Skylar Shibata shares her deeply personal experience with rape, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual dysfunction, and learning to accept love.
My first sexual experiences taught me that sex is all about power and control. For me, being in a relationship meant relinquishing any power or control I had over my own body and my own emotions. Sex was the key to emotional security; when my partner was sexually satisfied, I was emotionally satisfied.
It took four years of counseling with a therapist specializing in trauma for me to understand that this was a very unhealthy way of thinking. My therapist helped me push past the memory blocks my mind had put up, and I started to remember the truth: that those first sexual experiences were not healthy and consensual; they were manipulated and coerced.
I can still remember that session—how the memories suddenly flooded my mind. I kept hearing his voice telling me over and over again, “You can say ‘no,’ but it makes me feel like you don’t love me…” Those words were like a gun to the head of 16-year-old me.
All I managed to vocalize to my therapist was that he made me do things I didn’t want to do. So she said it for me.
“Skylar,” she said. “That’s rape.”
It was during that session that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Getting the appropriate treatment for PTSD is crucial, but it’s not a magic cure. I can’t speak for others with the disorder, but for me it was like taking college courses—you learn a lot of theory, but until you enter the “real world,” you’re not quite sure how it all applies.
If my post-therapy relationships can be likened to a final exam, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I failed. Many, many times.
Theory and reality were simply too tough for me to reconcile. Intellectually, I understood what it meant to set my own boundaries. To have more than just physical intimacy. To have a partner who loved me for more than the ways I could get him off.
When it came to reality? Well, perhaps I could’ve used a little more time in therapy, but my former insecure, emotionally unhealthy self took over as soon as physical intimacy became a part of the relationship. I wanted to be physically intimate all the time, not because I had a high sex drive, but because of the overwhelming anxiety I experienced when we weren’t physically intimate. After all, a sexually satisfied partner meant an emotionally satisfied me.
My anxiety was exacerbated by a partner who truly enjoyed spending platonic time with me, a concept I could only understand in theory. I didn’t understand why when we’d go to bed at night, sometimes he’d just wrap his arms around me and go to sleep. I’d lie there, heart pounding, wondering what I’d done wrong to make him lose interest in me.
I didn’t understand how we could get through an entire movie without touching each other in a sexually intimate way. After all, my first relationship taught me that a well-performed blow job was the fee for whatever activity I really wanted to do. Why weren’t these things requirements anymore? Didn’t he want me? Didn’t he feel desire for me? It’s as if I had forgotten everything I’d learned in those therapy sessions.
The anxiety was intense, and it had me constantly questioning my partner’s feelings for me. After all, if he really had feelings for me, he’d desire me sexually at all times, right? Irrational, yes. But that’s the nature of PTSD.
Then suddenly, I began to experience a kind of sexual dysfunction.
It took a year and a half, two doctors, and many blood tests and ultrasounds to come to a diagnosis of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). While it’s different for every woman, the first signs I had were bleeding with intercourse (a frightening experience if it’s never happened to you before), followed by prolonged abnormal uterine bleeding, which at one point lasted more than 30 consecutive days. This makes it very difficult to have normal physical intimacy with your partner.
My anxiety skyrocketed. I could no longer fully please my partner whenever he wanted to be intimate. I knew there were other ways, but the feelings of inadequacy, of ugliness, and of being completely undesirable made those attempts feel shallow, pathetic. How could he want me? How could he want to be with me, this disgusting, unsexy, asexual thing I had become? I was forced into a semi-platonic relationship with my boyfriend, and I was terrified.
Having PCOS forced me to confront a fear created by the trauma of rape—that no one could ever love me; that my worth was determined by my sexual performance.
It didn’t go well at first. I offered to break things off many times. The longer the symptoms continued, the more often I made the offer. But each time I offered, he responded as if the most current offer was even more ridiculous than the last. And even though sex had become a sort of sexual Russian roulette, he carried on as if that was what sex was like with any other woman. He normalized it. Made an uncomfortable situation acceptable.
It took a little over a year, but my inability to perform sexually forced me to look at my boyfriend as more than just my emotional warden. When sex was not an option, he expressed distaste for other sexual activities that only benefited him. It confused me, but eventually I had to admit to myself that my happiness was actually important to him. I began to realize a happy, healthy relationship with him was not contingent on his sexual satisfaction and that my anxiety was self-created.
Soon I found myself relaxing more and more around him. I could cuddle up to him on the couch while we watched a movie, with no thoughts about when and where we’d be having sex that night. It’s a liberating feeling, and it makes the intimacy we do share so much better and more natural.
It’s been just over three months since the diagnosis, but nearly two years since the adverse symptoms began. The journey has been overwhelming, and I still have occasional bouts of anxiety and depression. But for the most part, I feel a calmness I have never before experienced in a relationship. I accept that I am worth loving. I deserve to be loved. That’s a tremendous post-therapy step for me.
Skylar Shibata is a writer based in the Midwest.