I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out where and how to welcome pleasure in my life as a survivor. How to go from flinching at a partner’s touch to feeling at home in my body. How to accept that maybe I’ll never stop flinching, but I can at least start feeling.
Everyone’s journey is different. Some of the things that have helped me over the years might not be useful for you, and that’s okay. Part of healing is discovering what works for you.
- Being Both Gentle and Honest With Myself
Like a vast majority of survivors, I can’t heal on my own, and I can’t rely solely on my partner for support (especially when they don’t have any experience with this kind of trauma.) While it’s been difficult to trust the value of being vulnerable with strangers, it’s been so important for me. Therapy, support groups, and even blogging has allowed me to vent, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and feel supported in my survivor journey.
It’s taken me a while to recognize that the framing that works for me is I am not broken, but I am changed. What happened to me didn’t break or dirty me – but it did change who I am, the relationship I have with sex, and the relationships I have with other people. While I’m on a journey towards healing, “healing” doesn’t mean “going back to normal,” healing means finding ways of doing things that make me feel safe, and establishing boundaries for things that make me feel unsafe.
I’ve had to accept that my sex life will be different: different than how I imagined it, different than what it was before, different than my or my partners’ expectations… I have many examples (I don’t like having spontaneous sex, receiving light/tickling touches, or having my lean over me), but the most obvious is my trauma-caused vaginismus. I rarely have vaginal penetration during sex, and it’s limited to very small dildos with minimal thrusting. Vaginismus definitely wasn’t part of the sex life I once fantasized about. But I’ve explored, experienced, and have come to prioritize so many other pleasures through the years. My sex life is different, but it’s not lacking.
Sometimes, my sexual boundaries will change. It’s okay to not be okay with something, even if I was okay with it before. In Pursuing Sexual Intimacy with Sexual Assault Survivors, I talked about fluctuating comfort zones: “Suddenly I’m unable to stomach some of the things I’ve spent years reacquainting myself with as part of the affirming journey I’ve chosen (and everyone’s journey and goals are different.) Sometimes the bad day fades and I’m cautiously back on track; other times, I have to start all over… or decide that, perhaps, it was a hard limit after all.” Shifting boundaries aren’t necessarily a sign of “regression,” they’re a sign that you’re recognizing your changing needs.
- Continuing to Prioritize Pleasure
Masturbation is an important part of my survivor self-care (and self-care in general.) Masturbation gives me positive, low-pressure experiences with sex and pleasure that remind me that I’m still a sexual being, and my body and the things I can do with it are under my control. “[Masturbation] can be an intimate, affirming activity, allowing you to deepen your connection to your body and sensuality,” I wrote in Choosing Celibacy Doesn’t Mean.... I can explore new things and investigate my ever-changing preferences, which allows me to better communicate my needs to partners.
Communicating my desires is just as important as communicating my boundaries. If I have a hot fantasy or think my partner is looking or behaving in a way that turns me on, I’ll tell them about it. If I feel like giving someone a spanking, or getting a strap-on blowjob, or having my neck kissed, I’ll tell them about it. If I don’t feel like sharing the thought with my partner specifically, sometimes I’ll tweet about it (it’s 2020, everyone’s horny on main), blog about it, or just spend some time mulling it over in my head. It’s empowering to acknowledge my sexual desires, and it reminds me that I have ownership over my sexuality.
I consume (ethical) porn whenever the mood strikers. This means I pay for my porn through subscriptions like CrashPad Series or Filthy Figments, purchase directly from sex workers and adult content creators, or pursue ethically free options like fanfiction sites for erotica. (I like knowing artists and performers are being compensated for their work, and that the porn was created consensually. I can’t get that reassurance from tube sites built around pirated content.) Like masturbation, porn – whether it’s clips, comics, games, or erotica – gives me a safe space to explore my sexual interests.
Pleasure comes in many forms, and not all of it is sexual. As I detailed in Choosing Celibacy Doesn’t Mean..., there are many forms of self-care and sensory-seeking that can be incredibly pleasurable. I love napping under an umbrella at the beach, taking long baths, and writing with fine point pens. Non-sexual pleasure seeking is just as important to me as masturbation, because it normalizes prioritizing pleasure for the sake of it, and helps me feel at home in my body and my feelings.
- Communicating With My Partner
Saying no, and having that no be respected without hesitation. “If a survivor says “I don’t want to do that,” or “that sex act is a hard limit for me,” you need to respect that – as you should with any lover,” I wrote in Pursuing Sexual Intimacy with Sexual Assault Survivors. “Trying to heckle or convince a survivor that their boundaries should be more flexible (“you can trust me”) is not only cruel and selfish, it also mirrors tactics used by rapists. Assaults aren’t just random dark alley attacks; sometimes, they’re a loved one not accepting a no.” The more I’ve managed to say no (and it took some practice), the more comfortable I’ve become with intimacy, because I know I won’t be second-guessed if we approach one of my boundaries or I change my mind. It’s much easier to try something when I know I can stop any time.
Sharing my boundaries as I learn them or as they change. Saying “no” is establishing a boundary in the moment, and it’s definitely important – but so is having and communicating consistent boundaries. For example, I will probably never be someone who initiates or agrees to sex spontaneously. I need time to mentally prepare myself for that kind of vulnerability. I’ve always been up-front with partners about this. Movies, television, and social media glamorize the idea of “getting caught up in the moment,” as though abrupt displays of passion are the only way to turn up the heat. (It’s definitely not!) Verbalizing this boundary makes me feel safer because I know my partner won’t spring sex on me and destabilize my trust in our intimacy.
Giving positive feedback and asking for positive reinforcement. I’ll admit, a lot of sex talk between my partner and I is based on boundaries and “no”s. It’s important to balance that out with talking about things we both enjoy, celebrating healing milestones (but not being ashamed if I decide not to do something again), and enthusiastically recounting and praising fun and pleasurable experiences. Sex isn’t about what you can’t or won’t do (though it’s important to be clear about those things), it’s about shared pleasure, whatever that might look like when accounting for everyone involved. Tell a partner you love what they do with their mouth. Ask them what they enjoyed most about a recent quickie. Exchange compliments!
Taking an active role in negotiating sex. During times of struggle (especially if I’ve been triggered recently), talking about sex is mostly just politely saying no to everything my partner suggests, and both of us feeling uncomfortable. When I’m able, I take the initiative, suggesting things I want to do or at least try. If I’m not comfortable with skin contact, instead of waiting to veto my partner’s ideas, I can start the conversation off by suggesting mutual masturbation with remote/app-controlled toys so we can tease each other. This helps me feel safe and in control, and it reassures my partner that I do want sex, and I do desire them.