Partners and sexual intimacy 


If someone has been sexually abused in childhood, it does not automatically mean that sex, sexual intimacy and sexual enjoyment will be difficult. Many couples, where one or both partners have experienced abuse have found ways to enjoy, fulfilling, intimate sexual relationships. Sometimes, however, childhood abuse can impact on sexual relationships, and require some working through. This page details some common difficulties, along with steps that can be taken to enhance sexual intimacy, for couples where a male partner has experienced childhood sexual abuse. 

Foundations for enjoyable sex 

First, it is useful to remember that negotiating, developing and maintaining sexual intimacy can be a challenge in ANY relationship. It’s great when satisfying sex and sexual relationships just happen. However, this is not always the case for everyone 100% of the time. In any sexual relationship, each partner will need to work out what is sensual, playful, sensitive, joyful and fulfilling for them. Each couple will want to work out how they can enjoy sex in mutually satisfying ways. Noting that interests and opportunities for sex can change overtime and that keeping alive the sexual intimacy and ‘making it happen’ will involve commitment and energy. 

Some building blocks for satisfying sexual relationships are: 

  1. Accurate information about your own sexuality, your partner’s, and about sex itself. 
  2. Having or developing an orientation based on pleasure (arousal, love, lust, and fun), rather than performance. 
  3. Having the kind of relationship in which good sex can flourish. 
  4. Being able to communicate verbally and non-verbally about sex. 
  5. Being assertive about your own desires, and able to focus fully on your own pleasure. 
  6. Being exquisitely sensitive to your partner and being able to respond sexually with them. 
  7. Understanding, accepting, and appreciating sex differences. 

Factors that can impact on satisfying sex 

“Ever since the kids came along it seemed like we were not as close as we’d been before, especially in the bedroom. I just thought that things would get better in time, but they’re worse now. We don’t talk about it much and we hardly ever have sex any more. He says it’s the same for everyone and that there’s nothing wrong. So when he finally told me about the abuse I was totally knocked over! But, at the same time it kind of made sense. I had sometimes thought that maybe something might have happened to him. Whilst, I felt so sad for him, it was a relief to know.”

Identifying and disentangling what might be impacting on shared pleasure in sexual intimacy can be tricky. Given that sexual abuse can have such a profound impact on people’s lives, it is not surprising that when difficulties do appear, couples can focus in on the legacy of the abuse as the source of the problem, when there might be other factors at play. 

It is important to consider additional factors that are known to impact on enjoying sex and sexual intimacy in relationships: 

  • Stress. 
  • Alcohol. 
  • Sleep difficulties. 
  • Medication. 
  • Body image. 
  • Erectile dysfunction and other physical factors. 
  • Low testosterone. 
  • Depression. 
  • Relationship difficulties. 
  • The impact of parenting. 

All of the above can influence individual and couples sexual enjoyment, and might need checking out and working through.  Taking time to nurture closeness and connection and booking in ‘date nights’ can assist in supporting and growing sexual intimacy.  

It is good to keep in mind that cultural factors and gender expectations also shape men and women’s approach to sex. It is not uncommon for men in our society to grow up believing sex is simply something that they do with their bodies, rather than an expression of emotional intimacy. 

Sex and being a man 

When we listen to men (who have been subjected to sexual abuse) speak about their struggles with sex and sexual intimacy, we become aware that gender expectations can on occasions create additional difficulties.   Men are aware and feel pressure that as ‘a man’, he should always: 

  • be interested and ready for sex; 
  • be happy if someone wants sex with him, whenever and where ever; and 
  • able to perform without any problems. 

These stereotypes can result in men, feeling that they are not measuring up as ‘a man’, if on occasions, like all of us, they feel tired or disinterested in an approach or invitation.    

Typically, men can feel this pressure to perform mostly from other men and be too embarrassed to acknowledge if he is struggling or not living up to the stereotype.  These stereotypes can limit men acknowledging and discussing difficulties out of fear that they will be judged as less of a man and no longer considered eligible amongst his peers for a ‘men’s union card’.  Because men do not talk about struggles with sexual intimacy, this can lead men who have experienced child sexual abuse, thinking he is damaged as a man and becoming further isolated.  

Particular problems related to sexual abuse 

Given that sexual abuse involves unwanted sexual contact or inappropriate exposure, sex and sexually intimate relationships can easily become a place where difficulties might appear. Sometimes, men who have been sexually abused have been able to ‘do’ or ‘perform’ sex in a casual way in their teens or twenties. The difficulties are often identified later, when engaging in sex within the context of a loving relationship that involve commitment and affection. 

For some men, the experience of sexual assault can at times “play itself out” in the area of sex and intimacy. If the sexual assault has occurred within an emotionally intimate relationship, for example with a trusted adult, then it makes sense that when sex and intimacy come together later in life it can take a bit of working through.  The challenge is to disentangle the emotional manipulation and unequal power of the abusive past from the mutually supportive, respectful adult engagement and fun in the present.   

An experience of childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault can impact on sexual relationships in the following ways: 

  • Increased confusion during sexual and emotional intimacy. 
  • Discomfort with touch in certain areas of the body. 
  • Limiting the type of sexual activity considered okay or enjoyable. 
  • Requiring certain circumstances to be in place. For example, lights on or off when sex occurs. 
  • Experiencing difficulties in achieving sexual arousal or ejaculation. 
  • Feeling distress, shame or guilt about a sexual response, interest or fantasy. 
  • Low libido or avoiding sex altogether. 
  • Excessive interest and validation of manhood through sex. 
  • Defining yourself through sex and through your ability to sexually satisfy the partner 
  • Engaging in sexually compulsive behaviour. 
  • ‘Checking out,’ disengaging emotionally. 
  • Requiring the use of pornography or sexual aids to achieve arousal or ejaculation. 
  • Difficulty trusting sexual partners. 
  • Experiencing panic attacks, disassociation or flashbacks during sexual activity. 
  • Difficulties in sexual relationships, confusing sex with love, care-giving, abuse, pain, with being powerless or being powerful. 

Experiences of sexual abuse can make sex, sexual arousal and pleasure feel wrong, and generate a lot of anxiety – It can therefore be worth reminding ourselves that sex between consenting adults is healthy: it is the abuse of a child by an adult that is wrong. 


Most men are raised to believe that physical sexual arousal can only occur when there is sexual desire. If a man has experienced physical arousal, even ejaculation, as part of being abused, it can be extremely confusing for him. He may believe that he was in some way responsible for what occurred, and this may even have been suggested to him by the abuser. His whole sense of being a man and his sexuality can then come into conflict (see Sexual assault & arousal). The fact that 80% of men who are sexually abused in childhood are sexually abused by men means that they are often confronted by questions relating to sexuality. Some straight identifying men may also have been told, or secretly fear, that they are gay. This can get in the way of emotional and sexual intimacy with partners. 

If as a male, you ‘Experience difficulties in achieving sexual arousal or ejaculation’, do remind yourself that men who have not experienced abuse can also and almost inevitably will experience these moment at some time in their lives.  The booklet ‘Renovate your relationship’ notes that:

Sexual dysfunction or erectile problems are often temporary. They can be a symptom of relationship difficulties but many other factors can be the cause – health problems, stress, anxiety, concern about sexual performance, depression or the effects of a past sexual trauma. Don’t ignore it. If you have persistent problems, chat to your GP.

Renovate your Relationship Booklet 

How sexual abuse can shape understandings of sex 

An experience of sexual abuse can produce a particular mind-set, or frame of reference, where sex become viewed in unhelpful negative terms, rather than a positive energy that consenting adults can enjoy. See below for an excellent list compiled by, which has additional useful information about ‘healthy sex’ that is worth checking out. 

Sex as sexual abuse Sex as positive sexual energy 
Sex as uncontrollable energy Sex as controllable energy 
Sex is an obligationSex is a choice 
Sex is addictive Sex is a natural drive 
Sex is hurtful Sex is nurturing, healing 
Sex is a condition for receiving love Sex is an expression of love 
Sex is a ‘doing to’ someone Sex is sharing with someone 
Sex is a commodity Sex is part of who I am 
Sex is absence of communication Sex involves communication 
Sex is secretive Sex is private 
Sex is exploitative Sex is respectful 
Sex is deceitful Sex is honest 
Sex benefits one personSex is mutual 
Sex is emotionally distant Sex is intimate 
Sex is irresponsible Sex is responsible 
Sex is unsafe Sex is safe 
Sex has no limits Sex has boundaries 
Sex is power over someone Sex is empowering 

While looking at the above left hand column can help us identify and understand some of the impacts sexual abuse can have on our thinking and beliefs: the column to focus on is the right hand column that helps us to understand and practice sex as a positive energy.     

Let a partner know what is going on, if you can. 

Negotiating and enhancing a sexual relationship with a partner can be particularly challenging if the partner is not aware about the experience of sexual abuse. This can result in a man feeling further isolated, feel he is not being genuine and result in him trying to feel together and in control, to work it out or manage situations and bodily reactions all on his own. Navigating a way through sexual and relationship difficulties are easier if a partner has some awareness of what is happening for the other partner.   Mutually enjoyable sex is a joint, not a solo endeavour.  

“I always knew there were some no-go zones – things that we just didn’t do and places I just didn’t touch but I never knew why. It now makes lots of sense to me what those things have been about and I can see that we can still have a close relationship without having to do it all. In fact, it is better now that I know what is uncomfortable for him and why.”

As a couple it is useful to: 

  • Be aware that it is not uncommon for memories and difficulties relating to sexual abuse to re-appear during sexual contact. Situations that replicate the experience of the abuse are likely to be particularly challenging. 
  • Develop an awareness of what are, or might be, the sensitive areas, scenarios, and trigger points following an experiences of sexual abuse. For example, who was involved, the gender of the person offending, the relationship context, the ways of engaging or disengaging, the places, acts, positions, touches, smells, sounds, feelings, etc.  
  • Be conscious that talking about the circumstances of the abuse can be tricky and triggering, so many people much prefer focussing on what they like and find sexually arousing and fun.  Place an emphasis on developing an understanding of a partner’s preferences in: 
    • Prioritising safety and choice. 
    • Becoming familiar and comfortable with your and their body. 
    • Talking and how to communicate about different topics. 
    • Being together and in tune with your partner and their body. 
    • What are both of your wishes and desires. 

The booklet ‘Renovate your relationship’ encourages men to take time to talk with a partner with respect to sex and sexual intimacy to understand:  

  • What do they love about your relationship? 
  • What excites them sexually? 
  • Are there things that don’t work for your partner sexually? 
  • Share your likes and dislikes with your partner. 
  • How can you work together to improve your sex lives? 
  • If the focus of your relationship/sex life was more broadly on affection, verbally and physically, what would this look like?’ 

In presenting the above information on developing sexual intimacy in relationships, there is acknowledgement that many people enjoy sex and sexual intimacy and pleasure outside of long-term relationships.   

Apps and fun hook ups 

People who are not in long-term relationships are very much interested in enjoying sex and sexual intimacy.  Finding someone who might be interested in you and becoming sexually intimate with you, previously might have involved going to local pubs, clubs, beats or parties or friends or colleagues introducing you or setting up dates or ‘blind dates’.  Some people, if not currently engaged in an intimate partner relationship, might have identified friends with benefits, where they can both engage in safe and enjoyable sex.   

There are a number of mobile Apps that people use, including people with histories of childhood abuse and harm, to find potential partners and sexual partners.   As emphasised throughout this webpage, sex is likely to be most enjoyable and satisfying if both parties feel safe and experience their choices being respected. Below are some tips for those looking to meet up using apps: 

  • If you’re meeting up, get their real name and their number 
  • Don’t be in a rush 
  • Meet for the first few times in public and stay in public 
  • Tell friends or family about your plans 
  • Agree on your expectations of the meet-up. 
  • Be in control of your transportation 
  • Be honest about yourself. 
  • Know your limits and prepare to say no 
  • Don’t leave drinks or personal items unattended 
  • Think twice about drugs. 
  • If you feel uncomfortable, leave 
  • If something happens: report it (maybe through the App) 
  • Always prioritise safety and consent 

For men who have experienced sexual abuse as a child, like all adults, finding and connecting intimately with someone is very much a negotiated process that involves learning what we and the other person enjoys, there is ‘no right way’.  Sex is most enjoyable when both parties are into it at that moment. 

Talk, take time, and prioritise choice 

  • Increased emotional engagement and communication have been specifically identified as important qualities that improve sexual relationship where a partner has experienced abuse. 
  • Be willing to pause or stop intimate contact or lovemaking if one of you is experiencing anxiety, has been triggered or just wants to take a break.   
  • Identify a ‘safety word or sign’, which will mean that you can be adventurous and engage in role play together or try new things and at the same time prioritise, mutual safety, enjoyment, fun and pleasure. 
  • Be really clear about your partner’s and your own boundaries and limits. Everyone has a right to say “No” to things that don’t feel comfortable or safe. 
  • Communicate with each other about your expectations and possible interests with respect to both the relationship and sexual activity. In a safe supportive space, talk with each other about:  
    • commitment, monogamy, ethical monogamy 
    • use of pornography, online sex, masturbation, sex toys, 
    • positions, role play, dress up, cross dressing,  
    • sexuality, gender expectations, experimentation and more…   
  • If difficulties do arise, take time to check in, listen to each other, be interested in learning and enhancing mutual enjoyment in the present and future. Offer some ways forward that you have already thought about, for example, experimenting with intimate touch without the focus being on genital intercourse. 
  • Some men and their partners find it helpful to consciously put sex ‘on the backburner’ for a period of time, and instead focus on intimacy and play. This can ease the pressure on both partners. It can also help to have open and honest discussions with your partner about the anxieties that sex can raise for both of you, and what support you are looking for from each other. For example, men might worry that their partner feels rejected or unattractive if he does not want sex. Openly discussing this can help to understand what each partner feels and thinks. 
  • Know that when your partner is sexual with you they are taking a big step in trust and that the occasional stumble is to be expected. 

Seek help if difficulties persist 

Sex ought to be an enjoyable, fun, life giving aspect in intimate partner relationships. If difficulties continue after talking things through, and trying different ways to introduce more sexual intimacy into your relationship, do seek help from a qualified counsellor or sex therapist.  

Be cautious of applying standardised techniques for engagement and enhancing sexual pleasure that do not take into account experiences of sexual abuse and trauma. Some sex therapy techniques can be very prescriptive, giving people specific homework to do, rather than prioritizing each person’s sense of choice and control. 

Ideally you are looking to talk with an experienced professional who has understanding, knowledge and experience in addressing histories of sexual trauma in ways that enhance sexual intimacy. 

The above information is not intended as a comprehensive guide for men and partners on developing sexual intimacy following an experience of sexual abuse, more an invitation to explore possibilities for developing sexual intimacy in a mutually supportive, safe and caring way.  Everyone and each couple are unique, as stated at the outset, many couples, where one or both partners have experienced abuse have found ways to enjoy, fulfilling, intimate sexual relationships. 


  • Anderson Jacob, C. McCarthy Veach. Intrapersonal and familial effects if childhood sexual abuse on female partners of male survivors. Journal of counselling psychology 2005, 52:3, 284-297 
  • Hall, K. ‘Childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual problems: A new view of assessment and treatment’. Feminism and Psychology 2008 18:546-556. 
  • Sanderson, Christiane. Counselling Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 3rd Ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2006. 
  • Schachter, C.L., Stalker, C.A., Teram, E., Lasiuk, G.C., Danilkewich, A. (2009). Handbook on sensitive practice for health care practitioner: Lessons from adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Ottawa: Public Health Agency of Canada.