As one of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle, says, “We can do hard things.”
Talking about sex is a hard thing for me—and from what I can tell, for many childhood sexual abuse survivors.
I want to talk about a few things as they relate to recovering from the initial trauma of childhood sexual abuse as well as realizations from an adult relationship that involved narcissistic abuse and what is finally now clear to me—a little something called the Madonna/Whore complex.
Looking back, I can connect the dots pretty easily but it wasn’t until I fully understood that I was abused as a child. So that means for forty years, I had issues. For me, intimacy/sex was cloaked in shame. I couldn’t put my finger on it necessarily, but I was not the “I am comfortable in my skin—celebrate your woman-ness” girl. I was shy and rarely took the lead. I felt emotionally disconnected from the act and was incredibly modest throughout most of my life. Right before I started to experience flashbacks at age 40, I was even starting to have panic attacks during sex. Any weight on me would cause me to almost hyperventilate. I couldn’t figure out what was happening, but soon the flashbacks started and things came into focus. It was all starting to make sense, but sadly, I was also mistakenly projecting the feelings of being controlled/suffocated onto my husband.
Then, all hell broke loose. I went down the rabbit hole with another man and a three-year separation from Scott.
As happens in new relationships, everything felt new, different, and exciting. I wasn’t having panic attacks, and I wasn’t feeling suffocated. I was feeling euphoric, revered and free—like I was taking control of my own sexuality. Little did I know what was yet to come.
Lisa E. Scott—author of The Path Forward—explains in her article, “Understanding the Narcissist’s Madonna/Whore Complex,” that narcissists have intimacy issues and cannot see their partner in a healthy way. She goes on to say that some narcissists are unable to see what most men dream of in a woman—someone who is both sweet and sexy at the same time. They cannot help categorizing people into one of two separate categories — saintly or sexy. They find it impossible to see someone as both. To them, someone is one or the other, but never both. This is what psychologists refer to as a Madonna-Whore Complex.
I truly had no idea I was dealing with this for three years until messages started coming in from other women (after we split) regarding my ex. Specifically, one set of screenshots where—unbeknownst to me— he was plotting to meet up with a very sexually open woman in another state while living with me. In fact, she was the one to mention this Freudian concept to me and it helped me come to grips with what I endured, and what it meant.
In the beginning, I was appealing to him because of the thrill of the chase. I was continually told I was the sexiest woman on the planet; however, over time, I certainly didn’t feel this way and I questioned him. Was he really just tired? Was I just not attractive to him anymore? The change in dynamic was very obvious, but he did a good job making me feel a.) it wasn’t real, and/or b.) if it was real, it was because I’d done something wrong. Being programmed to believe that I somehow caused my relative to rape me as a child, I just fell right back into that pattern of thinking I was at fault.
If I were to step outside of the “good girl/nurturer” persona, i.e., being adventurous, playful, or leading the way, I would eventually be shamed for it. I, of course, took that on as mine—as if I’d done something wrong, not realizing he couldn’t see me as a sexual being and a nurturing love at the same time.
Lisa E. Scott goes on to explain in her article, “They begin to view love as sexless, pure, and saintly; whereas sex is dirty and reserved for whores. If you are good to a narcissist, he eventually withdraws sexually from any type of intimate relationship you once had with him. It is inevitable in any long-term relationship with a narcissist. You become sexless.”
It wasn’t until I started reading the messages coming in from multiple women around the world—where they mentioned risqué photos being sent to them by him and immediate talk of sexual acts and tantric massage—that I was the Madonna. It’s likely the reason I was shamed with, “you want men to come in the room, don’t you?” when I forgot to lock the door.
As an abuse survivor who thought she was finally tackling her demons and shedding innate shame and insecurity around sex, you can imagine how devastating this was to endure. Just when I was starting to feel comfortable, I was, again, being shamed—and this time, by someone outside of me.
It’s taken me this long—with the help of an amazingly supportive partner—to fully embody that there’s nothing wrong with me. I can be playful, sweet, and sexy all at the same time, and I will not be shamed for it. I will be honored and loved. And I will honor and love myself for all that I am.
Phew. I did it! I like to think Glennon would be proud. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be, which I will take to mean it was time. There are many gifts along this healing journey and reclaiming myself—body and soul—is definitely one of them.