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How to heal and have sex after trauma

By Maya Khamala

Sex can be an ultimate act of connection—both with another and with yourself. Getting physically intimate with a partner can mean seizing an opportunity to let go of your day-to-day worries and experience sweet, ecstatic release. 

But, although we all have this potential within us, there are many who do not have such a positive relationship with sex. There are many among us dealing with the lingering effects of trauma, and in case you hadn't heard, trauma can get in the damn way. 

What trauma looks like

What constitutes trauma can vary widely from person to person, because our experiences are all unique—as are our brains and our nervous systems. That said, there is general knowledge floating around out there that can help us make sense of our personal trauma. For instance, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when someone who experiences a traumatic event develops long-term residual effects that get in the way of their daily lives. Many also suffer from the effects of complex PTSD, or CPTSD. While PTSD usually occurs after a single traumatic event, CPTSD is associated with trauma repeated over a longer period. 

Regardless of the intricacies of your personal form of trauma, one of the most common causes of trauma is sexual and/or domestic violence. 

What the numbers say

Sadly, the stats on sexual trauma are as disturbing as they come. Recent worldwide figures show that 1 in 3 women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner or sexual violence by a non-partner, with many of them experiencing it for the first time as a child or a teen. 

The majority of this abuse is intimate partner violence, contrary to the stranger-in-a-dark-alley narrative that so many Hollywood movies like to peddle. 

2015 survey by the Association of American Universities revealed that over 20% of female students report experiencing non-consensual sexual contact. 

Of course, sexual violence affects people of all genders, with different risk factors depending on race, disability, sexual orientation, and other factors. 

What's worse, all of these statistics are typically higher than the numbers show, as many—if not most—cases of sexual assault go unreported. Trauma is widespread, y’all.

As devastating as all this is, there are ways to heal, and there is hope for coming fully into your body again and enjoying the kind of hawt AF sex life you want and deserve. While every situation is unique, the first step is understanding how trauma might play out in your sex life.

Trauma's impact on sexual intimacy

Single or repeat incidents of sexual trauma can severely affect a person’s relationship to sex, sexuality, and intimacy—with both themselves and others. 

The effects of sexual trauma can manifest in the following ways (among others):

Negative body image. It's common for survivors to struggle with negative thoughts and feelings about their bodies. Some may even blame the abuse on their physical appearance, feel deep-seated hatred toward their bodies, or else feeling totally detached from their bodies. All of the above, unsurprisingly, can make it hard to experience sexual intimacy without severe anxiety creeping in.

Hyperarousal. If you're a survivor, chances are high that your body tells you you’re in danger, even when you're not. Hyperarousal refers to the “arousal” felt in the nervous systems of trauma survivors when they feel triggered. Hyperarousal can be triggered by any number of things, from specific sexual positions, to certain words, smells, or anything else that sends one's system into high alert (fight-or-flight mode) during or after intimacy.

Detachment. Many survivors feel some level of detachment, disassociation, or disconnection from their bodies during intimacy, even when they are in a safe relationship with a loving partner. This is one of the mind’s ways of  trying to protect the person from being mentally or emotionally present—and thus running the risking of experiencing pain. This type of disconnection might happen only occasionally or it might be a constant, longterm struggle.

Flashbacks. Memories of sexual trauma can manifest before, during, or after intimacy, and might take the form of flashbacks and/or body memories. While flashbacks are characterized as intense traumatic (and often terrifying) recollections that can make you feel that you're re-experiencing your trauma in the moment, body memories are physical sensations that trigger memories of that same trauma.

Hot tips for empowering healthy intimacy—whenever you're ready

Whether you're a survivor or the partner of a survivor (or both), consider the following tips for reviving a hot ’n healthy sexual rapport.

Communicate. While strong communication is sorta kinda important for all couples, being able to clearly express one's needs is especially crucial in relationships where one or both partners have histories of sexual trauma. Open and honest communication is essential to discussing boundaries and triggers, turn-ons and turn-offs, and debriefing after sex to make sure both partners are on the same wavelength. For couples who struggle with communication, working with a couples therapist who specializes in sexual trauma might be worth considering.

Know thy boundaries. Establishing boundaries is a way of making sure that what you require to feel safe in an intimate context is both acknowledged and respected during sex. Try making a list of your sexual boundaries and sharing them with your partner—and ask them to do the same. If—for any reason—you don't feel safe, there’s a strong chance you’ll experience intimacy as threatening and/or triggering. Although easier said than done, try to assess whether or not you feel safe before getting intimate. Do you feel aroused? Anxious?  Numb? Excited? Relaxed? If you notice that you’re not feeling right, hit pause—you might establish a safeword to make this easier. You’ll want to communicate with your partner about how you feel, whether it “makes sense” or not. Note: consenting to sexual intimacy should in no way stop you from changing your mind at any point.

Cultivate curiosity. Intimacy and connection thrive when couples explore their fantasies, desires, and kinks, and there’s no reason for survivors of sexual trauma to shy away from doing so. In fact, many find that exploring kink can actually aid in their healing. Maybe you're considering integrating BDSM elements into your sex life. Whatever it is, discussing new ideas and exploring new territory can be very exciting. Just be sure to keep in constant conversation (communication!). If something feels uncomfortable, forced, or triggering, stop and reassess when you both feel balanced and calm.

Prioritize pleasure. Intimacy is ultimately about connection and pleasure. Its goal should never be fitting the mould, or striving for someone else's notion of “perfect.” Rather, each partner’s pleasure should be the priority. If you need to hit pause on an intimate moment because you or your partner feel triggered or are having a body memory, that’s okay—that's part of the experience. This just in: sex/intimacy doesn’t have to end with an orgasm, nor does it need to have a set of specific characteristics. Focus on pleasure, safety, being present and connected in mind and body, and the rest will follow.

Bottom line: having a history of sexual trauma can leave you with a lifetime of healing to do and a whole lot of (re)negotiating your relationship to sex, but with the right partner and/or a commitment to self-lovin,’ an empowered, thriving sex life is fully within reach. You got this. <3

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