Sex as a form of Self-Injury

[Trigger warning: sexual assault, brief mention of CSA and incest]

In my research on sexual assault, I came across a concept that I recognized.

The first friend I told in person about what happened between me and M (we’ll call her Leila) stopped me, and asked me tentatively, “Have you ever been sexually abused?”

I said no. It had been less than a month since it happened, and I did not recognize any of what he had done as abusive. I was taking full blame for everything. And I was used to being asked that question by people who don’t accept asexuality as an option; coming from Leila, who had been totally accepting of it up until now, the question was confusing.

“Oh… I ask because I was.” She didn’t tell me exactly what happened, and I didn’t press her to explain any more than she wanted to. I gleaned that it was most likely child sexual abuse, done to her by one of her relatives, whom she said she’d forgiven.

Thinking back on it now, her behavior makes a little more sense. Leila always told stories about how crazy she was in high school. How promiscuous. How many drugs she did. How she ended up going to the alternative high school for bad kids, taking remedial classes, because she got in trouble at school so often. “I was such a fuck-up,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t deserve the family I have, they’ve put up with so much shit from me.” She had a bright, perpetually cheery disposition. She was—is still, I’m sure, though I haven’t talked to her in a long while—the kind of person who always chooses to look at the positive in everything. Outgoing, lovable, the life of the party. She was the one who could always be convinced to try the crazy stunts, whether or not there was a game of truth or dare in progress. She was a people-pleaser; she would do or say what the people around her wanted her to, even if it meant she was expressing two contradictory opinions at the same time. She talked about all the sex she had like it was totally awesome, and from what I gathered, she had a friend with benefits. I doubt she was anywhere near as promiscuous in college as she had been in high school, but she often told stories about her wild sexual escapades.

But she told me a secret that night. “To tell you the truth,” she said, “I don’t even like sex.”

I didn’t understand then why she would do it so often if she didn’t even like it, and pretend to everyone else that she did. But I realize now that it is common among survivors of sexual assault to become the party girl, the wild one, the one pretending to enjoy herself as her friends crack endless jokes about the size of her breasts and give pet names to her vagina. Some seek out men who will have violent sex with them as a way of reliving the trauma (as a way of expressing their grief), or punishing themselves. They do it not because they really want it, but because they feel it’s what they deserve. I think it should be distinguished from BDSM, just to keep things clear—it does not follow the standard of “safe, sane, and consensual” so while it might be constructed as kinky and fun, it’s actually a form of self-inflicted violence. (I put that in quotes, btw, because there is some discussion about whether it’s an appropriate motto and an alternative standard has been proposed, but according to either one, it would still not pass muster.)

I’m going to say that I doubt that it’s just survivors of sexual assault who tend to use sex as a form of self-injury, and that I suspect that asexuals may be a group more prone than others to do this. What with all the negativity and disbelief coming from society as a whole, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to think that maybe some asexuals think that there is something deeply broken and wrong about themselves, and in a desperate search to make themselves feel what they think they’re supposed to feel, and a frustrated attempt to punish themselves for not feeling it, they lash out at themselves in this way. I think it’s also something that people have a very hard time recognizing as a form of self-injury, because it’s not technically something that a people physically do to themselves, but rather self-harm by proxy.

Although I have read some posts by asexuals that (in retrospect) make me suspect this might have been going on, I’ve never really seen it recognized within the asexual community as a form of self-injury and discussed in that light, so I thought I should post this, at least to maybe make others aware of the issue. Anyone who has experience with this is welcome to share their thoughts.

Personally, this is one issue that I hope that future studies of asexuality will address.

[Update: This post has gotten a lot of traffic lately, and I just want to direct any visitors who may be dealing with this issue to this post, which might help.]

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10 thoughts on “Sex as a form of Self-Injury

  1. I hadn’t been aware of this angle of it, but now that you mention it, it makes sense. And I’m sure it’ll make sense to a lot of other people, too. I don’t have personal experience with physical self-injury, but since I’ve been depressed, I definitely know what it is to injure yourself mentally. I think at its core that’s what depression is. (And of course, if you can’t stop beating yourself up, then you feel even worse about yourself, and feed the cycle.) It seems like using sex in that way can harm a person physically, mentally, or both. I’d like to see it addressed further, as well.

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  2. As a teenager I was suicidal, self harming self loathing and sleeping with every guy that wanted me to. At the time I didn’t connect sex with self harm, however I’ve now begun to.
    I think I’m going through a spiritual and sexual awakening since I turned 30. After a rather nasty argument with my partner I felt terribly hurt, my mind wandered to times in the past where I would’ve reached for a razor blade (I stopped cutting years ago & instead started giving blood – I found it a positive way to let the blood and the pain flow from me) yet I found myself craving ‘Angry sex’.
    All of a sudden things started to come into perspective for me, that I has used sex as a form of self harm… and still do. Unlike your friend I do enjoy sex. I always have. Yet I still use sex as a weapon to harm myself.
    It may be one of the reasons I’m more than happy to maintain more than one sexual relationship at a time, usually relationships where I’m the one being psychologically dominated and used, and the one who ultimately ends up hurt.
    Great Insightful post.Great Work.

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  3. I definitely agree with this sentiment. I think I used some of the kinks/fetishes I got into as a means for dealing with, or even denying, previous sexual abuse and emotional trauma surrounding sex and then asexuality. I used sex as a coping means often as well to try to normalize myself, but it never worked.

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  4. Wow. This post captured something that has been going on in my life that I couldn’t have even began to analyze on my own.
    There was a time in my life during which I was really accepting of my asexuality. It was shortly after I began to come out to people; but because a number of people whom I really trusted and looked up to told me I didn’t exist, I began to force myself to have sex with people I didn’t actually want to have sex with. I internalized my so-called friends’ belief that I was broken and that I had to force myself to “open up” to people in a sexual way, and I had self-injurious sex with people I just shouldn’t have gone there with.
    I ruined a good many friendships. I hurt people. I confused the hell out of a few people. I’m not saying it wasn’t my fault, but damn if I can’t just be disinterested in sexual relationships without having people taunt me about it.
    On a more public-confessional tip, I’m sorry, REALLY sorry, to all the people who I complicated things with by bringing nasty and unsoulful sex into our conjoined picture. I hope you can forgive me.

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  5. rape, incest tw: every time I’ve had sex before my current partner, it felt like rape. for four years it actually was rape. and I remember my dad leering at my naked body, and I’m dfab genderqueer, so I felt a truckload of shame until I met my fiance and we started becoming intimate at all. we’re both asexual but when we do have sex, it’s just magic. I’m so grateful for them.

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  6. Pingback: Question: “can an asexual ever have a one time encounter that’s extremely satisfying…?” | Prismatic Entanglements

  7. Oh my God, this article has been so helpful to me! I identify as asexual, but I’ve been using sex as self harm for a long time now— I’ve never been abused, but I do have depression so that could have something to do with it. The fact that other people do this too is something I hadn’t really considered before but it really helps to think that I’m not the only one doing this!

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  8. Pingback: Open Question | The Ace Theist

  9. I’m not asexual, but I was raped twice and dealt with a depression and this just hit the spot. I was taking up cutting when I researched the different form of self-harm, when they mentioned this one and it made me realize that I’ve been self-harming myself for years. I let them mistreat me, hit me, choke me and so much else. Do it with strangers even when I don’t really want to.

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