There’s a lot of skills involved in the process of making sex emotionally safer, particularly for those of us who have experienced relationship violence, or sexual abuse, or emotional abuse about our appearance or bodies. We need to learn how we work, what we need, where our own limits are. It’s a process of trial and error to find the line between anxiety that’s background noise and anxiety that needs attending to. It also takes time to learn how to communicate about things like ‘please don’t touch me that way, I like to be touched like this’ or how you can best be supported during a flashback. It takes time to learn how to communicate about your needs and preferences. There’s often pressure to ‘finish what we start’, but when there’s stress about sex this pressure isn’t helpful. Building all this self awareness, ability to communicate, and sensitivity to your partner takes time, attention, thoughtfulness, and dedication.
Breaking the experience down into smaller components can help to keep the stress manageable. So you have a partner and you’re both keen to have sex but one or both of you is really stressed. Moving very slowly gives you both time to get used to each other, to take in the experience, to learn what is and isn’t enjoyable. Maybe you start with massages or with sleepovers in pajamas. One night there’s some skin to skin contact, hugs and kisses. Another night there’s nakedness. No sex, just nakedness. Getting comfortable with each other, with being seen, with seeing. Maybe you shower or bathe together, or cuddle under a blanket and watch a movie. Maybe you ask what they think of your body, or show them your scars and tell the stories about them. You experience intimacy as safe, as something you control, where you have rights, where your feelings count, where nobody makes you do anything you don’t want to, where nobody treats you with anything less than respect and care.
You also have a chance to see how you and your partner cope in the charged space of physical intimacy. Some people don’t handle this space well, it’s intense and deeply personal and they’re not comfortable with it. Sometimes otherwise decent and caring people react badly in this space, they snipe about you or belittle you or intimidate you or pressure you. Sometimes you may find that you are not handling it well and are doing or saying things you wouldn’t otherwise. Moving slowly gives you both a chance to see how safe you are about sex. It gives you time to see whether you can handle their anxiety graciously or if you get angry with them about it. It gives you time to see if they are safe to be naked and vulnerable with or if they will make humiliating remarks about your body. It also gives you an opportunity to see how well your communication, negotiation, and boundary setting skills hold up. Sometimes you find that you may have a superb skill in one area of your life that seems to go completely missing in another area.
There are some dumb ideas about sex floating around many cultures. One of them is the idea that you are innately good or bad at sex. You find someone, have sex to see what it’s like, and are either excited or disappointed by it and nothing can be done about that. New couples are often under pressure to have sex and share the details with friends. Newlyweds in many cultures are expected to go from minimal physical contact to sex overnight, with little to no education or support or chance to become comfortable with each other. Sex that is safe, loving, enjoyable, and fun takes skills, and skills take time to create. It takes time to learn the needs of a partner, and it takes maturity to be a safe and sensitive partner. Sometimes there’s a gap between how we want to be and the skills we currently have. We love the idea of being caring and supportive about our partners physical disability, but we’re scared to death we’ll do or say something wrong and instead come across as defensive and uncaring.
Time isn’t seen as sexy in our culture but it can be just what you need to blossom into a wonderful sexual partner, and to make sure the person you’re thinking of having sex with is safe and trustworthy. There’s actually something deeply erotic about languid afternoons in bed giving massages and talking through things that make you nervous without any pressure. When you prepare the context so well, sex when it blossoms can be amazing.
Time can help make things safer, but there’s also a place for jumping in and I don’t want anyone to think I’m judging those who find that approach empowering. Sometimes the opposite helps us, there’s a wall of terror between us and sex. Some of us dismantle it brick by brick, some of us pole-vault it. Whatever helps you navigate your stress is a good idea, with two caveats – that you’re not setting yourself up for bad experiences (see, I knew all women were heartless, or men are brutes, or whatever), and that you’re not harming anyone. My observation has been that even those who find pole vaulting more to their nature often need to come back and kick a few bricks out of that wall at some point. It’s much easier to have sex without the hangups that stress us out, than it is to keep having to find ways around them. Give yourself permission to take your time to make sex safer and as the things that are stressing you get resolved sex can feel less like a 3 mile crawl through barbed wire on the promise of something better up ahead, and more like a soaring inside, a desire that calls you on and draws you towards another person.
This article is part of a series about emotionally safer sex. Try also reading