One in every three women has been sexually abused in some form at some time in her life. If you balk at these statistics, you're probably not familiar with the many different manifestations sexual abuse can take. Headlines are made by vicious, random rapes. These situations are traumatizing and life-altering, but the "quiet" sexual abuse is just as devastating and widespread. The bottom line is there's a good chance any one man may find himself in a relationship with a woman who, at some point in her life, experienced sexual abuse.
The reason more men aren't aware of this? Women generally don't want to talk about the abuse they've suffered. Many try to "act normal" - they put on a facade while trying to repress and forget the memory of the abuse. Suppressing the trauma only makes it worse, and these women often end up developing a serious disconnect from healthy relationships. This is not due only to their actions resulting from their private pain. Chances are a good number of these women are forced not only to suffer in silence, but also to bear the social stigma of being a "prude" or a woman with "issues." The misunderstanding and insensitivity these women face only serves to alienate them further.
It doesn't have to be this way. Women who have been abused can heal, move on, and form healthy, happy sexual relationships. A large factor in this is the man involved in the relationship. If you're involved with a woman who has suffered sexual abuse, you can go a long way toward giving her the support she needs to heal.
1. Educate yourself on the effects of sexual abuse. While you may never be able to understand the violation your partner experienced, do what you can to learn. Resources on sexual abuse abound online, in magazines, and in the library. Make an effort to understand what your partner is going through.
2. Don't push her to talk about the experience, but make sure she knows you're ready to listen if she does want to discuss it with you. Know that you'll likely have to prove your trustworthiness over and over in other facets of the relationship before she will feel comfortable trusting you with knowing the details of this, her most humiliating and traumatic experience.
3. Don't ever pressure her to have sex. Unwanted touching or sexual pressure will only reinforce her sense of distrust. Women who have been sexually abused often develop extreme low self-esteem - they believe they're good for nothing but "that." In addition, sexual pressure will add guilt on top of her fear. Don't let yourself believe she's not aware of your needs; she undoubtedly is, and she's likely wrestling with her own emotions and the knowledge that she's "depriving" you of sex. This is not to say you can't be intimate, but you must go slow and speak with her to define her boundaries. Pay attention to her outward signals, and be ready to back off.
4. Be sensitive, but not pitying. If your partner has come far enough to tell you about the sexual abuse she experienced, she may exhibit a heightened awareness of your attitude toward her - i.e., if you now consider her to be "damaged goods." Try to refrain from apologizing for what's happened to her. She may interpret this as your feeling sorry for her, and she may resent you for it. Possibly the best thing you can do for her after this revelation is to simply be present and listening. A common communication complaint amongst women, against men, is men tend to be "problem solvers" rather than listeners. While women only want someone to listen and commisserate, men want to take action and "fix it." You can't "fix" a woman who has experienced sexual abuse. You can only be there for her while she finds her own healing, hopefully in part through her relationship with you.
5. Above all, be patient. It may at times feel like you're bending over backward to cater to her emotions, but if you truly wish to pursue a meaningful, healthy relationship, you'll have to be patient. Frustration, anger and resentment on your part will only serve to add to her distress, drive a deeper wedge between you, and possibly destroy whatever progress you've already made in becoming close to her. You must be dedicated to being there for your partner and offering the support she needs, or your relationship may have the potential to cause even more damage. She's experienced betrayal and humiliation on the deepest level, and if she senses or experiences more hurt from you, it will only strengthen her reluctance and withdrawal.
Women who have been sexually abused can and do heal from the abuse. If your partner has been abused, you're in a unique position to help her on her road to healing. Make an effort to help and not hurt.