I want to put aside for a moment the important considerations of STI’s, unwanted pregnancy and so on, and share for a moment some thoughts about making sex emotionally safe. I find myself having a lot of conversations about sex at the moment, partly because I’m very frustrated by the lack of these conversations in mental health! I’m not some kind of expert. I’m certainly not someone who has everything together. In fact, my knowledge base and my passion for this topic comes from being a person who’s had some terrible sexual experiences, huge distress about my own sexuality and identity, and who has big struggles in this area. I’ve gone into sexual health counselling to get support through accepting myself, coming out, learning how to navigate my distress, and my first gay relationship. I’ve very carefully ended many years of voluntary celibacy because I finally felt that I had enough tools and had done enough work for this to be a positive experience. I’ve read a lot of books and done a lot of talking and thinking. I’ve also done a lot of listening and what I’m hearing distresses me.
I’m hearing a lot of confusion, pain, grief, and resignation. I’m hearing people who do not believe it is possible to ever have good sex after rape or abuse. I’m hearing people who do not believe sex can be anything other than a manic, shame-based compulsion. I’m hearing massive anxiety about how to communicate about sexual things or during sex. I’m hearing people who feel stuck with sex that is empty, painful, lonely, violent, or emotionally abusive. I’m hearing people who feel broken, scared, ashamed, repulsed by themselves or their desires. People who feel rejected, guilty, beholden, that they ‘owe’ sex to their partner, and that they are failures. I’m hearing people for whom sex is a secret topic of personal torment and misery.
So I want to talk about it. I want it not to be secret anymore. I want to challenge the mental health system that pretends these are not important issues for us. I want to challenge those terrible fears that for such as we, the ruined ones, there is no possibility of a healthy sex life. When I’ve talked about the idea of emotionally safe sex, I’ve had people tell me there is no such thing. This breaks my heart. I want to tell people this is not true.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about the ways I’ve worked to make sex emotionally safer for me. I’ve been able to come up with a specific set of ideas I want to share in case they’re useful to someone else. There’s a few of them so I’ll break them up into different posts. The very first one is how you make the call that you’re going to have sex.
1. Checking In
Think about the ways you’re assessing whether you have sex. You’re checking in with yourself, noticing how the idea makes you feel. You’re probably asking yourself questions inside your mind. This is a great process to use to work out what you do and don’t want. For some of us, this process of checking in with ourselves is quite long and thought through. For others of us, it’s a split second instinctive glance at some internal alarms just long enough to notice that none of them seem to be screaming. For some of us, we’ve been trained through trauma or abuse that our needs, wishes, and preferences don’t matter, so we’ve never really developed the skill to do this check in with ourselves in the first place.
Babette Rosthchild’s book 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery has a chapter about developing this kind of check in skill to help you make decisions. If you’re feeling in the dark about this skill you can borrow it from many libraries including my own. For those of us who have some capacity to do this, I’d still suggesting fine tuning the process a bit. For example, if you’re trying to decide if you want to have sex, try picturing in your mind the details of your choices – in this place, with this person, in this way, and see how it makes you feel.
Pay attention to the kinds of questions you may ask yourself during this check in. I noticed a little while ago that my standard internal question when making this decision was ‘Can I handle this?’ – a question clearly born out of my own trauma history. Answering ‘yes’ to this question does not make sex safe! It doesn’t mean I want to be involved, doesn’t mean I will enjoy it! In fact it’s a set up for high risk sex – the kind that often leaves me feeling lonely, scared, or empty, even with a loving partner. I’ve changed this question now – to ‘What do I feel like?’ I may be feeling anxious but there’s also that impulse to kiss that soft skin in the fold of their elbow, or that hope that they’ll take off my top. If the anxiety is low I can follow these impulses.
The questions you ask yourself are a powerful way to set you up for safe sex or risky sex. Learning to check in with yourself is also part of how we follow our own pleasure. It’s not something to be done once at the start of things, it’s an ongoing process of listening to ourselves and noticing what we do and don’t want or like. People who are stressed about sex can be so numbed, so anxious, so overwhelmed by what’s going on in their mind that they can’t feel what’s happening in their body. Checking in is about noticing that this kind of touch makes your skin tingle, or that your knee is starting to get achy and needs to be shifted. Being focused on your feelings is how you will discover what you like. It’s a good skill to work on.
Checking in only really works for us if we have the ability to follow what we want and need. If we know we don’t want something but we can’t say no, there’s a miserable sense of betrayal and failure that only adds distress to a situation we didn’t want in the first place. It takes strength and commitment to notice how we feel and act on it – whether that’s saying “I don’t feel like this”, or saying “You look amazing tonight, can I kiss you?”. But it all starts with connecting to yourself and noticing how you’re feeling, and asking yourself what you feel like. It’s also really important to check in with your partner and find out where they are at, even if you are ‘the one with the problem’ in your relationship.
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading