You don’t need to have a completely perfect stage set for sex to be safe. There can be awkwardness, embarrassment, anxiety, body memories, little flashbacks, all going on like background noise. It’s okay to be aware of them and still be following that thread of desire. You don’t need a completely empty mind, free of memories or triggers to have sex that feels safe, loving, intimate, joyful, and amazing. These things can all co-exist. I think a lot of us trauma survivors don’t get this idea. We feel – dirty – damaged – soiled. We think to have good sex we have to get back to something resembling ‘purity’. We work very hard on ourselves hoping to get to a place where we have eradicated our past. It’s devastating when it intrudes.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Ever had great sex while you were injured in some way? A twisted ankle or stitched up hand or just an elbow that was protesting because you’ve been leaning on it for too long? There was pain – in the background – not intense pain like a migraine or calf muscle cramping, but there and present. Then there was also pleasure, in the foreground, consuming your attention. They can co-exist. I live with a chronic pain condition so this something I really understand. It’s the same with emotional pain, with memories and anxiety. If they’re not intense they can be background noise. If they become intense, they need some attention.
The form this attention takes might be as simple as changing what you’re doing because the anxiety has become high or body memories have become strong and confusing. I get this problem, sometimes they’re so intense that I can’t work out anymore what’s happening now and what is just a memory. (or to use the clinical terms – a tactile hallucination) So I move away from touch in that area and find somewhere else that feels nice to have touched. Sometimes those of us who struggle with stress about sex find that some things are higher risk than others – things that make you feel exposed, or feel trapped, or new things that make you feel uncertain and so on. Sometimes you may find that there are certain positions, acts, and locations that can become your safer sex to retreat back to if you’ve tried something else and become stressed.
Sometimes it means pausing for a little while to settle whatever has been stirred up. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s a chance for healing. Having feelings and memories come to the surface gives you a chance to address them and to break cycles of ignoring and depriving yourself. This time everything stops the moment you want it to. This time you can ask for non-sexual contact while you settle. This time you wont be hurt, ignored, or abused. Maybe you realise that a certain touch is making you struggle, or that the music on the radio is triggering you. If your stress isn’t about abuse, this is a chance for growth. You have a clash between some things you believe (such as sex has to be perfect, or that you are ugly, or that you’re not good at sex, or that you’ll be rejected by your partner) and what you want to experience. You’re giving yourself a chance to develop a different way of approaching sex and navigating the stress. Maybe you sit together and talk for a bit. Maybe you put things aside for that night, or only for 20 minutes while you settle. Maybe you go watch a DVD or find some icecream in the freezer. There’s no rule that says sex has to happen all within a certain time frame. There’s nothing wrong with breaks to get something to drink, empty your bladder, change the CD, find a snack, have a giggle or a cry, get a hug, and start again later. This whole experience is intimacy, safety, and care. Our culture has a very crude idea of what constitutes sex, but it doesn’t have to be broken up into a single act like that. Sex can be woven through the whole evening, it can be the back rub when you have a cry, it can be your partner ducking to the shops for a new packet of condoms, it can be you understanding that a shower will help them feel more comfortable or that keeping a sheet over them will make them feel safer. It doesn’t have to be perfect to be safe and wonderful. You don’t need a perfect body, you don’t need ‘movie sex’ where no one gets the giggles, or drops anything, or farts, or needs to rush off for a pee, you don’t need an entirely clear mind. You can have trauma issues, anxiety, and all kinds of mental health challenges that may certainly complicate sex as well as the rest of your life, but if you can make a space in your mind to accept that your sex life will include having a panic or needing to stop or lots of showers etc and that is okay! then you can work to create a safe space to have a good sex life.
This is part of a series of posts about emotionally safer sex.