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Q: After my relationship ended with an abusive partner last year, I started dating again, which is good, except I don’t want to have sex with anyone new. When it gets to that point, because of the trauma I’ve experienced in the past with men and sex, I find myself avoiding it at all costs. I’m not sure if this is normal and if I’ll ever get past it, but I’d like to. Any thoughts? – Anon
Well, let me start by validating your experience. Hesitancy to have sex after abuse, especially after sexual abuse, is normal. (And let’s be honest—even without trauma in your past, you might not want to have sex with a new partner for any number of reasons and that’s OK.)
However, after sexual abuse, an aversion to sex can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder which can also include symptoms like generalized anxiety, sleep disturbances and depression. Sometimes these symptoms will dissipate after a few months and sometimes they stick around long-term. There’s no timeline to healing, so it’s important to have patience with yourself and allow as much time as necessary to feel comfortable moving forward in a relationship after abuse.
You might consider the best course of action would be to disclose your past abuse to a potential new partner so they could better understand you going forward, but I talked to psychotherapist Rachel Stanton, founder and director of Counseling in Boston, LLC who works with survivors of sexual trauma, and she says disclosing is dependent on how far into a relationship you are. Do you trust this person enough with the information that they won’t take advantage of your vulnerability? Will they respond in a way that makes you feel safe and validated?
“When you’ve experienced trauma, especially chronic abuse, you’re so focused on the other person. But really, focusing on yourself is the first step,” says Stanton.
Specifically, Stanton says it’s vital to focus on your own level of comfort right now—both physically and mentally—and set appropriate boundaries. Have you tuned into your body when it comes to intimacy? During abuse, it was probably not a priority for you to experience any kind of intimate pleasure, so it might mean starting from scratch here.
“I usually recommend, whenever you’re trying something new, to kind of have an experimental mindset,” says Stanton. “Think: I’m just going to experiment and see, do I like this thing?” And, Anon, no partner is necessary here. A solo experimentation session might take the pressure off of you at first.
“Then you can take that same mindset into a situation with a partner—let’s just play around, let’s try this, let's try that, with a sense that there’s no end goal in mind. You want to create a positive association with arousal.”
During your “experimentation phase,” Stanton says to pay attention to your body’s red-light, yellow-light and green-light boundaries. She describes them as such:
Green Light: You’re experiencing physical arousal but also some mental arousal as well. “Pleasure is not just physical arousal, because that can happen in assault situations as well. So check in with your mind,” she says. Are you feeling present? Excited about what’s next? That’s green-light.
Yellow Light: This might be something like physical arousal but mentally, you’re not really there. You might start to feel disconnected. Or, if with a partner, you could feel that person is not tuned into you. You might also feel mentally into it, but not feel a physical response. It’s important not to override your body’s cues.
Red Light: In red-light situations, you’re not physically or mentally into what’s happening. “That’s really your sign that you should end it,” says Stanton. “It’s not healthy and it’s not helpful. That’s when you can reach the point where you can be retraumatized.”
So what if you’re with a new partner and you find yourself reaching a yellow- or red-light boundary? Stanton says her advice surprises some people.
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“I encourage my patients to lie. I don’t think people think of that as an option. But if you’re not comfortable with the person you’re with and if you’re not feeling safe, you risk freezing up.” In some cases, individuals might just go along with what’s happening because they don’t want to upset the other person. Stanton says to have a lie at the ready. Food poisoning is a good one.
“Like, oh my god, I suddenly feel like I’m going to throw up. It’s an imminent need that allows you to get out of there,” she says.
When you’re in a relationship where a level of safety and trust has been established, you might be more comfortable having the talk ahead of time.
“You can say, sometimes I get anxious during sex. I wonder if there’s something I can say so we can stop. Almost like a safe word. That’s easier than saying, I’m really uncomfortable.”
While, in abuse, you may have learned that sex is something owed your partner, it’s time to unlearn that. Even if married, sex is never a requirement, and any safe and healthy partner will know that. By learning to set sex boundaries that you’re comfortable with, you’ll be able to take back control over what happens to your body and hopefully have an intimate relationship in the future that benefits you.
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