The majority of women who have survived childhood sexual abuse (CSA) have problems with sexual arousal, sexual performance, and sexual satisfaction. Many of these women avoid sex, are hypersexual, experience pain during sex, or have difficulty maintaining healthy sexual boundaries and sexual relationships. Psychological issues resulting from the CSA are often the root of these problems. But new research suggests that these women may have unique physiological conditions that affect their sexual abilities as well. In a recent study led by Cindy M. Meston of the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, biofeedback was used to determine the biological and physiological responses of women with and without a history of CSA.
Meston enlisted 102 women with no sexual abuse history (NSA) and 136 female abuse survivors for her study and evaluated the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), cortisol level, and heart rate variability (HRV) of the women after they were exposed to sexual stimuli. Meston found that when exposed to stimuli, the NSA women with a history of significant nonsexual trauma had better sexual arousal as SNS activity increased. However, in the NSA women with little nonsexual trauma history, sexual arousal and functioning was achieved through decreased SNS activity. For CSA survivors, frequency of trauma predicted decreases in SNS activity which increased sexual functioning. For women with single sexual traumas, the SNS activity was even more decreased.
When Meston measured the cortisol levels of the women, she found that increases in cortisol decreased the sexual performance and arousal of the NSA women but did not affect the sexual responses of the women in the CSA group, regardless of frequency of traumas. HRV was used to measure physiological responses to sexual stimuli and effectively determined the sexual functioning and satisfaction levels of the CSA women. Because of this, Meston believes that these results offer opportunities to female abuse survivors who struggle with sexual issues. She added, “Our findings suggest that for women with CSA histories, particularly those with low lifetime trauma, biofeedback targeting changes in HRV may lead to better sexual functioning and satisfaction.”
Meston, C. M., & Lorenz, T. A. (2012). Physiological stress responses predict sexual functioning and satisfaction differently in women who have and have not been sexually abused in childhood. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027706
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