How do I figure out if I want to have sex? (Post-trauma)

Anonymous
asks:
Is there a good way to figure out if you want to have sex? Two years ago, I left a relationship in which I had sex that was extremely physically painful, in which I was shamed and blamed for that pain and he threatened to leave me if I showed any "lack of enthusiasm". Since then I have not had sex. For the past three months, I have been seeing someone new, who is deeply kind and good, and it is going well, and EXTREMELY slowly, which is great. The problem is that I don't feel like I can trust my own internal signals anymore (or maybe I never could, since I always ignored them?) I do have a sex drive, but I am so scared now of pain, and I am ashamed that sex is painful for me, and I am ashamed of still being traumatized, and I am ashamed to NOT want sex, and ashamed that I am ashamed, but at the same time sex is also something that I would like to be able to have again? Sometimes I will feel turned on only to have a sudden terror that I will be trapped there, too pathetic to say "no". Just the anticipation of that emotional battle can turn me from actively wanting sex to not wanting to be touched at all. So how do I distinguish "wanting sex but working through trauma" from "not wanting sex and also being traumatized"? For the life of me I can't figure out which alarm bells are real.
Siân replies:

Reclaiming your sexuality after sexual abuse can be complicated. Your previous partner has left you with a whole mess of shame and trauma. None of this is your fault, he is the one who chose to hurt and manipulate you, I’m sorry that you had to go through that and are now facing the work of picking through it all. The good news is that in leaving that relationship, you’ve already taken a really big step in looking after yourself, and taking the time to ask and think about if you really want sex is another step on the path to a sexuality that centres your own pleasure.

So let’s look at those alarm bells. The bells are all real, by which I mean the feelings are all real. They’re a normal, healthy response to a situation where you were regularly made to feel really unsafe; they’re trying to protect you. The thing is, when sex has been used to hurt you, the bells have trouble distinguishing between safe, happy, wanted sexual contact and sexual assault. Rather than deciding which ones to ignore, you can listen when they say stop and work towards a place where they don’t get set off in the first place. This distinction is important because no matter how much you want to have sex, you’re not going to have sex that feels safe and good when the alarms are ringing.

To add another metaphor to the mix, think about a grassy space. If you walk along a single line through that grass day after day, a path will gradually form. The more you follow that path, the more established it becomes and the harder it is to take other paths. Except that’s exactly what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to form new sexual paths that are full of pleasure, not alarm bells; pushing through isn’t the answer.

So how do you find new safe, happy paths? Well, time helps, as does having a few people in your team. If you haven’t already, see if you can access a therapist or some form of counselling for support in working through the trauma. You can also come talk to us at the boards and speak to people in your life who you trust. It sounds like you have a supportive partner; if you feel able to then speak to them about this. Make a plan together for how to help you feel safe and in control; talk about boundaries and things that you’re excited for. Your partner can’t “make you” feel safe, but they can work with you to create a sense of safety for you both.

In your question you talked about feeling trapped, ignoring your internal signals and being unable to say no. That “freeze” is the third side of the “fight or flight” response you may have heard of - though it gets less attention. When you sense danger that you can’t deal with by running away or aggression, your natural reaction is that numb, dissociated, can’t move or speak feeling that makes it almost impossible to speak up or fight back. It has deep roots, so please don’t blame yourself.

Instead, practice saying no in non-threatening situations, and asking for what you need when the alarms are still quiet enough for you to move and think. Brainstorm with your partner easy ways to signal a no, agree together to have extra check-ins and to proceed only with an active yes. Tell them when the bells are just starting to ring to take back a little control before the fear gets so big that it sits on your chest and silences you. Do these things for cuddling and holding hands so you have a path to follow if you decide to do more sexual things later. If you want to go further down that path, set super-explicit boundaries for a given moment, like “I’d like to make out with you and maybe take your top off but keep mine on, what do you think?” and see if that helps you enjoy the things you’re doing rather than feeling anxious about what might come next. The boundaries and the saying no are the foundations, but even more powerful I think is the asking for what you want and saying yes – building pathways of your choices where you are in control of what you choose to do.

It’s okay to not want sex right now, or even at all. If you are feeling sexual though, a great place to start finding those new paths is alone with yourself. Fantasy and masturbation can help you learn or remember what it feels like to centre your pleasure in a way that is curious and exploratory, without any pressure or end goal in mind. If you do decide to return to partnered sex, you can take that knowledge with you.

Sex needn’t be painful – though it’s certainly no reflection on you that it has been. We talk about sexual pain elsewhere on our site, and this article may be a good place to start. Perhaps in your explorations you’ll find that some activities are appealing and feel good, and that others just don’t. Okay! Stick to the ones you enjoy. Fear and pain are not the building blocks of your sexuality, nor are they something to push through, they’re there telling you that this thing is not for you right now. Look for the things you are wanting and choosing instead.

It may be that your previous relationship has left your body primed to expect pain from certain sexual activities. Unfortunately, expecting pain can be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially if it makes you tense up. If the suggestions above don’t work for you, this is something that you may benefit from professional support with. Talking to your doctor or therapist is a good place to start.

You asked how to distinguish "wanting sex but working through trauma" from "not wanting sex and also being traumatized". You’re the only person who can answer that, and because nothing is straightforward, you’ll probably find that one day it’s the first and another the second. Or even both on the same day. By finding some support, getting familiar with your own arousal and confident in what you want, as well as learning to speak up and hit pause or say no in those moments when the alarms are just ringing too loudly you can start to create new paths towards sex that you really want to have.

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