Silent World of Sex: Mystery, Shame, Neglect

Perhaps the most inelegant step in the cheesemaking process is washing the eight-gallon (30-litre) pot. For those of you who haven’t seen me, I could probably bathe in it. Washing up is by no means the last step in cheese production, as afterwards comes the many months-long ageing periods, which much like trauma therapy seems to stretch into eternity, and often also includes different techniques of “affinage”, (finishing) along the way. However, the scrubbing process is often one of productive reflection. Perhaps my mom was right when she declared that there was something inherently generative (not her word) about having one’s hands in warm soapy water. She proposed that the three-part harmony of wash-dry and put away team of doing dishes together was a time of sweet communion, and although it was initially a hard sell, it often was. This scrub’s musings were indeed interesting and provocative.

I might add that since I have been writing these blogs, I am constantly scanning for ideas, in the news, in daily life, my ceaseless reading and random thoughts, always on a mission to connect dots that will be of material to write, for better understanding trauma and especially neglect trauma. Of course, I have no idea if anyone reads them with the exception of my team who edits and posts them, and a few loyal repeat customers who routinely comment. Being a child of neglect, I still default to expecting to be out there by myself, and like Bruce Springsteen in one of my favorite concert videos, I want to call out “Is there anyone alive out there?!” Well, today’s contemplations took me way back.

As a psychotherapist and a sex therapist, I have often asked people about their first sexual experience. Most people remember those. All too often in my practice, of course, they were traumatic. Few were the fairy tales that we all naively imagined. No, I found myself wondering about something else that I had not asked. When did you first become aware of sexuality, whatever that awareness might have been? When did you first notice interesting, novel, perhaps sparkly, perhaps worrisome tinglings?

I don’t know my own answer precisely, but I know I was quite young. I discovered early the comforting sedative effect of masturbation, as a helpful way to get to sleep, probably when I was about five. But it was definitely before that, that I noticed that something felt different touching certain body areas. Of course, I had no idea what that was. In a household where there is already a poverty of affectionate touch, early sexual inappropriateness, and perhaps loud moral and religious attitudes, whether spoken or unspoken, a child will be that much more confused. William Masters, the pioneering sex therapist described the trauma of having a parent walk in on a child masturbating, as a cause for the enduring sexual problems that I have heard often.

There was no information to be had, in my home or anywhere really. I remember noticing that the feeling seemed to correlate in some way to love, meaning I could feel that when I saw or read about interactions between people- not necessarily romantic interactions, but all kinds really and all kinds of people. I didn’t know what that meant. When my fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Boucher explained something completely confusing about how babies were made and a loving embrace, everyone kind of giggled or gagged, “eeeooooh…” and I was no more enlightened.  As I got a little older, my best friend was another misfit like me, a boy. He wanted to talk about how he liked boys, and I didn’t understand that so well either, but I was quite interested. When I got a little older still and discovered Freud, and how he identified sex as the root of everything psychological, that made sense to me. And I was relieved that I was not the only one who thought about it all the time. But no one talked about sexuality. It stayed a secret world and a phantasmagoric mystery. Little did I know that nearly 65 years later I would have the very same complaint! No one talks about this!


One of my often-heard rants is that doctors don’t warn patients about the impact on their sex lives of medications, chemotherapies, surgeries and other procedures. psychiatrists routinely fail to warn patients about the libido-destroying side effects of many antidepressants, psychotherapists often don’t inquire about sexuality, as if it were not an aspect of general health; even couples therapists stay mum. It is a perfect recipe for shame. Shame and fear. What is “wrong” with me? Am I “normal? Is my partner “normal?”  And our clients assume they are simply not supposed to speak about these things. Or they think they are supposed to “just know?! Or go with what they have heard on the internet or jokes, or in locker rooms, or “porn…”

I have been on a mission to crack the tabu, to forge permission to speak; and to help therapists make it easier for clients; to get comfortable inquiring about sex. It does not mean we have to have “perfect” sex lives ourselves. God knows most of us don’t! Because you know what? That is the norm! And you know what? It is OK! So, let’s talk about it!

The Sexuality of Neglect

I often reference the gnawing “skin hunger” that the child of neglect suffers from. A long story of rarely if at all, being touched, or touched in a loving or even pleasant way; or the tragically rejecting experience of parents repelled by their own child’s body, and not wanting to touch their child. I remember my mom’s rough touch, like a reprimand, doing a once-over of my back to check if I was wearing a bra. How I longed for those very exceptional, magical moments when I was sick, and she might gently rub my back. But I can hardly blame her, being the daughter of my cool and wooden intellectual grandmother and a parade of nannies, before the Nazis came.

My study of the sexuality of neglect is purely anecdotal. I have no formal research. But it is the close observation and data collection of 35 years and different historical moments as well. This will only be the beginning of the conversation. Much more to come! The defining sexual challenge for survivors of neglect is the pervasive and survival-oriented self-reliance which the child of neglect has come to arm themselves with. This of course does not lend itself readily to intimacy and the interdependence that good sex involves. Good sex requires being present with oneself and with the other simultaneously, being connected with one’s own bodily and one’s emotional experience, while also being attuned and in contact with the body and emotions of the other. Any one of these elements, connections with one’s own body and emotions, or those of an important other have been most likely rarely if ever experienced by the impoverished child of neglect. So, in lovemaking, such presence will be foreign, awkward, uncomfortable, painful, or simply terrifying. “Mechanical” or bodily sexual problems are largely expressions of this terrible conflict. There is nothing “wrong” with you!

When I became a sex therapist and started learning more about people’s sexual (and asexual) lives, I was interested to discover how very many long-term, apparently “happy” couples” had not had any sex with each other or anyone, often in years. No one talks about this at dinner parties, so who would know? I have also recently more often been heartened to have couples in their 50’s, or individuals in one of these sexually dry marriages, want to recapture, and regain a sexual life before their window closes before it is too late. It is not too late!

Sex therapy for neglect is primarily relationship work. Becoming safe enough to be present with one’s own body in the presence and while being present with another. Tolerating not only giving but receiving. So simple, but not so easy! And worth it. Overt sexual abuse is not the only avenue for freezing and clamming up sexually. The survival terror of early parental withdrawal, abandonment, loss, and sheer absence can create terrible deficits. Please, let’s continue the conversation!  Let’s have it out loud!

Today’s song:


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