Trauma sticks with you and can affect many different parts of life. Unfortunately, 70% of adults have experienced a trauma in their lifetime. Everyone responds differently to trauma and both sexual and non-sexual trauma can impact our sex lives. I won’t pretend that I can speak to all of the ways trauma interacts with sexuality. I will instead offer some of the tips that have worked best for my coaching clients (and myself) for intimacy after trauma, while honoring that you may have different methods that work for you.
Identifying stress/trauma responses
Here are four examples of acute stress responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These four styles speak to how a mind/body that is feeling threatened might respond to the threat (or respond when it feels like it is reliving a prior threat).
These can be triggered/activated regardless of whether the threat is physical, mental, emotional, etc. For example, let’s say you are getting flirty with someone you like but they make a move that makes you feel unsafe (or triggers a past negative memory with someone else) and your stress or trauma response is activated. You might begin to push them or yell at them (fight). Or you might get up and walk away (flight). Maybe you get stiff and unresponsive not knowing what to do (freeze). You might even go along with the move, pretending everything is alright because you don’t want to upset the person you are with while in your head you are uncomfortable, scared, upset, and/or wishing the situation would end (fawn).
While some people have a go-to response, you might find that yours changes from situation to situation and over time. What’s important is that you begin to identify what happens to you when you are triggered into a trauma mental state so that you can communicate that with others.
Tips for communicating around trauma responses
I’m a big believer in meeting people where they are. Therefore, these tools don’t seek to change you or your responses but rather work within your current framework. You deserve support now, even if you aren’t ready to work through your activators and triggers.
Regardless of the type of stress response you have, it is useful to share that information with people you are engaging with if it’s possible that interactions with them might trigger a trauma-induced stress response. If they are supportive people, this will help them be mentally prepared so that they can respond with care rather than potential defensiveness or callousness. Sharing potential outcomes of a trauma response also lets people know what they can expect. It also creates an opportunity to create mutual care plans as the situation may also be distressing for others to witness, especially if unexpected.
The more you know about your own situation, the more useful information you can share. However, you don’t need to share anything about your story or the original trauma to be descriptive and receive support. Types of information that could help partners in supporting you:
- Types of situations that might trigger a response so they can attempt to avoid these.
- Type(s) of fear response you are likely to have and how to identify them (especially with freeze and fawn which can be more difficult to recognize).
- What they should do if the situation arises.
- How to support you during the response.
It’s also ok if you don’t know the answers to these questions. Learning these answers can take time.
For sexual encounters, check in before beginning, have agreed upon check-ins during, and, during aftercare, discuss how things went.
The previous two sections are great pre-encounter questions. Establishing what check-ins look like, which will be covered during peri, is also a great preparatory tool.
For those who freeze and fawn, communicating distress in the moment may be difficult and your partner might miss it (or choose to ignore the more subtle signs of stress). To prepare for this try:
Safe words (oral & physical)
It can be useful to come up with a code word that feels easy to say in the moment and can be a substitute for having to express complex feelings or emotions. The safe word can act as a pause for a longer check-in and/or full stop. The support partner(s) can also offer it during encounters as an invitation for the person if they struggle to say it themselves.
If words don’t seem possible, use physical indicators. When something hurts, I use a double tap, which you can also use if you’re feeling unsafe.
Multiple choice check-ins
Ask a partner(s) to offer multiple choice options of how to continue during a sexual encounter. This includes a pause/stop and/or non-sexual option. For example, instead of them choosing a next action, they can ask, (a) do you want to continue (b) do you want me to go down on you, or (c) do you want to stop and watch TV.
Even with all precautions in place, things can go wrong, especially if someone tends to fawn. After a sexual encounter, debrief what went well and what, if anything, didn’t. Come up with solutions for how to avoid whatever didn’t work in the future. Affirm one another for what did work.
You can have these conversations with anyone, a hook-up, friend with benefits, or romantic partner as long as they are open to it. However, if you find that you are speaking with someone that is not interested in sharing information on how to reduce re-traumatization during sexual encounters, consider whether or not they will be a safe partner.
If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual trauma and needs help, you can get support here.