Trigger warning: trauma, sexuality, and sexual assault
How Can Trauma Affect Our Sexuality?
The effects of trauma are multifaceted; it can alter not only our mood, but also the sensations we feel in our body, such as headaches, gastrointestinal distress, and more. It can even make us feel as though we’ve lost control of essential parts of ourselves; many survivors of sexual trauma, for example, struggle to regain their sense of control over their own sexuality.
How can we reclaim this essential part of ourselves and learn to find joy from it? We looked to experienced therapists, including Viva Practitioner Alina McClerklin, LICSW, and sex therapist Vanessa Marin*, for ways to regain one’s sense of control.
One important note – reclaiming one’s sexuality is a unique process for each individual. The following suggestions may offer opportunities for breakthroughs for some people, while others may be more successful using different techniques.
Sex After Trauma Is Possible
First, you should know that while sexual trauma can change how you think about sex, you can regain your sex life in a way that feels safe and enjoyable.
“You are a sexual being,” McClerklin reminds us, “and it is okay to like sex and want to have a healthy sex life.” This may take time and patience—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Regaining control over your sexuality is a healthy and normal part of the healing process.
Develop a Sex-Positive Attitude
McClerklin urges individuals to explore their views about sex and develop a positive view of healthy sexuality. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What does sex mean to you?
- What do you want out of sex?
- What lessons have your experiences taught you about sex?
- Do these lessons promote a healthy sex life or create barriers?
Sexual trauma, particularly in childhood, can teach us negative lessons about sex and our bodies. We might begin to associate sex with fear, manipulation, confusion, or physical and/or emotional pain. McClerklin encourages individuals to examine the messages they’ve learned about sex, both from personal experiences and from the media. Is it possible that some of these messages aren’t true?
Try to challenge the negative messages. Sex isn’t meant to be scary. I am built to enjoy sex, and I am capable of doing so in a safe and trusting environment.
Remember, despite what past traumas have taught us, sex is designed to be pleasant; after all, all of us, from the birds to the bees, are sexual beings. If something doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t right—and it can be changed.
Identify Your Triggers
Triggers are sights, sounds, smells or even feelings that bring back memories of the trauma and cause intense emotional and physical reactions, such as raised heart rate, sweating, and muscle tension. After sexual trauma, it’s normal to find yourself triggered by being touched in a certain place, performing a certain act, or even hearing a specific song.
If you feel ready, try to identify what your triggers are. Think of it using the following frame: “When X occurs, I start to feel Y. My brain is making associations with my trauma, even though that’s not what’s happening right now. This is okay and normal, and I can get past it.”
Now that you know what triggers you, it’s perfectly okay for you to avoid those stimuli in the future. If you feel comfortable doing so, talk to your partner about what you need to feel comfortable during intimate moments. A good partner will understand and follow through.
Even when you can’t avoid a trigger, arming yourself with this information will help you understand what your mind and body are going through when you’re subconsciously brought back to your trauma.Understanding is the first step towards healing.
Discover and Strengthen Your Sense of Agency
As we mentioned above, trauma can make us feel like we have no control over our lives and bodies. It’s important that you regain your sense of agency, so you know you’re in charge of your sexuality.
For those with partners, Marin recommends entering a period where you are the only one who initiates sexually. You may decide to be physically intimate several times a week, or not at all—and both of those options are normal. A healthy partner will understand your need to regain your sense of control, and will encourage and assist you in this process.
Not only can you practice saying yes, but you can also practice saying no. This can be as simple as standing in front of the mirror, practicing saying “no” out loud. It can also involve saying no in other areas of your life more frequently—for example, do you usually let your friends pick the movie for movie night, even when you don’t like it? Say no! Did your food come with a topping you explicitly asked to be excluded? You have the right and knowledge to assert your needs and desires.
Retrain Your Body to Accept Pleasurable Sensations – At Your Own Pace
“Your body belongs to you,” McClerklin states, so it’s important for you to understand what it needs, how to love it, and how to feel comfortable in it. One way to engage with your body is through training it to accept—and enjoy—touch.
Marin recommends starting simple, just placing your hands on different parts of your body and experimenting with how different types of touch make you feel. What is it like to massage your arm versus to scratch it? Is there a spot on your hand that feels nice to press on? Remember to only do what you feel ready for—this isn’t about straining yourself, but about having a positive experience with touch.
You can also engage the senses: light a sweet smelling candle, or eat a square of dark chocolate. Notice what you enjoy, and why. And remember, this process can be emotional, so don’t feel the need to rush. Whatever pace feels right is right.
Focus on Intimacy
You can explore intimacy and sensuality with your partner without focusing on physical, sexual interactions. Creating emotional intimacy can help you remain grounded and prevent you from dissociating during more physical acts.
McClerklin recommends creating a fun, safe environment by making eye contact, or engaging in light, non-sexual touches. From there, you can move slowly towards sexual intimacy—if you want to. If not, you can simply enjoy being close to your partner in a different way, embracing the positive feelings that come with being emotionally connected. Being emotionally in sync with someone can be both pleasurable and fun.
Communicate with Your Partner
Remember, you get to choose how, where, and when, and with whom you have sex. A good partner will respect this, and will want to communicate with you to make sure that both of you are always comfortable and enjoying yourselves.
Talk with your partner outside of the bedroom to negotiate what sex will look like. Ask one another the following questions:
- What do you need to feel safe during sex? What about before and after?
- Can we make a safety plan in case one of us becomes triggered?
- What are your boundaries? Is there any type of touch that makes you uncomfortable? Is there any place you don’t want to be touched?
- What do you enjoy and want during sex?
McClerklin notes that during your conversation, it’s important that your partner makes you feel supported, listened to, and valued. If any of these components are missing, it might indicate that couples therapy is needed to help the two of you come to common ground on how to re-establish your sex life.
Talking about sex can be difficult, because opening up makes us feel vulnerable—but establishing sexual boundaries and gaining a thorough understanding of what both you and your partner want makes for a fun and rewarding sexual experience. Not sure how to start the convo? Check out these tips.
Sex should be both emotionally and physically safe for all involved. In addition to using protection to prevent the spread of STIs or STDs (and birth control if you aren’t currently trying to have a child), pay attention to how your body behaves and feels during sex. Sex shouldn’t hurt, so if you’re experiencing pelvic pain, check in with your primary care physician or a specialist. Dealing with erectile dysfunction? That may be indicative of other health issues, so it’s worth checking out.
And of course, remember to get tested on a regular basis (every time you take a new partner, for example).
No one has to go through their trauma alone. Seek out a therapist with experience in trauma work or a sex therapist, and shop around until you find the one who’s right for you. Worried about costs? Seek out therapists who work on a sliding scale (they base fees off your income), look for free resources online, or contact a local psychology graduate school to see if any of their trainees offer low-fee sessions. Marin also recommends joining survivor support groups, and reading books like Healing Sex, A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma.
Be Kind to Yourself
Your comfort and happiness are the most important parts of this process. It’s okay if some of these steps don’t work for you—every person is unique, and so are their journeys as survivors. It takes courage and hard work to recover from trauma, and you deserve to be congratulated for the steps you are taking.
Have any questions, or want to share tips that helped you cope? Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org any time. We value your stories and appreciate any feedback you have to give.
*Our citation featuring Vanessa Marin has since been taken offline. You can find more of her work on her website.