SEX and YOUR BODY SERIES: The Body Keeps the Score and Sexual Trauma

by | Feb 24, 2020 | Uncategorized | 55 comments

Merchandise is Here!

How does trauma impact our physical bodies–and our sexual lives?

I’ve been wanting to read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk for several months now. It’s been highly recommended by so many who study and work in the field of sexual trauma, and so, when we left for vacation, I loaded it on my Kindle, all ready to see the insights on sex lives today after trauma, the effects of childhood trauma, and the effects of abuse in relationships.

(affiliate links below for the book!)

UPDATE: I’ve learned, since publishing this post, that the author himself has mistreated his employees, likely causing trauma, and was fired from his job as head of a trauma center. This really saddens me. What he wrote was ground-breaking, and the insights below are still valid. I just wish that the person who made them has also lived a life of integrity. 

The Body Keeps the Score

Since we’re talking about sex and your body this month in our February series, I was planning on trying to summarize it in a blog post, and talk more about recovery. But instead, on reading it, I saw something really interesting about the way that we talk about sex in the Christian community, and it’s actually that which I’d like to focus on in this post.

But first, I’ll try a short summary (and this is going to be a pathetic summary because there’s so much in the book, and it’s just amazing, and I’ll never do it justice).

Here’s how trauma is formed:

“Whenever we feel threatened, we instinctively turn to the first level, social engagement. We call out for help, support, and comfort from the people around us. But if no one comes to our aid, or we’re in immediate danger, the organism reverts to a more primitive way to survive: fight or flight. We fight off our attacker, or we run to a safe place. However, if this fails–we can’t get away, we’re held down or trapped–the organism tries to preserve itself by shutting down and expending as little energy as possible. We are then in a state of freeze or collapse.”
Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

And because the trauma is unable to be resolved, the parts of our brain that are activated during trauma stay activated, even when the danger has passed. And this has dire consequences for our daily lives.

Van der Kolk shows in the book the two different forms of reactions to trauma–people in extreme agitation and emotional arousal (not sexual arousal, but having one’s panic buttons constantly pushed); or people who are completely shut down, unable to feel emotions, connections, or experiences–“in an effort to shut off terrifying sensations, they also deadened their capacity to feel fully alive.

And in the book he explains the science behind what happens; the history in the field of psychology and psychiatry that has tried to help these people (and how they have spectacularly failed on so many levels), and then different treatments which have been found to be very effective, including EMDR, yoga, integrative family systems (which I personally found fascinating), biofeedback (which sounds amazing), theatre, and more.

Trauma actually changes our brains by activating certain areas and keeping them activated, and that will show up in other ways in our bodies–hence “the body keeps the score.” To resolve many of our physical and emotional ailments, we have to help our brain restore proper balance and leave the heightened trauma response behind.

He showed how so many of the things that we label mental disorders–like obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, and more–can actually be reactions to trauma. And yet we treat them as if they are the disease itself. 

Nowhere is this more tragic than in the case of child abuse, where so many behaviour problems in children actually stem from chronic trauma at home, where they are not safe. And yet we medicate them and give them labels rather than addressing the trauma in their home life. He makes the case that this is the biggest public health crisis in North America today.

At the heart of trauma is a feeling of being unsafe.

Trauma is caused when you cannot control what is happening around you, especially when you are in danger. While in the first part of the book he talked about trauma from specific, isolated events, like war, or car accidents, or assaults, later in the book he showed how trauma can be caused by living in an unsafe environment, like child abuse. Chronic trauma, where we never feel safe, has horrendous repercussions.

But let’s tease that out for a moment. 

What, exactly, is involved in feeling unsafe? 

It’s feeling as if you have no agency. That who you are, fundamentally, is being ignored and doesn’t matter. One of the ways we feel safe is that we feel as if we are seen.  When we aren’t seen, especially on a continuing basis, that can cause trauma.

“Trauma almost invariably involves not being seen, not being mirrored, and not being taken into account.” 

“Being ignored or dismissed can precipitate rage reactions or mental collapse.”

“… knowing that we are seen and heard by the important people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

Being seen matters! As Van der Kolk says, this is especially true in those relationships which are supposed to be the closest:
“The holes in the soul that result from not having been wanted, not having been seen, and not having been allowed to speak the truth.” 
Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

What if too much Christian teaching on sex tells women that you’re NOT seen?

One of the measures that we were looking at in our Bare Marriage survey was sexual pain.

Pelvic floor physiotherapists have known for years that those who are conservative religiously are more likely to experience sexual pain. What we were hoping to tease out was why–what teachings specifically make this more likely?

I won’t go into all the details, because I’d like to save most of it for our upcoming book The Great Sex Rescue, but I can tell you that feeling as if a husband has a need for sex that you don’t share, and feeling as if you have an obligation to meet that need, leads to higher rates of vaginismus (vaginal muscle contractions that make intercourse painful, if not impossible). And that’s exactly the teaching that is in the book Love & Respect (a message that Focus on the Family says is an “biblically-based, empowering message for women, remember), and far too many others.

I’m not arguing that sex isn’t an important and necessary part of marriage, by the way. But how we talk about it matters; and framing sex as only something that a husband needs and is owed, and a woman must provide, is unbiblical and makes her needs and feelings invisible.

When we feel as if we don’t matter, as if our needs don’t matter, as if we are invisible–our bodies feel under attack. We go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

As I was reading The Body Keeps the Score, I couldn’t get our survey results about vaginismus out of my mind.

The condition itself looks like a classic reaction to trauma. As Van der Kolk explains,

“When people are chronically angry or scared, constant muscle tension ultimately leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain.”

Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

Muscle contractions and tense muscles are common symptoms of trauma. And vaginismus contracts muscles in such a way that makes intercourse difficult, if not impossible, as if the body itself is rejecting sex.

This doesn’t mean that all vaginismus is trauma-related; it’s clear that it’s a multifaceted condition that can be caused by many things that affect the pelvic floor.

But what our surveys found was a reason that vaginismus may be a trauma reaction in some women: that too much Christian teaching leaves women feeling invisible and powerless when it comes to sex. And our bodies naturally rebel against that, even if our minds don’t seem to be.

And this trauma can be activated whether or not our husbands agree with this “obligation sex” message, by the way, because it is not our husbands who are necessarily causing the trauma. It’s the teaching in the first place. You may have the kindest husband in the world who wants sex to be totally mutual and doesn’t want to force anything, but the teaching has made you feel invisible and unsafe, and it is that to which your body may be reacting.

As Van der Kolk says, one of the biggest reasons for trauma in close relationships is the mindset:

“I feel like an object, not a person.”

When we feel as if we don’t matter, as if our needs don’t matter, as if we are invisible– our bodies feel under attack. We go into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

We can’t walk in sexual wholeness while still feeling like objects.

While the go-to treatment for sexual pain is pelvic floor physiotherapy–and I highly recommend that, by the way–what our survey results tell me, and what this book tells me, is that it’s not only pelvic floor physiotherapy that we need. If rates of sexual pain are higher when people believe certain things, then part of the treatment has to be challenging those beliefs and giving people back their agency. 

“Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself…The challenge of recovery is to re-establish ownership of your body and your mind–of your self.”
Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Body Keeps the Score

God does not intend for people to be used! And yet think of how often our teaching has made it sound like allowing yourself to be used is a good thing. We may hear this, and we may even believe it. But our bodies and our emotions often rebel directly against it, because it makes us feel unsafe. We may get sexual pain. We may have a huge drop in libido. We may feel chronically angry. We aren’t deliberately causing these things, but our bodies are trying to protect us from feeling unsafe.

Recovery from this involves: “restoring a sense of agency, engagement, and commitment through ownership of body and mind.”

In other words, treatments that focus on helping the body physically be able to have sex without addressing HOW we have sex or WHY we have sex may fail. We can’t solve the problem of vaginismus while still remaining in the same mindset that caused the chronic trauma–that a person is not seen; has no agency; doesn’t matter. It’s like trying to treat a child’s behavioural problems without removing them from an abusive household.

Maybe the answer is to challenge our beliefs about sex, and see God’s real intention–and that’s what I wrote The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex for. It shows how sex was made for women AND for men, and that our needs and desires and wants are central to good sex, not incidental or peripheral. Sex isn’t a one-way obligation; it’s something that is meant to be mutual in every way.

(Because trauma impairs our rational brain’s function, changing beliefs in and of themselves can’t solve trauma. We have to give the body itself a chance to resolve it physically, by giving a person more control during sexual encounters; giving them more agency, etc. But more on that on another day!).

All of this reminded me of the Bible story of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah.

If you may remember, God had promised Abraham that he would have a son, and that from this son God would make a great nation. The problem?

Abraham and Sarah were both really old, and Sarah was barren. So in desperation, Sarah suggested that Abraham have a child with her slave Hagar.

Nothing in the Bible story tells us that Hagar was a willing participant. She wouldn’t have had a say in it. This was sexual assault. Her feelings and needs didn’t matter.

Later, Abraham did have a child with Sarah, and now Hagar and her son Ishmael were threats to Isaac, the child of the promise. And so Abraham sends Hagar and her son away.

While she is in the desert, God provides for her.

And here’s where things get interesting. Hagar is the first person in Scripture who is given the honor of bestowing a name upon God. And the name that she chooses?
“The God who sees me.”

After being sexually assaulted, forced to carry a baby, and then abandoned, never having her needs or wishes taken into account, being invisible and used to meet other people’s needs, God sees her.
And being seen makes all the difference.

What I also hope will come from our survey, and our upcoming book, is an awareness that far too much Christian teaching around sex actually can cause trauma by telling women they aren’t seen and aren’t important, and that they exist to be used (as penis homes, in Mark Driscoll’s words). 

This is not the biblical way to see sex, and I showed a better way in The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and we’ll be tackling this head on in the upcoming The Great Sex Rescue.

God sees us.
And being seen makes all the difference.

But far too many Christian resources still preach it, and it is having real-world ramifications on women’s bodies. I know this grieves God, who sent His Son to set the captives free. May we find a way to talk about sex that involves a mutual knowing, a mutual giving, an other-centered outlook rather than an obligation and entitlement model.

As Leslie Vernick said, “A spouse is a person to love, not a body to use.” If the way we talk about sex reduces women to objects, then no wonder women’s libido is often killed, and so many women experience sexual pain.

The body, after all, keeps the score.

If you’re intrigued by this, do check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk! It is fascinating, and my husband really enjoyed reading it, too, as a physician.

The Body Keeps the Score: Sexual Trauma, Christian teaching, and vaginismus

What do you think? Has your body kept “the score”? Could the way that we talk about sex be hurting women? Let’s talk in the comments!

The Obligation Sex Debunking Posts

Some posts that have also dealt with obligation sex and coercion

And check out The Great Sex Rescue–with two chapters looking at where the obligation sex message has been taught, what our survey of 20,000 women told us about how it affected us, and what we should teach instead.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

Related Posts

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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55 Comments

  1. Lindsey

    I find this topic fascinating. I wonder how much not being seen or not feeling valued – if that is the only symptom – can actually cause trauma. I know you mentioned the book “How we love” before, my mom was a total vacillator. She wasn’t “abusive”, but I can’t remember feeling any sort of consistent bond with her, and I always felt that she didn’t like me. My dad was better, but he was always busy.
    Now, as an adult, I feel like I suffer from disassociation much of the time. While I tend to be compassionate and empathetic, I often don’t feel a genuine connection to anyone in my life – and I don’t feel seen.
    I am sure this is compounded by my body image issues (I’m obese), but reading this has left me wondering if maybe there is more going on?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Lindsey, I’m sure this is all wrapped up in attachment, too. He did talk a lot about what healthy attachment looks like, and what happens when we don’t have it, and one of the big things he talks about is walking through life feeling as if you can’t really connect with people and don’t feel genuine emotional connection with anyone. He also talks about some things that can help, but I’m sure some Christian counselors do a lot with attachment, too. It definitely can cause a form of chronic trauma. I’m so sorry that you’ve gone through this!
      And, yes, obesity is also something that is quite common in these attachment issues, and also why obesity needs to be dealt with not just with diet/exercise, but also with therapy or emotional help. It’s so multi-faceted. I wish you all the best. This is all just so sad. Why don’t parents treat their children better? On the flight home from South America yesterday I was sitting in front of two parents with a toddler and a baby, and I swear the two parents said NOTHING nice to the toddler the entire 10 hour flight. They yelled at her (“shut up and go to sleep!”), and it was just awful.

      Reply
      • Lindsey

        I know what you mean about the mean parents. I always wonder if that’s how they are in public, how must it be in private. That being said, I have four kids…and I’ll be honest, it IS tough sometimes to maintain a positive tone and try to discipline in a healthy way. Those little hooligans can be exhausting. But I recognize it for what it is – my problem. It’s me who keeps defaulting to the way I was raised. I mean, i make the choice to lose my temper when it happens. I make the choice to disengage and go “numb” to try to avoid losing my temper. I make the choice, but I also struggle to even KNOW how to make a different one.
        After your podcast where you talked about spanking, my husband and I have decided to move away from that (we were both raised with a corporal punishment (non-abusive), obey the first time and don’t speak your mind/talk back households. ) I’ve always given my children more leeway to discuss things with me and share how they feel. But I am just sort of at a loss as to how to discipline now that we aren’t spanking, because – I’m not gonna lie – they’ve definitely started to get more attitude since we made the shift. I’m planning to listen to “Discipline the Connects” with my husband, hopefully we will get some ideas from that.
        Thank you for your kind words and encouragement. They are truly a “cup of cold water” To my heart. Know that your genuine concern for the well being of strangers has done more for the name of Christ In my life than the thousands of sermons I’ve listened to in my lifetime.

        Reply
        • Sara

          If you’re looking to parent without corporeal punishment I highly recommend “Parenting With Love And Logic”. Amazing book and they have several versions depending on the age of your kids. I read the Teaching with Love and Logic version, and and it really improved a lot of interactions with students!!

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            I also recommend Discipline That Connects. Another great resource!

    • Agnes

      https://thrivetoday.org/thrive/ This organization offers training and resources to help individuals overcome lack in childhood relationships! Look up Jim Wilder. He is fantastic! It has all helped me so much!!

      Reply
  2. Nathan

    Lindsey, I’m so sorry that you went through that. I hope and pray that you can find some healing.
    I think you’re right in that analysis. You’re not necessarily talking about negative emotional “abuse”, but lack of anything positive,either. They say that in many ways, indifference is worse than hate. And Jesus said something about be hot or cold, not luke warm.
    I also need to get un-obese, so I’ll pray for both of us. Not for body image entirely, but also for health reasons.

    Reply
    • Lindsey

      Thank you so much, Nathan. You cannot know what a balm it is to me to know that people who I have never even met are praying for me.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        I love that! I so appreciate those of you who comment a lot. I missed you while I was away for three weeks; it’s great to get back to the comments!

        Reply
  3. Liz

    Wow. It is like God Himself led me to read this and reveal deeply hidden truths. I have suffered with extreme pain during sex since I was 16 and I also have fibromyalgia. There were 2 incidents of mild sexual trauma in my childhood, I have dealt with the emotional trauma over years of counselling and prayer….but the body keeps score! It is like my body is acting and reacting from learned behaviours and habits? I have prayed and prayed to be able to have sex with my husband pain free. It is painful every time and has been for 24 years. I look forward to reading this book.and your forthcoming book also. This is such an important conversation to be having!!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Liz, 24 years of pain? I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine. I had about 4 or 5, but only 1 that was really bad. It was slowly getting better throughout the first 5 years.
      You may also really benefit from a pelvic floor physiotherapist, if you haven’t already been to one. But I would also focus on guilt–do you feel guilty for not “giving” your husband sex? Do you feel free to say no, that your pain matters? Ironically, giving women the freedom to say no often leads to more sex and more pain-free sex. But we have to truly get out of the obligation sex mindset and realize that we matter. It’s just very, very hard.

      Reply
      • Liz

        Hi thanks for replying. I have had pelvic floor physio, and I have also had a vestibulectemy age 30 as well as botox injections in my pelvic floor muscles – the surgery caused nerve damage and made things 10 times worse. I have had to leave my career because of chronic pelvic pain and fibromyalgia. It has caused so much pressure in our marriage and my husband developed a porn habit. Yes I feel guilt that my body is abnormal and dysfunctional, and my husband feels guilty for hurting me. I was raised to see sex as dirty and secretive and not something to be talked about. I still hold out hope that one day I will be healed. Thank you for giving attention to this topic and bringing it out of the shadows.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, Liz, that’s awful. I wish I could say something that can help, but all I can say is that I really do feel for you, and I’ll say a prayer for you. I have heard from so many other women that the surgical options made things worse. I wonder if it’s because the causes of vaginismus seem to be multi-faceted, so it may help for some but not others, and we really need to find the root causes? I don’t know.

          Reply
          • Liz

            Understanding and prayers are the best things you can offer! Yes it is complex. I first experienced vaginismus age 13 when my 18 year old boyfriend encouraged me to get drunk and he performed a sexual act on me that was very painful. Being Catholic I was racked with the guilt of me sinning and believed I was going to hell. To make it worse unknown at the time to me, his friends were watching and laughing at me. Afterwards he told them all I was “tight” and “frigid” and then I had the shame of sexual dysfunction added also. I had vestibulitits and vaginismus ever since. Have done a lot of trauma counselling and I do believe I have had extensive healing of my soul… but reading this has made me realise I need to undergo specific healing of the body. I am prayerfully working through your blog posts and just knowing you are saying a prayer for me is a big help. It was healing to express this all, thanks for listening! X

        • Ezer28

          Liz, I am so sorry that you’ve suffered in this way – my heart is breaking for you 🙁 it’s so hard to overcome negative thoughts that have been drilled into our heads about sex, about ourselves, about our bodies – have you ever tried cognitive behavioral therapy? A lot of it is about recognizing and defesting those untrue thoughts (through a Christian lense I often picture those thoughts as arrows from the enemy!). Please know that God doesn’t want you to have pain in sex and that you are LOVED the way you are. Praying for you from Colorado!

          Reply
  4. Ina

    This makes me think of how important it is to stop IMMEDIATELY if there is ANY pain. I know women who almost prided themselves on making it through because their husbands needed sex. For a while that was even me! But the body keeps score! If pain is expected then the muscles will follow and before you know it the body doesn’t know any different and you feel used and definitely unseen. I so wish I’d stopped my husband the first time I felt pain. I’m sure we would have been able to fix the problems so much faster. Instead I didn’t even tell him for a year. But by then the body definitely was already keeping its score.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Very true, Ina! If we don’t stop ourselves, too, we also teach ourselves, “I don’t matter.” And that, in and of itself, can cause trauma. We do matter! And we need to treat ourselves like that. And that’s the best way to get over pain.

      Reply
      • Ina

        Do you have advice for cementing the belief that we do matter? I’ll do so well for awhile but when push comes to shove I easily fall back into a mindset of not mattering. My goodness husband frequently tells me I matter and refuses to continue any intercourse if he sees I have pain, but I feel so guilty afterwards and definitely don’t act like I really believe that I matter! How do I get it from my head to my heart?

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That’s so tough, Ina. I’m trying to work this out myself for our book. I may just contact you and see if you’ll do an interview! But I think allowing yourself to matter is likely the key to overcoming this, because much of it may be caused by not being seen.

          Reply
        • Aurora

          Ina, I totally resonate with you. My husband will do the same, and wants me to enjoy it. My main question is how to enter into enjoying it as often as he wants me to? Of course I want to enjoy it, but in the frequency he requests (and then feeling guilty if I say no), I can’t seem to “love” it. And after a few years of that, and giving in (because just bc MY libido doesn’t match his, we have to meet somewhere in between, which seems to mean giving in sometimes and trying – not always successfully – to enjoy it), I feel burned out and have a harder and harder time wanting it at all. I feel stuck…

          Reply
    • Anon

      I wonder if many women feel they have to keep going through the pain because of what they’ve been taught? I was actually told by my doctor that sex would be ‘extremely painful’ for the first few times, but I needed to ‘get through it’! Only since reading this blog have I realised that that’s not ok, and that it’s ok to take things slowly. And when I plucked up the courage to tell my fiance that we might have to take things extra slow on our wedding night, he was horrified at the idea of me ‘putting up with pain’ and said we must take things as slow as I need to, because we have the rest of our lives to work it out.
      I do wonder if my (male) doctor was thinking more of my husband-to-be’s needs than my own when he said I needed to put up with the pain!

      Reply
      • Lea

        The first few times?? Yikes.
        I am so sorry for all the people feeling so much pain at something that should be fun 🙁

        Reply
        • Jane Eyre

          Fun? You’re kidding, right?

          Reply
  5. Becky

    The part about typical Christian teachings contributing to a woman’s physical response makes so much sense to me. Sex wasn’t something that was really talked about at home for me, so my teaching about it mostly came from a Dobson book that we had to go through in my Christian school’s 7th grade Bible class (Preparing for Adolescence), plus all the “don’t do it before marriage” 90s Josh Harris stuff. I learned so early to associate sex with embarrassment, during the awkwardness of my co-ed Bible class, and then shame and fear of “going too far”. There was also a definite lack of resources on how to handle sexuality in a healthy, God-honoring way during one’s single adult years. No wonder my body completely shut down by the time I married, and made my wedding night experience so traumatic. Even after my pelvic floor PT and with a supportive husband, I still find that the biggest struggle for me is overcoming all of the mental baggage, and the constant fear of pain that sex automatically triggers in me now. I’m looking forward to seeing what your book has to say.

    Reply
  6. Flo

    The message “sex is for men, and women don’t really like it, but sometimes do it to keep their men happy” is not only a Christian message. It is very present all sorts of pop culture, movies, shows, books.
    There are many ways in which the idea is deeply rooted. For example, a woman giving a sexual favor to a man without getting pleasure in return, is often considered normal (and often it is considered that it should be pleasurable enough for the woman to just give), while the reverse would be considered strange.
    It is interesting that in “Married With Children” – a show created and written primarily by women – it is the husband that wants to avoid sex.

    Reply
    • Angela Laverdi

      This book sounds straight to truth…….i will definately be grabbing it.

      Reply
  7. Nathan

    Very true, Flo. Somebody once pointed out that not all marriages are like “Everybody Loves Raymond”, with the husband wanting sex all the time and the wife almost never interested. Many are also like “Married with Children”, where the WOMAN is the one wanting sex.
    And Sheila herself has cited studies that say that the wife has the higher sex drive in perhaps 20 – 30% of all marriages.
    And yes, we really need to overcome the twin ideas of “sex is for men and women are supposed to provide that need, even though they don’t like it”

    Reply
  8. Anon

    Just want to say the biggest thank you to you for all the work you do to give women a healthy view of sex and to heal past hurts and traumas.
    I have gone from ‘knowing’ I could never marry because I couldn’t face the idea of sex to actually looking forward to my wedding night – and a huge part of that has been due to your book & your blog. Still feeling nervous and my fiance & I know it could be a very long road for us before things ‘work’, but I know it will be a much easier journey thanks to you!
    (And I’m making good progress – a while back, I was prescribed a cream to treat vaginal atrophy but couldn’t apply it due to vaginismus. Thanks to the advice on your blog, I’ve been working on my pelvic floor control and can now use the cream no problem. Anyone who has ever suffered from VA will know just how life changing this has been!)

    Reply
  9. bunkababy

    The next book on your list must be The Boy who was raised as a dog.
    https://www.amazon.ca/Boy-Who-Raised-Psychiatrists-Notebook-What/dp/0465094457
    This book while it might deal with children will give a massive explanation of brain development and abuse and what that looks like .
    It is very informative on why , what and how abusers are created, and the damage done to kids who are abused and WHY THEY CAN”T get past it.
    So telling women in a marriage who have suffered childhood abuse to get over it, etc. This book tells you why.
    If you fully want to delve into this whole subject and how it affects us as humans and thus our marriages it is worth a read. It would explain why a lot of husbands are abusive etc.
    But the best part of it. is his solution for kids. LOVE.

    Reply
  10. bunkababy

    I am not gonna lie. Getting over childhood abuse is a life long task.
    My abuse was EXTREME. And Just when I think I have gotten over one hang up another comes to the surface.
    And that is the thing. I have learned to “cope” or “ignore” which in reality is dissociation and falling into that pattern is 1000x normal. So many things I do are because of abuse and I have just created a way “around” it but the problem never goes away.
    I don’t even know I do it.
    Never think any of this is just easy to get over. Sex while it can be fun and good sometimes, on the flip side can be terrifying.
    For some a good therapist and communication is all they need. But for people like me, I don’t think I will be fixed until I’m dead. I am 53 now.
    It’s just the way it is.
    For instance, I have gone through times/weeks of constant stabbing slicing pain in my vag. No pain meds touched it. I went to Dr’s was tested for STD’s had ultra sounds etc. Nothing was physically wrong.
    The pain usually coincides with trauma and rears it’s head at the time of year the trauma took place like 45 yrs prior. I have no idea what exactly triggers it, but, like all of my weirdness there is a dam good reason for it.
    I will give you another example. I can only sleep in one bed. Alone. Not with my husband. There is just too much effed up expectation that he is gonna “want” me. It is an unsafe place. And I can’t sleep , I am so tense , I just cause my muscles to tie up in knots until I can hardly walk.
    I also can only sleep in a particular softness of bed. Otherwise my limbs go numb.
    As a kid, a rarely got to sleep in a bed. I was on the hard floor tucked away in closets , wood boxes or furnace rooms to watch the pilot light. If I dare moved I would “blow up the house” so I learned to never move.
    I was trying to deal with these things this summer, and the only place I could get to sleep was on the hard wood floor in my room. And it is not a pretty sight because we are renovating an 102 year old home and the floors are rough with splinters.
    So while Of course I realize I am at the furthest end of the spectrum in terms of abuse, there are more people out there like me and it is no easy fix even with therapy and YEARS of it.
    People need to understand this. You can read it in a book, but until you actually know a person who has these issues it seems far fetched.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, I’m so sorry. So sorry. You may really appreciate the book, though, because it talks so much about the long term effects of child abuse, and also about the success rates of various treatments (and why cognitive behavioural therapy just doesn’t work with trauma). You can’t think or logic your way to healing; you have to actually heal your brain. It really is interesting.

      Reply
      • bunkababy

        I have had the book for a couple of years now. I read the majority of it, and found it kind of boring only because what he describes was me…..I guess in reality It was nothing new.
        That is why the book I gave you the book recommendation because that book told me stuff I didn’t know but that explained a heck of a lot of issues I had.
        I have been at therapy since I left the family home in some way, shape, or form, at 18- 19 and that was the last time I was abused.
        It is very common, very common for women of middle age to finally break down after raising kids and careers to be confronted with childhood abuse.
        It’s like their minds just can’t keep it in. And there should be a post for those women who have remained in marriages with many issues, that were unsolved until her mind let go and revealed her prior abuse.
        I bet that drives a lot of marital sexual issues in women and they don’t know it until they slow down and the guard breaks down.
        And I am aware of the treatments of EMDR and such , I tried that in my 30’s. But again, these treatments don’t come cheap. They are not covered by medical, and the cost can go on for years. and years. So while sure they are good, most people unless they are wealthy cannot afford to get better.
        I mean last year my treatments were about $500 plus a month, and that was for an hour a week.
        So not only do women need help where are they going to get it if they can’t pay for it or a douche husband doesn’t want to pay the price tag?

        Reply
        • bunkababy

          Sometimes treatment costs so much we just have to suffer and try to figure things out on our own.
          Have you heard of ACES ?
          Anyhow treatment can exist and there are some that are better than others. I found one that would help me extensively but the cost of it will be around 10 grand. So even with the book you recommended it is useless without treatment. If I could have fixed myself by myself I would have done it years ago.

          Reply
          • Lisa Vanderveen (Lisa V in BC)

            I am so sorry you have suffered so much. I don’t share this way, ever, but feel compelled to strongly encourage you to please look into Splankna.com.
            It is a Christian mind-body healing protocol that incorporates Holy Spirit led prayer, forgiveness, Thought-Field Therapy, EMDR and more to release emotions that have been trapped like electrical frequencies in your body since the time of your traumas. Most practitioners charge anywhere from $75.00-$200.00 per session depending on their level of training but I don’t believe that you will need 5 sessions a month nor that your treatment will go on indefinitely.
            The healing comes from the Holy Spirit and He determines what will be worked on and how quickly He will heal you.
            I am a Master Certified Splankna Practitioner in Canada – one of only 2 or 3 I believe – but there are many more in the US. Splankna.com has a practitioner registry that you can use to locate a US practitioner close to you – for some reason it doesn’t work for Canadian practitioners yet.
            Splankna is done in person utilizing muscle-testing but if you can’t find a practitioner close to you, I also use the Splankna tools solely with Listening Prayer (I call this my Savah Ministry – Savah is the Hebrew word translated as Hope in Hebrews 11:1 and the full meaning of the word is “Divinely Inspired Imagination”) for online remote work and I would be happy to offer you a complementary session up to 1.5 hours for you to consider whether Savah/Listening Prayer Splankna would help you. You can look me up on Facebook and I will come back here to check as well.

  11. Bethany

    Great article! I walked through healing during my almost 2 years of marriage and am now more whole than I’ve ever been. I’m starting to really enjoy sex as we keep going in life. No real comments about that. Just 2 things:
    1. A 13 can’t really have a 18 boyfriend. He is an abusing the relationship massively. and that was a power unbalanced relationship. Horrible things for a young and niave girl to go through!
    2. If you read the story of Hagar and Ishmael, I believe he was actually more like 13ish. When they got kicked out of Abraham’s tent dwellings. That detail just slightly changes the story setting, because of the size difference.🙂

    Reply
  12. Amanda

    This series has spoken to me deeply…like the shame I’ve been keeping locked in my head so long finally has a voice. There are words to help me talk about the childhood abuse and abandonment and the impacts those deep wounds have on my marriage, especially intimacy. I will use this post as a springboard to conversation with my husband…eventually. I’ve got healing work to keep doing. Thanks for writing.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad it helped, Amanda!

      Reply
  13. J

    Love the blog and the amount of useful information. As a childhood trauma survivor sexual in nature I have had some struggles in the department of sexual intimacy.
    I’ve struggled with feeling it is dirty, and still do.
    As we all know sex can be messy, and it’s almost impossible to switch sheets after every time or wash them after every time, but there’s just something about the mix of body fluids and the possibility of some getting on our bed that bothers me. I don’t think it would be a hang up if our child didn’t climb into our bed throughout the night. I just feel like it’s dirty and the chance of anyone else possibly coming into contact with any fluids we cleaned up or might have missed, grosses me out. Anything like this you have heard before?
    Also, I’ve read a lot about Christians and oral sex. Whether swallowing involved or not. And how some people don’t feel comfortable with it because of having children and not feeling comfortable kissing their kids or sharing food with them or anything. Even with brushing teeth and mouthwash after. This is something else that has bothered me some.
    With the amount of knowledge you have with talking to people. Would you say more people take part in having oral sex in their marriage intimacy or would you say that those who do are in the minority?
    Thanks for all you do and your generous output of information!

    Reply
    • J

      That’s one thing I think of whenever I see posts that say to switch up where you have sex to spice it up.
      But then I think like okay if people have sex on the couch or basement or wherever, chances are other people use that area, and the idea of getting fluids on something someone could come into contact with, even if unintentionally, bothers me.

      Reply
      • Chris

        Using a dedicated blanket or sheet that can be tossed into the washer would take care of that problem. I hate the thought of messes myself, so that blanket trick frees me up to not worry about it and enjoy the fun with my husband in whatever room/location we choose.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Yep! Easy solution.

          Reply
  14. Ann

    Thank you so much, Sheila, for your frank, honest article. I’ve followed Leslie Vernick for years and have read The Body Keeps the Score. I’m going through EMDR and pelvic floor therapy which have made a huge difference. As a pastor’s wife, it’s virtually impossible to find help and support. You are making a difference.

    Reply
  15. Diana Winkler

    It’s all true. Trauma is so damaging to ourselves as sexual beings. I recommend the book Mending the Soul also. It is the best book I’ve ever read about abuse of all kinds in the church community. There are also small groups for healing from abuse using this book and workbook. Go to http://www.mendingthesoul.org for more information.

    Reply
  16. Leann

    I had a therapist recommend this book to me almost 2 years ago but never picked it up, now I’m wishing I had. But I also went through EMDR and am convinced it is straight up a miracle. After dealing with my trauma I finally started to see how much of my life it had affected without me realizing it. Even things like being asked to teach the six-year-olds in church, and eventually having to step down from that calling because I was having panic attacks every week, since I was six when the trauma happened to me and it was just too hard to be around especially boys of that age. And my trauma was a one-time experience, but I feel like due to that experience I let myself get into a rather emotionally abusive relationship when I was a teen. I dealt with the first trauma using EMDR but didn’t really deal with the repercussions of the second relationship. Things got a lot better for me after the therapy, like amazingly so, but then it’s almost like my brain forgot the therapy, forgot how much I enjoyed sex for a little while there and went right back to that fearful, painful habit I’d been in for the first 10 years of my marriage before the therapy. I wish there was a way we could heal for good and be done with it, but it seems like these kinds of wounds reopen very easily.

    Reply
  17. Angela

    I read that book last summer. It’s incredible. I noticed your comment about biofeedback sounding amazing. I have been doing LENS neurofeedback (a form of biofeedback) since October and it has changed my life by changing my brain. And I “only” was dealing with developmental trauma (attachment issues from childhood) no Big T traumas. My husband started end of December and our marriage has done almost a 180* turn in the last few weeks due to the changes it’s caused in his brain. We had been trying to find out way our a marriage that was almost over due to insecure attachment issues in both of us that led to such unhealthy ways of interacting over our 17 year marriage. He also has a history of childhood bullying which was never well integrated and thus led to continued trauma triggers in our relationship (the reason I read The Body Keeps the Score). Anyway, the neurofeedback was literally the KEY in the LOCK for us. Things we had been TRYING to change and learn for years suddenly have become POSSIBLE. It’s absolutely unbelievable. How We Love by the Yerkovichs (believers) has been so helpful now that the brains are on track and my absolute favorite podcast for all this stuff – trauma, story, healing, etc from a Christmas perspective is Adam Young’s podcast “The Place We Find Ourselves” – incredible.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, my gosh, that’s FASCINATING. I’m so excited by what this treatment seems to offer. That’s wonderful to hear that! I was reading this book and just thinking, “why don’t we know more about this? Why isn’t this talked about?”
      I’ll check out that podcast! And I’d like to do a month on How We Love sometime, soon, because that’s truly a great book. Thanks, Angela!

      Reply
  18. SB

    This makes so much sense. I wondered for years why I struggle with libido in my marriage, as well as some pain at times that has been enough to stop our sex. I don’t have sexual trauma in my past and my husband is a caring lover, so it has been something I assumed was due to another unknown factor.
    I have grown significantly over my lifetime in understanding certain teachings in my church as being unbiblical. But, even though some of the teachings regarding sexual intimacy no longer make logical sense to me, there is still some shame and guilt and aversion that comes up in my mind and emotions when we get intimate. I am very limited in what I will do, and even more limited in what I can enjoy. My husband is very patient, and he gets creative with ways to woo me and turn me on, but it rarely works.
    So the idea that teachings themselves can cause trauma response makes so much sense to me and is eye-opening. I will be praying over this and seeking some answers. Thank you so much for your ministry!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad that you had a lightbulb moment, SB!

      Reply
  19. Emily Shore

    I seriously loved this post! I know my body has kept score of trauma, both from the culture and the Church. They were both working hand in hand which created this double-edged sword. I had online predators starting at 11, no sex ed or body education before age 13-14, and then when it came time for my sex-ed, I was sent to John Piper’s Sex and the Supremacy of Christ conference. SHUDDER! Not to mention growing up in that church where Joshua Harris came to speak to us youth, us girls had bodies that were compared to “meat suits” and more damaging modesty culture type preaching.
    I carried that trauma into my marriage. I know I still have it in some respects but have learned to cope with it in some better ways, some still WIP. But fortunately, I do have a kind and loving husband. He’s worked much better on his sexual issues than I have mine. But I know if there is transformation for him, can def be some for me!

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad that you liked this, Emily! You seriously have to tell me more about “meat suits”. I’m almost scared to know.

      Reply
  20. Doug

    I probably need to read this book. 5 years into recovery, and months of counseling, I can see small changes in my thought processes when faced with adversity, but it is absolutely shocking how quickly I can fall into the old hopeless patterns. Worse yet is how quickly they can snowball into unmanageable proportions.
    I have assumed that was largely because I had trained myself to respond that way, and revert back in crisis, but so often the only crisis is in my head.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Doug, honestly, you should read it. You might find it really helpful. The stuff at the beginning is fascinating, but LONG. But don’t give up on the book. If necessary, skip ahead to where he starts talking about treatments. But it really is very readable. Lots of stories, but also tons of science in easy to understand bites about how the brain works. I found it fascinating, and I’m not medical, and my husband, who is, still found it really useful and insightful.

      Reply
      • Doug

        I guess the idea really isn’t foreign to me. It is a principle that I used in a positive manner for years. I have done so much training in the military, taking tasks and breaking them down, and practicing them until the so ingrained that they were second nature. They didn’t require thought or analysis, but were as natural as breathing. (Yes, those also cause problems on occasion).
        If the mind can be deliberately manipulated to take over absent conscious thought for a positive outcome, then it only makes sense that it can and will do so in ways that have a negative impact, if there is nothing to counter that.

        Reply
  21. Mia

    This post deeply resonates with me. My husband and I have been married for four years, and used to enjoy sexual intimacy and never had any problems – until after the birth of our first child. It could be a mix of things that caused it but I definitely know that the pressure I felt early on to please my husband did something very negative to my overall view of sex. When we did try intercourse it was extremely painful. We have unsuccessfully tried several times since then. It has almost been two years. The sexual dysfunction exposed underlying issues in our relationships that we have not been able to repair. We are heading toward separation. My husband has a very fundamentalistic view of the bible (I used to as well) and I think he would like me to suffer through the pain and fulfill my duty for his sake. That duty-mentality completely kills any arousal and does not help fix my problem of pain. I just cannot do it. That’s not to say I am not open to other to different ways of being sexually intimate, it is just that all this tension and hostility between us makes it seem impossible to do with a sincere heart. I most definitely blame christian culture and purity culture. We were taught that if we stayed pure – sex in marriage would be fantastic. Which it was for some years, but then we were hit with reality. My husband has been in denial and admitted that he never thought something like this could even happen. His relationship with God has drastically gone downhill. Perhaps questioning God’s goodness for allowing this situation to happen. My husband went three years before our marriage without any sex or masturbation, to please God, so I know he is capable, but he says it is different in marriage. Which I can understand to a degree, but still. It is interesting to me that when it is my body that got injured during birth (pelvic organ prolapse) and my body that has changed and now experiences pain during intercourse – that he acts as if he is the only one hurting. I know he loves me, but I feel so objectified, like you mentioned, a “penis home”. The fact that my husband wants me to have sex with him despite intense pain disgusts me and I really questioning who I chose to marry.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Mia, I’m so sorry! You’re exactly the kind of story that we’re writing our next book for–The Great Sex Rescue. This message is toxic for everybody, and your comment shows why it’s not only toxic for women. Thank you.
      I do hope that you can both walk through this, and that your marriage doesn’t blow up because you were taught bad teaching. That’s very, very sad. Can you see a licensed counselor together? Even a secular one who wouldn’t perpetuate the “obligation sex” message? And for your own sake, do see a pelvic floor physiotherapist as well, because there is something that can be done about a lot of the pain.
      I completely understand feeling objectified. I do get it. I’m so sorry.

      Reply

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