Sex After Trauma
This article was medically fact-checked by Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr. Shree Datta.
Sex. One of the ultimate acts of connection. An opportunity to experience transcendence, bliss, and ecstasy. Unfortunately that’s not the case for many people.
As humans, we are likely to experience at least one “traumatic” incident in our lives. What constitutes trauma can vary from person to person, and it depends on how their brain and nervous system physiologically respond and process the event(s).
An All Too Common Occurrence
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD occurs when someone who experienced a traumatic event develops long-term residual effects that interfere with their daily lives.
One of the most common causes of trauma is from sexual and/or domestic violence. A comprehensive global study found the 1 in 3, or roughly 35% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence.
This conclusion was pulled from existing data, and in reality, this statistic is probably much higher because many, if not most, incidents of sexual assault go unreported. Of course not everyone who experiences sexual or domestic violence is a woman. This is something that can affect anyone.
Trauma is widespread. It affects so many of our lives, and in the case of sexual and domestic violence, can be detrimental to having a fulfilling sex life.
The Body Knows
When someone experiences trauma, or is healing from PTSD, there are distinct physiological effects that keep them from feeling a sense of home in their body. It’s common for survivors to feel disconnected from themselves and their partner.
Their body may freeze up when getting intimate, or they may experience a general lack of safety.
This greatly interferes with their ability to experience pleasure on the deepest of levels. When you don’t feel safe in your body, it blocks you from feeling the depths of your sensations. It’s a genius defense mechanism designed to protect you.
The problem is, it often persists much longer than necessary, keeping survivors from feeling fully alive.
Another way trauma may intefere with someone’s sex life, is by leaving them feeling unworthy of pleasure. PTSD can severely affect someone’s confidence and self worth. Survivors, and society for that matter, often blame themselves, creating a perpetual cycle of shame.
This ripples out into every area in their lives, and they may start to believe that they are unworthy of love. Unworthy of pleasure. That their needs don’t matter.
We also want to point out that it’s not just sexual trauma that may interfere with your sex life. Any sort of traumatic event can affect your mental and physical health and leave you with the same feelings of disconnection and fear.
If you can relate to this, first of all- we are so sorry. No one deserves to be put through that pain and the residual effects of it. Know that you are supported, and there are things you can do to take back your life, especially when it comes to sex.
Trauma stores itself in the nervous system. It creates uncomfortable patterns that may seem foreign to who we truly are, and keep us from being our true selves. In order to create a thriving sex life after trauma, you have to treat the nervous system and drop back into the body.
Here are some common modalities for doing so:
- Therapy. Depending on where you are in your healing journey, therapy may be the next step for you. Remember that like any relationship, finding a therapist you connect with can take time. There are so many different modalities to choose from, and organizations that offer low cost and free services to survivors.
- Breathwork. Yogic breathing and holotropic breathwork, or even just deep breaths to begin with. These techniques deeply reset the nervous system, and treat trauma from the inside out.
- EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a powerful tool for processing traumatic experiences.
- Meditation. There are so many different techniques and systems. Find the one that works for you.
- Time in nature. Few things allow us to feel more present, more connected with the Earth and our bodies than being in nature.
- Holistic medicine like Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine, Naturopathic medicine, and energy medicine like Reiki.
- Spending time with your body both alone and with a partner that is intimate but not sexual. Think dancing, cuddling, yoga, and exercise.
If you feel ready to engage with yourself or someone else sexually, here are some helpful tips:
- Self Pleasure. Masturbation is a powerful tool to get back in touch with your sexual self in a safe space. By yourself, you can reawaken parts of you that feel frozen or disconnected. There’s no rush or destination, think of it as a meditation to feel pleasure and connection with your body.
- Communication. We can’t say this enough. Communicate beforehand to disclose where you’re at. Communicate during sex to tell your partner anything that may be going on in your head and body. Communicate after sex to tell them what did and didn’t work. This is often easier said than done, especially for someone who is healing from trauma, so give yourself the gift of patience.
- Take your time. It’s not a race, or something that should be “just gotten over with”. The female body takes time to feel aroused. Especially when there is an underlying lack of safety as a result of trauma.
- Sex as a relaxation. It’s not something you need to do out of obligation or to achieve something. Sex is a potent tool for relaxation and feeling embodied.
- Redefine your boundaries. Boundaries are one of the first things to get thrown out the window after sexual trauma. This can leave people with an almost inability to set clear lines around what they do and don’t want- often times leading to more traumatic situations. You are the only one who can set your boundaries. Be clear with them, and also understand that they may change from day to day, even moment to moment- and that’s perfectly ok.
If you are a survivor of sexual assault or trauma, know that you are not alone. You are worthy of love, worthy of healing, and absolutely worthy of pleasure.
Facts checked by:
Dr. Shree Datta
Dr. Shree Datta is a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist in London, specialising in women’s health including all menstrual problems such as fibroids and endometriosis. Dr. Shree is a keen advocate for patient choice, having written numerous articles and books to promote patient and clinician information. Her vision resonates with INTIMINA, with the common goals of demystifying periods and delivering the best possible care to her patients
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.