“You said in your Togetherness Project presentation something about women’s sexuality being used to reward men for good behavior. We are concerned that this perpetuates harmful and outdated ideas about sexual relationships, especially in the context of abusive relationships.”
A common question asked of me in my work with women who have experienced betrayal trauma or sexual trauma is something like, “What role is sexuality supposed to play in a healthy relationship?”
-In a healthy relationship, there are many dynamics on many levels. Some of those dynamics are highly complex and intricate. Others are more simple. One of the more simple dynamics I have observed in healthy relationships are simple Behavior -> Reward feedback loops. When the husband or the wife behaves in a way that is edifying for the other, the other has a tendency to behave in a way that feels like a reward for the first one. There are many versions of this feedback loop in a healthy relationship. If a man sees his wife adding value to his life, he might respond with a compliment, or bragging to others about her value. This could be classified as a reward. If she feels encouraged or empowered by his words/actions, she might feel inclined to be physically intimate with him. He will probably experience this at more base level as a reward. This emotion in him could perpetuate increased, accurate investment in her and the relationship. Of course there is a more sophisticated psychological and emotional intimacy taking place at a more complex level during this exchange, but the simple behavior/reward feedback loop is also taking place.
-In an unhealthy relationship, one or the other is punished for not “doing it right”
-In an unhealthy relationship, a man can blame his “bad” behavior on his wife for not “rewarding”him for his good behavior. A woman can do the same to a man.
-In an unhealthy relationship one or both will withhold edifying, encouraging, rewarding behaviors as a form of punishment, or to “teach him/her a lesson”.
-In my experience, traumatized and/or betrayed women are highly reluctant to participate in sexual activity with the man who has hurt them. I have also observed that as the man improves his behavior and overall character, most wives, as they begin to regain trust, as they start to feel more safe and secure, they also incidentally become more sensual/sexual. On a base level, a man will receive this response as a “reward” which will increase his motivation to continue to invest. In a healthy relationship, the woman is under no obligation to provide this sensual/sexual response. It is usually as much of a surprise to her as it is to him. When I am working with women, I don not encourage them to reward their husbands with sensuality or sexuality. I train them to become self-aware. I train them to be aware that if they are not experiencing incidental sensuality or sexuality, it usually means there is still something going on with his thinking/behaving that is still “off”. If she is experiencing incidental sensuality or sexuality, it usually means her safety mechanisms are becoming convinced that he has made sufficient change that she can now start relax and enjoy the relationship.