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June 28th, 2011
02:41 PM ET

Can an abuse victim 'fix' aversion to sex?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Tuesdays, it's Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and an expert in the mind-body connection for health.

Asked by Sharon from Alaska

I was abused as a child. Never intercourse, but I was threatened about it, and I had to watch my sister and this man. I was always called a prude by him. Anyway, I'm married and celibate. I do not enjoy sex nor do I have any interest in it. I am on Effexor and unsure how I feel about my husband. I do not know if this is a physical issue, mental or marrying the wrong man. Obviously this causes issues for my husband, but why should I suffer so he doesn't have to?

Expert answer

Dear Sharon,

In a few brief sentences you have masterfully painted a picture of a situation that you share with more people than you might imagine.

It is common for people who are exposed to inappropriate sexual activity as children to spend their adult lives struggling with their sexuality. Your story highlights the important fact that one doesn't have to be sexually molested to be sexually abused.

In my experience early sexual trauma tends to produce sexual extremes in adulthood.

Many people become highly promiscuous; others - such as yourself - reject sexuality altogether. It is even more common for adults with early abuse to manifest a pattern of hypersexuality in the beginning of their relationships but then lose their ability to maintain, or desire, sexual intimacy as romantic relationships deepen.

Physical, mental or the wrong man? Your list pretty much covers all possibilities.

Of course, I have no way of answering your question, but let me suggest some things for you to consider.

It is rare for people younger than middle age to have a clear physical cause for lack of sexual desire (rare but not impossible). You, however, do have the one common physical cause for loss of sexual desire early in life, and that is the fact that you are on an antidepressant (Effexor, with the generic name of venlafaxine) with serotonergic properties.

These agents markedly reduce sexual desire and performance in almost everyone, so this may well be contributing to your lack of desire for your husband.

On the other hand, many people who experience early life abuse do so much better as adults on these types of antidepressants that they and their doctors conclude the attainment of enhanced emotional/mental functioning is worth the price in terms of sexuality.

So the first question to ask is whether your lack of sexual desire existed before you started taking the antidepressant. If no, then the antidepressant is likely a significant cause. If yes, then it is unlikely to be a significant factor in the situation with your husband.

Let's say, for the sake of argument that your lack of sexual desire for your husband existed before you started the antidepressant. You can do a simple experiment to check how likely it is that the cause of your lack of desire is mental vs. being specifically related to your husband.

Is it really true that you have no interest in sex with anyone - man or woman - other than your husband? If you spend much time at all fantasizing about sexual experiences with other people, this is strong evidence that your lack of sexual desire for your husband arises from mental causes, because your physical body and brain are clearly capable of generating sexual desire.

I cannot, of course, weigh in on whether you married the wrong man.

Unfortunately, people who suffered early abuse and trauma often unconsciously select romantic partners who conspire to replay all sorts of old pains and losses.

On the other hand, many lines of evidence indicate that even in the best situations the first flush of sexual passion (and being "in love") lasts about five to seven years at the max.

As a result, if one demands this type of "fire" in a relationship, longtime partners are frequently "wrong" in this regard - which goes a long way toward explaining why people in the modern world cheat on their spouses so often, and why in tribal societies where relationship rules are frequently more relaxed, most couples stay together for five to seven years.

Let me finish with one strong recommendation. Because you have done so good a job of outlining your situation, I know that your relationship with your husband is on shaky ground.

Several recent studies suggest that people who struggle with depression as a result of early abuse respond better to cognitive behavioral therapy than to medications. If you haven't made a real commitment to therapy, let me urge you to consider it.


soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. D

    Wow. Just wow.

    June 28, 2011 at 16:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Skottikins

    Well, that was.... a bit of light reading.

    June 28, 2011 at 18:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Littleb

      This is true. However, I am referring to the auteclrnce to pursue legal action against church functionaries (especially high-ranking ones) who knowingly allow illegal acts of sexual assault to occur and then intimidate victims and their families into silence while taking steps to protect the criminals. Anywhere else that's called accessory to a crime. Just sayin'.

      April 7, 2012 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
  3. Steve

    Nice response to the question.. but why is this person even married? There are plenty of cats out there that need a good home.

    June 28, 2011 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • playjojo

      Which is why I have three. But Then, I'm just damaged goods.

      June 28, 2011 at 20:51 | Report abuse |
    • Dan is an ignorant pig

      Me too, playjojo. Sorry for what happened to you. These idiotic jerks have no idea how incredibly strong we survivors are, do they? It takes a weak, pathetic man to call an abuse survivor "damaged goods". I guess if you have a small weeny you have to take others down to make yourself feel better.

      June 28, 2011 at 21:11 | Report abuse |
  4. Steve

    I agree.. there has to be a woman out there without the issues..

    June 28, 2011 at 19:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Dan is an ignorant pig

    Are you f'ing kidding me? Damaged goods? Did you really just call her damaged goods? Can you get any more vile and disgusting?? You ash holes are the reason that survivors keep silent and do not seek help in healing from being VIOLATED AND ABUSED by a monster. Do you get that??? It's NOT HER FAULT! She was a child!

    As a small, defenseless child she was s3xually abused – she did nothing wrong and she is NOT to blame. Recovering from this is difficult enough without some d!ckwad like you calling her damaged goods. It can take years to unlearn the programming from abusers and learn to think in a new way. To take on that healing journey is one the bravest things that anyone can do. I am quite sure, Dan, that you don't have the ba!!s to do it. It is agonizing to face the ultimate pain, betrayal, humiliation, fear, and shame day after day after day for years while you attempt to fix what someone else has broken, not to mention the expense – all for something that was done TO HER as a child.

    She can probably heal from this and enjoy a wonderful s3x life with her husband, but it will take a great deal of work on both of their parts. There are some wonderful men out there who are committed to helping their wives heal from the horrific atrocities that were forced on them as children – I know, I'm married to one of them. We now have a wonderful intimate life, but it took more work than you can ever imagine. You have no idea what you are talking about and people like you do nothing but add to the problem. You are an ignorant a$s who likes to spout his mysogynistic vitriol anonymously. Grow up, educate yourself, find some compassion for children who are abused, and try being a human being rather than a disgusting pig.

    June 28, 2011 at 20:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. playjojo

    Damaged goods? You need to be put down. You, are ignorant and should not ever speak of that which you know nothing about.

    June 28, 2011 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Hawk

    I was molested as a child and suffer from Bi-Polar Disorder, so I have some *small* sense of what you may have gone through. Dealing with abuse is difficult and it is good to see that you are trying. I too would be concerned about your situation with your spouse.

    Based on what you have said, I am assuming that celibacy is not what your husband planned on when you both got married. Perhaps he thought he could help you through your problems, or things would be different, or something else entirely. Whatever the case, I am glad that you see this as an issue that needs to be dealt with. In a marriage, in my limited experience, when it comes to either s ex or money, a good rule is this: If the s ex/money is good, it is 10% of the marriage. If the s ex/money is bad, it is 90% of the marriage. In other words, a lack of s ex in a marriage is a much bigger problem than it otherwise would be.

    Wellbutrin is a good antidepressant that has shown not to reduce libido – you might inquire as to whether that might be appropriate for you. Of course, we are all different, so what works for one person, may not work for another. Finally, you need to keep the communication lines open with your husband. Let him know if you love him. If you are unsure – then you need to figure that out. If you don't love him, you need to let him know that as well. If you do love him, and you cannot get past this, you need to make sure that he understands that. He has to be able to make his own choices with the full facts before him. Unfortunately, this may be a "deal-breaker" for him. Perhaps another solution can be found – such as a mistress. NOTE: I am NOT advocating that! In fact, if you and your husband cannot work this out between you, it may lead to divorce – which I am sorry if it does.

    This is a major life-issue for you that you need to address. It will likely affect any intimate relationships you have with men – physical or not. Please be honest about it. I wish you the best of luck in working on it. You aren't "damaged goods". You suffered abuse. It was not your fault. But, unfortunately, you are left to deal with the results. Best of luck and keep at it!

    June 28, 2011 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Raging Woman is Clueless

    Ok ms "Dan is an ignorant pig"....you are grossly jaded to the possibility that other people, people that weren't abused, also have feelings, wants and needs. The point Dan was making, which I happen to agree with, had to do with the question of whether or not she was HONEST with her husband...because HONESTY is of the utmost importance in ANY marriage. Not to mention the fact that almost every marriage counselor will agree that intimacy between husband and wife is very very important, and if this woman has an aversion to s-ex, it's very likely she has an aversion to any other type of intimacy....

    I applaud you "Dan Is an Ignorant Pig" for showing how ignorant women truly can be, and how selfish and self centered people become when they hide behind their trauma's in life instead of dealing with them head on. A lot of us have gone through traumatic moments in our lives, some even diagnosed with PTSD.....and yet some are able to not use it as a crutch but an opportunity for strength....so please, go play your pity party to someone who cares, we on the interwebz do not.

    June 28, 2011 at 23:09 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Faith

      Thank God those of us who were abused by trusted adults as children have you here to tell us to "deal with it." Good grief.

      June 29, 2011 at 02:03 | Report abuse |
    • Barry(Not my real namE)

      Right so me a 23 year old male that was touched when he was 11 has no room to tell you to get over it....sorry sister, but get over it. It sucks, it happened, but its not the end of the world. Its over and could have been worse. Iv almost died 4 times in my life and If I dwelled on that I would be depressed all the time.

      June 29, 2011 at 19:55 | Report abuse |
    • Dan is an ignorant pig

      Really Barry? Someone touched your wee-wee and you got over it? Have you studied the brain at all to know what happens bio-chemically to someone who is r@ped as a child? Telling them to get over it is like telling a cancer patient to get over it. It changes your brain on a physical level. One can certainly heal, but it takes work and help – they don't just "get over it". Those that think they do are deluding themselves. Try educating yourself rather than being so ignorant all your life.

      I don't dwell on my sadistic r@pes and abuse that occurred when I was just 6 yrs old either. I have used it to help others and have gained incredible strength from it. Do men know how to read? He called her damaged goods.....that's what I have an issue with, idiot. If this were an article on race relations and he called the author a (n-word) then everyone would be up in arms. Calling her damaged goods is the same thing and THAT is what is so very wrong here.

      Seriously, can anyone read a post and understand the context?

      June 30, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse |
    • Zen

      Wow, sounds like you've developed all these excuses from years of having to justify abusing your husband and family members. Kind of the same way you are terrorizing "ignorant" people on this forum. I hope you still go to therapy because you are clearly still damaged goods. BTW, despite all your excuses, you are still responsible for your actions, e.g. effusiveness, melodrama, raging, etc... Tell your husband I feel sorry for him.

      July 27, 2011 at 09:39 | Report abuse |
    • Dan is an ignorant pig

      Hey, idiot....pay attention. I said nothing about whether or not she should have been honest with her husband before marrying him. I commented ONLY on him calling her damaged goods. Show me in my post where I disagreed with the opinion about her being honest....no where. So get off your high horse.

      And btw, I have taken my abuse and used it to strengthen my life in ways that you could never understand. I also understand, however, that not everyone heals the exact same way and not everyone's trauma is the same. I have friends who have been r@ped with guns, tortured, made to eat feces daily, and forced to have s3x with animals. I would never presume to tell them to deal with it.

      You may be a bigger a$s than Dan.

      June 29, 2011 at 17:29 | Report abuse |
    • Barry(Not my real namE)

      Jesus dude thats pretty jacked up

      June 29, 2011 at 19:53 | Report abuse |
    • she's right

      "Raging woman" may be angry, but she's right. To call the writer damaged goods was very hurtful and wrong. That seems to be all that she was saying. You all added your own interpretations to her words. I agree with what she said – with a little less anger.

      July 1, 2011 at 13:19 | Report abuse |
    • prettyamiable

      Uhh, I have PTSD and I'm rocking it and I still manage not to talk down to people who are having trouble with their trauma.

      July 17, 2011 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
    • Marluce

      Hello, don't want to stop at Montpellier ? (not so far from Nice) to help me program with SilverLight LoL :)Well, i will let u one or two hours to go on the Beach if u want ^^I just start with SilverLight gclhnoeoty, waiting for SilverLight 3 to make a product personalization simulation system, but it is more simple to say :)Saw your Mix09 video while searching tutorials and content for silverlight.Bye 🙂

      April 14, 2012 at 16:08 | Report abuse |
  9. sarah

    I hate people who abuse others especially in this way. This is certainly an actof heinous monstrousity-inflicting eternal torture upon a human soul- unreverseable silent suffering.

    June 29, 2011 at 02:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. David

    "Obviously this causes issues for my husband, but why should I suffer so he doesn't have to?"

    Because you're married to him, that's why.

    June 29, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • prettyamiable

      Guy in the marriage: "But why should I suffer so she doesn't have to?" Because you're in a marriage, that's why.

      July 17, 2011 at 16:02 | Report abuse |
  11. Mr. Fix it

    PLEASE DON'T READ THIS YOU WILL GET KISSED ON THE NEAREST FRIDAY BY THE LOVE OF YOUR LIFE.TOMORROW WILL BE THE BEST DAY OF YOUR LIFE.HOWEVER IF YOU DON'T POST THIS COMMENT TO AT LEAST 3 POSTS YOU WILL DIE WITHIN 2 DAYS.NOW YOU STARTED READING THIS DON'T STOP THIS IS SO SCARY.SEND THIS OVER TO 5 POSTS IN 143 MINUTES.WHEN YOUR'E DONE PRESS F6 AND YOUR CRUSHES NAME WILL APPEAR ON THE SCREEN IN BIG LETTERS.THIS IS SO SCARY CAUSE IT ACTUALLY WORKS!!!!

    Read more: How to Have a Simultaneous Orgasm – How to Climax at the Same Time – Cosmopolitan

    June 30, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Zero

      none of what you said happend. I e-mailed it to my rabbi, my congressman, and one of my ilegitmate children, and the only thing that happened is my dog died and one of my teeth fell out. But wait, I smell something in the kitchen - OK, I'm back now. I burned a burrito in the microwave, and guess what – there's a burned image of Elvis Presley on the roof of the microwave. He's holding his guitar and has a bana stuck up his @#$. So tell me what I did wrong.

      June 30, 2011 at 23:15 | Report abuse |
    • Drago

      Я из Эстонии, очень понравилось пару фраз из поста блога моего начальника:Please do something to stop the evil devil Russia. This ctnrouy, power in this ctnrouy has done most bad in the whole world all through the history. Most bad to their own people, most to the other nations. Why nobody stops Russia!И это слова взрослого человека, наглядный пример что твориться в головах промыленных местными и зарубежными медиа источниками.

      April 7, 2012 at 22:12 | Report abuse |
    • Liliana

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      April 14, 2012 at 13:10 | Report abuse |
  12. Sonigirl

    We are all damaged goods. Nobody gets through life unscathed. The issue is how we handle the negative and do our best to live a full and happy life. The best way to do this is by being kind to others. The best treatment for depression is not drugs, but making an effort to help others. Doing this gives you a sense of purpose and contentment. (And no terrible side affects) 🙂

    July 2, 2011 at 20:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • prettyamiable

      LMAO. You're clearly not a psychologist, so maybe you shouldn't be doling out psychiatric advice. Mmk?

      July 17, 2011 at 16:03 | Report abuse |
  13. Kelly Frances

    I admire the doctor's excellent answer.

    July 7, 2011 at 06:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Maria

    No worry, the lack of compassion and empathy shown by these will effect their relationships with women. They will feel sorry for themselves but never anyone else. What a miserable life. They are no doubt already feeling the fallout. Do you really think such men are able to maintain a woman's love for long? Feel pity for them otherwise don't bother.

    July 17, 2011 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply

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