For people dealing with trauma, good sex means being vocal about triggers
I have a thriving sex life, but it hasn't always been happy BDSM and sexy selfies. I am still in recovery for childhood and other trauma. Sexual intimacy is something I have often avoided, either by having sex with strangers or by not having sex with people I love. Discovering how to become happy and enthusiastic in my sexual relationships has been pivotal in my recovery process. But in order to get to that pivot point, I found that having good sex after trauma meant talking to my partners about what could trigger me.
“I need to tell you about my triggers,” I said, to a new person I was seeing. We had been spent a lazy hour making out and getting to know each other. We hadn’t had sex, but it was pretty clear that we would want to as soon as we had more time together. So I jumped right in and called it what it was.
“Okay,” he said, his face serious. I told him about certain words that could provoke dissociation for me — a sort of detachment from the reality of the moment some people — that are linked to a past trauma. I suggested different words he could use instead.
He nodded and asked, “Is there anything else you want to tell me or to talk about?”
“No,” I said, “let’s kiss.” And we did. And it was good. And when we did have sex, he remembered. And in the oh, I don’t know, 100 or so times we’ve had sex, he’s never forgotten. This made me feel safe on several levels. Also, that initial conversation served as an intimacy ice-breaker.
But the hours leading up to those few sentences were a lot more anxiety ridden than the conversation itself. I had thought long and hard in advance about what I needed to say and how I wanted to say it. I wondered if he would press for details or ask me why or respond in a way that felt dismissive or if he would just get freaked out and lose interest in me. And like so many survivors of childhood and other sexual abuse, I wondered if it was okay for me to be vocal about what I needed. If my partner had not responded with empathy and ease, things would have gone a lot differently.
I know that it can feel hard, or even close to impossible to state your needs when your boundaries have been violated in the past, but in my experience, once you develop a tolerance for that initial discomfort of these conversations, they feel really empowering. I asked some experts how folks who have sexual triggers can talk to partners about them.
“It’s always a good idea to ask for consent to engage in conversations about sex and to have those conversations in a neutral time and place,” says Dulcinea Pitagora, an NYC-based psychotherapist and sex researcher. “So, not right before, during, or after sex. This way, no one feels pressured to disclose or to not disclose out of fear of being ‘unsexy.’ If you tell someone that you’d like to talk about your triggers and ask them if and they’re up for it, and they reply by saying they’re not — I recommend not having sex with them until they are.” Ultimately, not having sex you’re completely comfortable with will likely limit its pleasure potential.
Pitagora says that if the person is up for a conversation about triggers, you can make it a balanced one, so it’s not all about you. “It’s a good idea to also ask the other person about any triggers they might have, and include preferences, curiosities, and hard limits in the conversation,” she says. “Ending on sexual preferences that you both have in common and that steer clear of triggers can be a way to end things on a sexy note.”
Speaking up about your boundaries when it comes to sex doesn’t need to feel like you’re limiting its heat and excitement. Laura Lee Townsend, a California-based clinical therapist, says that instead, it’s an opportunity to move into sharing your sexual desires and preferences with each other. “After you share what you don't like, you could share the things you love, ask for things you want that you're not getting, want more of, or are curious to try,” she says.
Just like with any important conversation though, how you word things will affect how they’re received. “Using ‘I statements’ can be helpful when discussing your needs,” Michelle Smith, a Florida-based psychotherapist, tells Mic. “ For example, instead of saying ‘You always touch my hair and it triggers me,’ you can say something like, ‘I feel anxious when you touch my hair and instead I’d like for you to ‘[fill in the blank with what makes you hot].’
“Focusing on the feelings that come up for you and providing an alternative to the triggering behavior gives a platform for you to discuss the issue further with your partner,” Smith says. ‘I statements’ are crucial for ensuring that no one feels accused in a conversation that can bring up feelings of guilt and shame. “Be specific,” Smith adds. “It’s easy to assume that your partner should know what you like and don’t like; however, unless you have directly addressed that, it’s likely your partner is in the dark regarding your needs. Something that may seem mundane and ‘normal’ for one person may be uncomfortable for another.”
‘I statements’ are crucial for ensuring that no one feels accused in a conversation that can bring up feelings of guilt and shame.
If you’re nervous about how to even get comfortable enough to have a convo about your triggers, Pitagora suggests talking about them with a therapist or a trusted friend first, and even roleplaying the conversation. “Talking about triggers can be triggering, and this way you can see what it feels like in a safe space,” she says. Not only should you prepare for the conversation, she says, but make sure you have a plan for after the conversation. Whether it goes well or not, it could bring up some feelings and it might be helpful to have a friend with a blanket and some cheesy movies on standby.
In my experience, all of this effort really pays off. Honestly, I have never had a bad experience discussing my triggers with a partner. I have always felt better about myself and my partner afterwards. “This is about getting comfortable communicating about sex and about challenging things. It not only helps mutual healing, but it sets a precedent and models behavior that will hopefully be carried forward into future interactions,” Pitagora says. Done right, conversations about triggers can be like a sexy, enthusiastic consent-based version of negotiating. Not exactly foreplay, but not a cold shower either.