How to Enjoy Sex After Trauma

Sexual trauma impacts many people and can hinder sexual intimacy. Working with a trauma informed therapist can help.

Pleasure, while hibernating for survivors of assault, can be rekindled with the right support. This process is not easy, but it is essential for reclaiming sexuality and healthy relationships.

Survivors can overcome roadblocks to enjoying sex and intimate moments with a supportive partner and therapy that addresses sexual trauma.

1. Know Yourself

Sexual trauma rewires the body’s pleasure circuit. Things that once sparked a feeling of pleasure or arousal might now trigger pain, creating a negative chain reaction. The goal is to rewire the circuit back into something that lights up a little brighter, says sex educator and sexual trauma activist Jimanekia Eborn.

While some survivors might feel a surge of sexual feelings and behaviors that are exciting and arousing, others might have difficulty connecting to their bodies, and may seem more preoccupied with or detached from their body. This is normal, and the journey to enjoying sex again will likely take some time.

Practicing mindfulness, including breathwork and grounding exercises, can help survivors stay present in their body as they begin to explore a range of sensual activities. It’s also helpful for survivors to reintroduce masturbation or solo sex into their routine, and explore new positions and toys that bring them pleasure and connection.

Pleasure—the ability to enjoy oneself and experience enjoyment—is integral to healing from sexual trauma. Desensitizing or numbing feelings of pleasure is a survival strategy that many people need to employ at different points in life, but it is not the same thing as healing from sexual trauma.

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For those who are struggling with pleasure, Eborn recommends creating a “Yes/No/Maybe” list to share with potential partners. This list can include sex acts, toys, and positions that you are open to trying (and those that are off limits) so that your partner has an understanding of what you’re comfortable with.

2. Know Your Partner

Sexual trauma can impact many aspects of intimacy, including relationships and sexual pleasure. Often, survivors struggle to enjoy sex after trauma because they have difficulty trusting their partners and fear that the pain will return. Fortunately, there are ways to develop and nurture healthy, hot sex life again, even if you weren’t previously able to do so.

One way to start is by learning to communicate with your partner about what you like, dislike and are open to exploring in sex. You can use page 1 of our pleasure profile worksheet to help with this, or simply have a conversation that is honest and open. It is also a good idea to talk about your boundaries, and make sure that you both understand that consent can be withdrawn at any time.

In addition, it can be helpful to come up with a plan together for dealing with any potential triggers or flashbacks during sex. This could include using a safe word to signal stopping, or practicing deep breathing to help ground you if necessary.

Finally, it is important to seek therapy and support in order to heal from any traumatic experience. If possible, look for therapists that work on a sliding scale, or check out a local psychology graduate school to see if they have student therapists offering low-fee sessions.

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3. Know Your Boundaries

Sexual trauma can leave survivors with an unclear understanding of consent, as well as a sense of fear around intimate moments. A good therapist can help them define and articulate their boundaries in both sex and non-sex-related situations. Ideally, they will also work with the survivor to address feelings of victim-blaming and other common obstacles to healthy relationships and clear communication.

In the case of a romantic relationship, it’s a great idea for both partners to share their red light and green light boundaries ahead of time so that there is an open dialogue about what works and doesn’t work for both of them. It’s also helpful to make a list or chart that states your boundaries and desires so that you have a quick reference in the event of an argument, says Eborn.

Disclosing sexual trauma to a new partner can be intimidating, especially when it comes to talking about intimacy and sex, as sex is “an act of vulnerability where we’re naked emotionally and physically,” Moulds says. Especially if the abuse happened in childhood, it’s common for survivors to feel like they’re not worthy of pleasure or love. This is why it’s important to be patient with yourself as you reclaim your sexuality and build healthy, loving relationships that honor your needs.

If you’re unsure of where to start, try searching for a therapist who specializes in trauma work or sex therapy, and shop around until you find one that feels right for you. You can also look for therapists that offer sliding scale fees, or reach out to local psychology graduate schools that may have low-fee student training opportunities.

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4. Know Your Triggers

Sexual trauma survivors often report a lack of sexual desire and difficulty becoming physically aroused. This can be exacerbated by an avoidance of intimacy and feelings of shame and fear of connecting to a partner.

Triggers can be any kind of experience or event that activates a memory from a traumatic time in a survivor’s life. They can be evoked by sight, sound, smell, touch or taste. They may lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) behaviors such as nightmares, flashbacks, dissociation or hyper-vigilance. When triggered, it’s important for a person to practice self-soothing techniques such as focusing on their breathing, touching a comforting object around them or doing a simple mental math problem.

In addition to practicing self-soothing skills, people who have survived sexual assault can work with a therapist who is trained in trauma-informed sex and can help them rebuild the circuitry in their bodies that lights up pleasure and arousal, says Jimanekia Eborn, founder of Tending the Garden, a support organization for marginalized sexual-assault survivors. She recommends exploring pleasure profiles, which can be a tool to help survivors identify what they enjoy about sex and intimacy.

She also suggests that partners who are supporting a person recovering from sexual trauma talk with their therapist about what triggers them. She also encourages people to take their time with intimacy, as healing from sexual trauma takes a long time and isn’t always linear.

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