On this week’s podcast we answered a question about how to deal with trauma responses on a hook up. A content note up front is that this episode does cover issues of sexual abuse/assault and trauma responses/PTSD. So if those things are live for you right now you might want to think about whether you want to listen or not. FYI we don’t go into any description of abuse or assault, we do have a bit more detail about possible trauma responses (fight, flight, and freeze) and what those can look like.
The questioner says…
I’ve been recovering from ptsd and recently started to try to hook up with people again. I think that I want casual sex but I don’t want to disclose my mental health/past trauma to people I don’t really know either. It’s something that feels difficult/embarrassing/negative to talk about with new people and on top of that it’s something very personal and private and I need to really trust people before I talk about it.
I’ve found having sex sometimes certain actions/words/positions send me into a zone where either I’m terrified of getting flashbacks or I do get flashbacks and I just can’t speak or move to stop things – I totally freeze – I realise this is horrible for everyone. What are my options here? Should I just forget casual sex?
Here are our thoughts spoken out loud
And here they are written down
Having triggers around sex is common
First it’s important to remember that you’re not unusual for having triggers around sex. Sadly given just how common sexual abuse and assault are, many people will have some traumatic past experiences – and some aspects of sex that trigger them. And, of course, triggers don’t just happen in relation to sex. If you factor in experiences like school bullying, tough experiences at home, and emotional abuse in relationships then probably the vast majority of us will have some triggers, which can come up during sex or other kinds of encounters.
There are a range of contexts in which you can have sex
If hook-ups feel too risky because you don’t want to have a conversation with relative strangers about where you’re at with this, then it’s worth expanding out all of the other contexts in which sex might be possible and talking might feel safer. Maybe think about what it is about hook-ups which particularly appeal. Might some of those things be possible in, for example, a friends-with-benefits or fuckbuddy arrangement? Some people who’ve experienced sexual trauma really enjoy solo sex in groups, or with one other person present, because it has the element of being with somebody else, without some of the risks of getting triggered when actually having sex with another person. Some sex positive, kink, and sacred sex communities have more of a culture of being able to talk about this kind of thing with people you hook-up with, if you do prefer being with people you don’t know well.
Consider engaging in some form of body work
Another really helpful option for people who’ve been through sexual trauma is to engage in some form of body or touch-based therapy or healing practices. It sounds from your question like maybe you’ve already had some kind of talking therapy or mental health support. There are a range of practices like body psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, sexological body work, and some forms of sex work where you can work directly on the body with a practitioner. This can be really helpful for exploring and understanding trigger responses with somebody who won’t freak out, and working directly with trauma which is trapped in the body. There are also some group-based workshop options for this kind of exploration. Here’s a few helpful links if you want to explore this more. Do make sure that you check out the practitioner – that they are well thought of in the community and that you feel safe with them:
Think about communication on a spectrum
We totally hear you on not wanting to go into the details of your past experiences or mental health struggles with people you haven’t built up a trusting relationship with. It might be helpful to think about the amount you communicate with others about your experiences on a spectrum. For example, with a hook-up you might not want to share those kinds of details, but perhaps you could have a conversation – in person or online – about what pleasure looks like on your body, and what it looks like when you’re not enjoying it, or when you’re triggered.
This can be helpful particularly around freeze responses as some people going into a sexual trance space or submissive space could look similar – from the outside – to a freeze response. So it’s important to let people know that you going still is definitely a sign they should stop and check in. In general if a partner does freeze during sex stopping and checking in is absolutely what happens because it’s so often a sign that they’re not present any more.
Ideally this conversation about what your body responds like to pleasure, lack of enjoyment, and triggering could be more of a mutual consent conversation where you encourage the other person to share their own answers to these questions too. It could also be a good way to figure out whether you do want to hook-up with them. There’s more on how to have this kind of conversation in our sex manual zine.
Tune into what reactivity is like for you
Before doing this it can be useful to get a clear sense of what it is like for you when you’re triggered or reactive (in that fight, flight, or freeze) place, so that you can communicate to others about what it looks like, and what you need if it happens. Again it is totally fine whatever it looks like, and whatever you need, because we’re all different. Some people cannot be touched when they’re reactive, others really need touch to ground them. Some people absolutely need to be alone and quiet, others need contact and communication. Obviously we can’t predict everything – there will always be things that we get reactive about which we didn’t realise were triggers for us – but it’s useful to build up a sense of what tends to put us in that place, and what usually helps when we are there (for us and for another person). We spoke about this more on the triggers episode of the podcast. Meg-John’s Staying With Feelings zine might also be helpful. This is definitely a useful thing to think about for relationships more broadly, not just for sex.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock