What is Trauma-Informed Sex?
Content Warning: This Article Discusses Sexual Trauma and Abuse. Please read with caution if this is a triggering topic for you.
Sometimes things happen in our lives that create pain, shame, or blame. When these events alter our perception of the world in a way that disconnects us or keeps us from feeling safe in our environment or bodies, they may be considered trauma. The event itself doesn’t dictate whether or not it was traumatic, instead, it’s how the individual responds to it and recovers.
There are many different types of trauma including abuse, sexual trauma, injuries, accidents, etc. These events can sometimes lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. This can cause people who have experienced a traumatic event to feel stressed and frightened, even if there is no danger present.
People who have PTSD can be triggered by anything that reminds them of the initial event. This could lead them to feel anxious, disassociate, or have panic attacks.
The Six Guiding Principles
“Trauma-Informed Care” is a term that is typically used in medical and mental health fields, but can also be applied to social work, education, and really any other setting. This approach acknowledges the widespread impact and symptoms of trauma, while actively integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. It also includes actively avoiding re-traumatization.
This is influenced by six guiding principles:
- Trustworthiness and Transparency
- Peer Support
- Humility and Responsiveness
You might see how these principles could be applicable in an intimate setting. But how exactly does that carry over to your sex life?
Let’s take a look.
Life Influences Our Sex Lives
As enjoyable as sex can be, it can also be a source of anxiety, triggering, or fear for people, especially those who have experienced trauma.
Our sex lives are not isolated from the rest of our lives. What we experience or live with on a daily basis gets carried into the bedroom.
Navigating sex with PTSD can feel difficult or nearly impossible. You may want and crave affection and pleasure, but there seems to be a block when you’re actually doing it, even with people you know and trust. You may numb out, feel outside of your body, or experience pain or anxiety.
Sex should not be a source of stress.
There are ways to navigate your sex life to help you support your nervous system so that you can experience pleasure, not anxiety.
How to Practice Trauma-Informed Sex
Having an understanding of how trauma can influence your sex life is a great start, but you still need practical tools to help as you move forward.
Understand and Practice Consent
While consent is nuanced and changes from situation to situation, it is necessary for any sexual encounter.
It’s not uncommon for people who have experienced sexual trauma or another form of abuse to agree to sex without actually consenting. They may not know how to say no or discuss their boundaries. This is not any sort of personality flaw, but a natural reaction to having experienced trauma.
Understanding the importance of consent allows all sexual partners to enthusiastically take part in an intimate act knowing the potential risks, boundaries, and comfort levels of everyone involved.
Discussing consent gives people who have experienced trauma a chance to check in with themselves to see if they truly do want to have sex or engage in some sexual act.
Consent is necessary for anyone who has sex but is crucial when it comes to having trauma-informed sex.
Boundaries in sex are limits that should not be crossed.
Keep in mind that boundaries can change over time. It’s ok to remove boundaries, as well as implement new ones.
Knowing your boundaries and discussing them with your partner can help prevent you from feeling triggered by a particular act or sensation during sex. Boundaries can include not touching certain body parts, not doing certain things, or not saying specific words.
You don’t have to tell your sexual partner what happened if you don’t want to, but you may want to disclose what your potential triggers are.
You may even want to implement a code word, much like people do in the kink world. A code word as simple as “jellybean”, will signal to your partner that whatever they’re doing isn’t working, and they need to stop immediately. That doesn’t mean that they have done anything wrong. Sometimes you may not realize that something will be triggering, or you get caught up in the heat of the moment.
That’s where codewords come in.
If you’re unclear what your boundaries are, it can help to discuss them with a counselor or sex therapist.
Take Your Time
When you rush through sex it can make it difficult to sink in and adapt to your changes in arousal.
For people who have PTSD, the nervous system might take more time to relax in a sexual setting. This means it could take time for you to feel safe on a physiologically level so that you can fully enjoy yourself.
Take your time, listen to your body’s signals, and communicate with your partner. There is no rush.
There are so many ways to practice and explore intimacy outside of whatever you consider sex to be. Exploring other kinds of intimacy, especially with a new partner, can help you develop a sense of trust and safety with them.
Other forms of intimacy can include:
It’s Ok to Stop
Something to keep in mind when navigating trauma-informed sex is that you don’t have to do it if it’s not working for you. You don’t owe anyone anything sexually, and it’s ok to stop at any point in time.
You Are Worthy
Sex after trauma can be difficult, but it is more than possible to have a thriving, juicy, abundant sex life. If your partner does not support these practices or tries to rush you or pressure you, you may want to reconsider who you’re sharing yourself with.
You are worthy of all the safe and sensual pleasure your heart and body desire.
Natasha (she/her) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.