The Mighty Logo

How This Childhood Game Could Help With Intimacy for Assault Survivors

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

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.

In my article “5 Things That Can Make Sex Better (Or at Least More Tolerable) For Sexual Assault Survivors,” I mention boundaries as being critical to making sexual intimacy feel safer for sexual assault survivors. But how do we convey those boundaries? And more importantly, how do we even know what those boundaries are?

• What is PTSD?

I admit that the thing that took me the longest to figure out was what felt good or bad to me where sex is concerned. Because of my sexual abuse and my mothers covert incest, the typical exploratory period that most adolescents go through where sex is concerned was something I skipped. My template for sex was defined by the abuse and by the parameters established by my mother as to what was expected of me as a woman in our culture. Add to this the shame I felt because my body did what it was designed to do which is to experience arousal during my abuse, the wires in my brain associating what feels good with what feels terrifying got completely crossed.

The first stage of reclaiming my sense of what does or doesn’t feel good was to do what is called “sensate focus.” Sensate focus is a systematic approach to reintroducing sex with a partner that involves a very slow and deliberate set of exercises designed to reduce anxiety and reconnect with one’s bodily sensations. The exercises start with very basic touching that is completely nonsexual and works up to sexual intimacy over the course of a long period of time. We did these exercises for several months while I slowly learned to calm my nervous system enough to stay present and conscious of my bodily cues.

Between that and obvious triggers that directly related to my sexual abuse, I slowly developed a template of activities that I was and was not willing to engage in as far as sex was concerned. At my therapist’s brilliant suggestion, I created a simple color coded chart that I wrote out for my husband to reference based on the idea of the game “Red Light, Green Light.” In the “red light” category I included things that are absolutely off limits and I know will cause me to dissociate or trigger my freeze response. In the “green light” category I included things I know I enjoy. These can be simple things like hugs, holding hands, or cuddling. We also included a “yellow light” section. In this group I put down things that may be OK on one day but not on another and that will require my husband to ask directly for consent so I have the opportunity to determine whether or not I’m in the correct frame of mind and body to engage.

The beauty of this list, especially for my husband, was that it took the guesswork out of sex for him. He has the list hanging from his corkboard in our room to reference in case he forgets, but it’s pretty much been committed to memory. It has really allowed me to just focus on my own experience without worrying that my husband will inadvertently illicit a trauma response from me, saving us both from feeling anxiety about sexual intimacy.

Two key things about this approach:

1. The list can and will change.

As you become more comfortable with sexual intimacy, some items may move from yellow to green, or from red to yellow. Conversely, as you have new memories or discover what does and does not feel good, you may take some things off the Green list and shift them to Yellow or Red. You can always rewrite the list and give your partner a copy of the edited list.

2. What is or is not included in this list is completely up to you.

There is absolutely no moral or ethical judgment as long as the sexual intimacy is occurring between two consenting adults. Be as playful and creative as you would like within the parameters of what you are comfortable and safe with.

This method of establishing your sexual intimacy boundaries has worked like a charm for me and my husband. For myself in particular, it helped me communicate nonverbally my “brakes” and “accelerators” without too much discussion. It’s also an opportunity to really take the power and control over your sexual experience back into your own hands. Your trauma, media, social and religious ideologies, and cultural expectations are completely irrelevant in this modality. All that counts is you, your comfort and your partner’s willingness to let you dictate what you consent to. It’s a game (and sex) changer.

Getty image by Alessandro Biascioli

Originally published: March 23, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home