need to look forward not backward. If it was repressed, it is going to stay repressed. The stories of repressed memories suddenly revealed in adulthood were the most false of all the repressed memory scams. Obsessing over something that probably didn't happen based upon the pop psy theories of the 90's is not the best path to happiness. Without further independent information you will never be able to confirm or deny your fears about this and since chances are that it never happened it is best to let it be. Don't believe any quack who tells you that they can help you recover your lost memories of early childhood. At best they can recover funds for themselves from your insurer or bank account.
posted by caddis at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

follow-up from the OP
Thank you all for your comments. I'd like to stay away from the question of whether or not I was actually abused, since I don't think that'll ever be resolved either way (and believe me, I have had the debates you're having with myself many times). What I am looking for are suggestions on how to get "closure" - how to come to terms with that uncertainty and stop thinking so much, ways to become more comfortable with myself sexually, advice on whether I should bring this up with sexual partners and if so, how.

Miko, you suggested asking "How can I reduce anxiety, fear and shame around sexual activity" - that is very much what I would like to know. I guess I'm wondering if people have any advice on that front, keeping in mind the source of my anxiety and shame.
posted by jessamyn at 10:35 PM on March 9, 2009

the specifics of how i got over things?

i touched myself more. i learned all about my own reactions and orgasms without another person there with their expectations and libido and . i read stories. i watched porn. i listened to porn while i watched stories. i read and watched things i thought i'd have no interest in. i dedicated entire days, sometimes weekends to seeing if i could get myself off in a different way.

part of it was - WOW, what a wonderful new toy i've found! part of it was demystifying the whole thing. i needed to remove the shame and taboo of sex. i needed to realize that wanting to do things that my upbringing would have deemed dirty or twisted does not make me a bad person. i found out that i like some fucked up shit. but you know what, that's totally ok. some people have tried to blame it on me being abused. some have tried to make me feel bad for liking things that some would deem violent or hurtful. but, because i had spent so much time with myself, figuring out what my brain and body wanted and how those things worked together, i knew that i didn't need to feel bad. i knew that i wasn't just reacting to a shitty upbringing. i like those things and it doesn't matter why, it just matters that i do.

and then, with introducing partners, i had a fairly slutty period for a few years. i had some long term friends with benefits and some one night stands. the long term friends, i told them my history. i felt they could help me discover some of the things i liked, and as i pushed some barriers to do that, i needed them to understand that i might react atypically. to the one night stands, i left the topic alone. i found it was an intimacy thing. if i felt very intimate and trusting and safe, i felt like i could share something more of me and learn something about both of us in the process. there was the unintended consequence that some partners felt uncomfortable doing things that before they knew my history they had no problem with. they reacted with a sort of guilt over my past and couldn't bring themselves to treat me in certain ways because i had been "damaged" as a kid. i found that regrettable, but understandable. in the entire realm of human sexuality there are a lot of things you can do. i also had a few long term boyfriends that were very agreeable to just let me explore them. i got to take my sexuality out of it and just please them. that way i didn't feel the pressure of acting right and i got to learn about what felt good to them. it gave me more to think about in the moment when we went back to touching me.

another way to look at it, approach sex like you're trying a new kind of food. ever start eating a type of food, like japanese, ethiopian, indian, something you'd never been exposed to before? it's all weird and sort of scary at first. the smells are different, you don't know what anything is supposed to taste like so you can't judge if something tastes good or bad. the same applies here - it's scary and new and you feel silenced by unknown forces. how do you learn to be less scared in new situations? well, try stuff - start with the normal things, things that it seems everyone does, find different ways to do those things, then try something else.
posted by nadawi at 11:14 PM on March 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

Given the mystery of your past, I think something that would be very healthy for you to do mentally is to think of yourself in two concrete stages--child and adult. The child in you may have been abused. You will likely never know. What you do know is that the child in you, while still a little bit there, is not who you are today. You are an adult. Your childhood experiences have, of course, partially made you as you are today, but the choices you make in the here and now, as an adult, play a more important role than the past.

As an adult, you have say as to what you want in your life. If you didn't ever want to have contact with that family member that may or may not have abused you, that would be your right. (I give this as an example because even though you said things are pretty well "normal" with that family member, I just can't imagine that being so deep down.) As an adult, you have complete control over what you do with your body and what someone else you are romantic and sexual with does to your body.

Whether you were abused or not, you have grown up with the possibility that at one point in your life you didn't have control over your sexuality and couldn't take control of it. Again, as an adult and barring criminal acts, this is not the case. This should provide you with some security. You have a voice. You have inner and physical strength. A developed body and brain. These are all assets to your adult life, sexual or otherwise. No one who is worth your spending time will think poorly of you for using them.

Since you have these things, and since no one who is logical will be upset with your utilizing them, do so at every turn that could benefit you, your partner and your relationship. You can only benefit from being open with a sexual partner. It will encourage him to be more open and respectful of you.

Provided this is not someone that you've only just started dating (i.e., someone who already knows quite a bit about you), consider sharing what you have here. Maybe even direct him to this askme, so he can see your thought process in this. You may feel embarrassed, but there is no reason to feel embarrassed about abuse or about being new at something.

Honestly, if you are with a partner you care for, I believe he will find it touching that you are interested in bettering your sexual relationship but aren't sure about how to go about it. Maybe he can help you, or maybe you both feel new to this and can read some books individually or together or just be generally more open and exploratory.

One thing that I think helps lighten up uncomfortable situations in a bedroom (e.g., "That's ticklish there, not orgasmic.") is to laugh it off a bit. Hollywood tells you that it's all hot and heavy under the sheets, but in reality sex and discovering the nuances of it between you and your partner(s) can be pretty hilarious.

What have you got to lose? The best that can happen by being open about your past and more open in the bedroom is that you become really close to your partner and have awesome, awesome, AWESOME sex. The worst that can happen is that your partner turns out to be an unsympathetic prick that you want to kick to the curb. Even that isn't negative, because then you have time to find a newer, better version! Really, provided you're being sexually safe, learning more about sex is a fun journey. You have lived a life where your whole concept of sex has been heavy and closely tied to the notion and possibility of abuse. You're an adult now, and it doesn't have to be that way. Try to relax, have a laugh or two, and enjoy the ride--literally and figuratively, I hope.
posted by metalheart at 8:28 AM on March 10, 2009

"How can I reduce anxiety, fear and shame around sexual activity" - I can think of one, perhaps surprising reading suggestion. Now, don't let the title throw you, but David Schnarch's Passionate Marriage has a very interesting and in the context of sexual therapy, unconventional and (I thought) empowering take on intimacy and sexuality.

I don't know what the status of your current relationship is; the book is aimed at couples in emotionally committed relationships (why someone chose to use the word marriage in the title is beyond me), but I think it could be very useful for you even on your own, too. One of the cases Schnarch uses as an in-depth example includes a woman who has had a brush with a sexually abusive situation as a child - but that's not the main reason I recommend the book.

People whose fragility or anxiety finds a way to express itself in their sexual functioning often seem to perceive themselves as sexually "dysfunctional", and that's one thing the book does a good job of turning upside down, among others. But the important thing you might get out of the book is that at the core of your sexual experience (and your relationships) is who you are, how comfortable with and accepting of yourself, how autonomous - "differentiated" from your partner and free from the (self- as well as culturally imposed) expectation to measure up, compare and get outside validation.

It's possibly not the most fluently written or quick to read guide to exploring your sexual and emotional life. It took me a while to get some of the basic concepts, and the writer seems to implicitly assume most readers are older people whose relationship issues have been accumulating over many years already. But I remember fervently wishing I'd read it a lot earlier.
posted by sively at 1:49 AM on March 11, 2009

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