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Has Your Partner Been Abused?

You may need to take action to build emotional intimacy.

WebMD Feature

May 15, 2000 -- Elizabeth Haney was sexually assaulted at school by a group of male classmates when she was 12.

Now 24, the San Francisco woman finds that repercussions of the attack have made her incapable of connecting love with sex. She has had just two serious romantic relationships in her life. She admits she is more comfortable with casual flings, partly because the closer she gets to a man emotionally, the less she wants to have sex with him.Haney (not her real name), is currently in therapy to help overcome what she calls her "separation" of love and sex.

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But three months into her current relationship, Haney continues to keep her 29-year-old boyfriend at arm's length, emotionally speaking. "I care about him," she says. "But I don't want to get too close."

The arrangement, however, has started to cause friction. Recently, Haney flew into a jealous rage when her boyfriend took a phone call from a woman friend in her presence. Although outwardly viewing the relationship as a fling, her reaction to the phone call suggested otherwise. "I got upset, and he tried to talk to me about it, but I wouldn't talk about it," she says. "I couldn't say what I wanted to, and he got frustrated."

The Statistics

The impact of childhood sexual abuse on adult intimacy varies from person to person, but experts say Haney's relationship troubles are not uncommon. And the numbers behind this dilemma are substantial. According to University of New Hampshire sociologist David Finkelhor, PhD, an estimated 20% of women and up to 5% of men in the United States were abused sexually as children.

When those abused as children try to form adult romantic relationships, they can be affected by anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem. Some have no sexual desire; others may have a high sex drive. The history of abuse can also test the partner's limits of patience and understanding. But researchers and mental health experts say there are steps couples can take to help overcome these difficulties and cultivate a healthy, meaningful relationship.

The Effects of Abuse

Not everyone who was abused as a child reacts as Haney does, preferring casual sex. But she's far from alone, according to a survey of 1,032 college students published in the November 1999 issue of the Journal of Sex Research. In the survey, women who had been sexually abused were more likely than those who had not been abused to be more sexually experienced and more willing to engage in casual sex, according to Cindy Meston, PhD, a survey co-author and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas. (This was not the case for men.) Such behavior could stem from an unhealthy sexual self-image, she says. Or, some survivors may use sex as a means of getting validation from men.

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