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5 Tips for Staying Present During Sex as a Sexual Assault Survivor

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

I’ve procrastinated writing this article because it’s one of the most difficult and delicate subjects to discuss where sex for sexual assault survivors is concerned. There’s a lot of anger, shame, and frustration wrapped up in the inability to enjoy sex or to even stay present in the moment. I never really identified how much I was dissociating during sex until my memories of sexual abuse started resurfacing and I would become completely dysregulated by triggers during sex.

Understanding how you can be intimate without being completely there was a source of grief for both me and my husband. We had to spend a lot of time sorting through those hard feelings, and frankly, it sucked. There’s no way around it except through. Being in that space of reconciling that the sex we did have for the first 18 years of marriage with the newfound recognition I had been dissociating hurt deeply. I still grapple with not taking responsibility for the hurt it has caused my husband because ultimately the only person who deserves to be blamed is my abuser.

First, before I move forward, I want to make completely clear that this process takes time. You can’t even begin to reengage with sex until you’ve adequately processed your abuse or assault. For me, that was about four years of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and intense trauma work with a trauma therapist until I could get to the point where I truly believed the abuse wasn’t my fault and I could have the memories without immediately experiencing flashbacks or emotional dysregulation. There’s no way to fast-track it so don’t push yourself to try until you are ready or you will likely re-traumatize yourself. And once you do begin the process, even if you are starting to feel less triggered during sex, you may still have good and bad days. You can’t completely undo what happened to you, but you can learn to manage your triggers and thoughts around the trauma which will ultimately enable you to not jump ship so to speak during sexual intimacy.

Without further ado, here are my top five suggestions for how to stay present during sex as a sexual assault survivor:

1. Communicate your signs of dissociation to your partner.

This feels super vulnerable and icky. I know it does. I was so embarrassed about it that I’d just be mute and deal with feeling triggered initially because I didn’t want to seem like I was “broken,” a feeling I felt often. But for the experience to be safe, your partner needs to be attuned to your body language, facial expressions, and shifts in how you inhabit space. Articulating what dissociation feels like for you can help your partner notice if you are drifting off. This allows them to either stop or to ask you questions to ascertain if you are OK. I cannot over emphasize how helpful this is.

2. Establish a safe word to help communicate if you’re beginning to shut down during sex.

It may be hard to fully state you aren’t OK, but saying “blueberries” or whatever word you choose as a cue you are starting to dissociate can help your partner know you need to stop.

3. It’s OK to stop or say “no” in the middle of sex.

I fought this tooth and nail because I didn’t want to let my husband down. But, ultimately, my job in that moment is to keep myself safe and that means I have to be “selfish” in the “self-preservation” way. Until you can recognize your needs come first, you can’t truly experience sex in a meaningful, safe way.

4. Repeat a mantra to yourself.

For me, shame surrounding sex was and still continues to be a challenge. I sometimes feel disgusted with myself if something feels good. I immediately go into self-deprecation or self-flagellation, which by its nature means I’m too preoccupied in my own thoughts of being “gross” or “yucky” to be present. Repeating “sex is normal” or “sex is healthy,” or “I deserve to feel pleasure” to myself can help me keep those intrusive thoughts from creeping into bed with us.

5. Focus intently and deliberately to the sensations in your body during sex.

Honestly, this particular one was excruciating in the beginning. We actually had a couples session where I described what was going on in my head during sex to keep me from dissociating and the therapist said, “That sounds exhausting. No wonder you don’t want to do it often.” He was right. But it was a necessary part of the process for me. It literally goes something like this: “His hand is on X body part. Does that feel good or not? If not, move his hand. He’s kissing me here. Does that feel good? Yes or no? I’m not sure. I can’t tell. Is my body tense or am I relaxing? Tense. OK. How can I release that tension? Deep breath. Does it help to keep my eyes open and to look at him? No. That’s distracting and making me self-conscious. Close your eyes. Does the smell of something bother me? No. Does that hurt? A little. How can I adjust so that it doesn’t hurt?” Etc, etc. I can hear the gears in your brain reading through this turning and thinking, “That sounds miserable and like no fun at all.” Sometimes it can be, but as time goes on, with practice, it’s less… noisy in my brain and more instinctual.

All of this sounds super unromantic and for a time your partner might sense that you are very uninvolved, like it’s a one-sided thing. I had to explain it’s not that I’m not involved, it’s just that I can’t focus on his pleasure when I’m too busy making sure I’m OK and staying present. It has nothing to do with his attractiveness, worth, lovability, or prowess as a lover. Frankly, none of that is even a part of the equation in that moment.

I know this might appear to be somewhat deflating, hopeless, or like way too much effort. That’s how I felt in the beginning, too. If I’m completely honest, I often thought, “If I never have sex again that would be fine with me. I’m tired if feeling like a complete failure.” But that wasn’t an option for two reasons. One being I love my husband and physical intimacy is his love language. He has been so patient, kind, loving, and willing to put in the work to learn how to navigate my trauma with me by my side that it  was important to me to figure this out for him.

The second reason? I deserve to be a fully sensual human being and that includes experiencing pleasure in my body without shame. The ultimate “fuck you” to my abuser is to take power back over my body and to choose pleasure over pain. I’m still a work in progress, but I’ve come a long way and I promise you can, too.

Getty image by gilaxia

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