Navigating Sex After Trauma
Updated: Nov 24, 2022
Many people who have been through trauma are extremely hesitant about sexual activity. It’s important to note that it is not only survivors of sexual trauma that may struggle with navigating sex after trauma. This can happen as a result of any trauma. Survivors may worry about enjoying sex, becoming overwhelmed by memories of trauma, feeling safe, their partner doing things which upset them or any number of other things. These are valid fears, but there are many things that can be done to have a better chance of sexual encounters going well. A history of trauma may mean some changes in what you do in bed or how you prepare beforehand, but it does not at all mean that sex can’t still be really good.
One of the first things to remember is that regardless of your history, with or without trauma, consent is a necessary part of sexual activity. If there is not a freely given yes, consent has not been given. However, it is a lot more complicated than simply needing a freely-given yes. It is also really important to know that consent can be withdrawn at any time, even in the middle of a sexual act. Please see our “what is consent” page for more information.
Questions to ask yourself to help determine whether you’re ready
Everyone is different and there is no sure way to know whether you are ready or not, but here are some questions that might help you sit down with yourself to explore this.
Do you feel safe with the person you are considering having sex with?
When you think about having sex, how do you feel? If the answer is panicked, uncomfortable, scared or any other negative emotion, it might be best to come back to this at a later time.
Why do you want to have sex? If it’s due to pressures from someone else, or even societal expectations, it’s best to stop and be sure that it’s because it’s what you want.
Are you able to talk about sex with the person you want to have sex with? (Includes things like boundaries, STIs, birth control, etc)
The answers to these questions may not be enough information to decide whether you are ready, but hopefully they will be a start that helps you to figure it out for yourself. One of things that can help to find answers is communication with your potential sexual partner.
Communication is incredibly important when you are sexually involved with someone. The categories after this are “before” “during” and “after” sexual activity. Communication is discussed separately because there should be communication happening during all these stages.
Before you do anything sexual with someone, it is a good idea to talk about your boundaries and the issues you may have with sexual activity. You may want to talk about your trauma, but it’s completely okay if you are not comfortable talking about it or just do not want to do so. With that being said, it is probably a good idea to at least talk about some of the ways your trauma might affect what happens, such as if you might freeze up or have trouble speaking or worry about being triggered in some way. If you are not comfortable speaking to someone about having sex and possible boundaries, they may not be the right person to explore the bedroom with.
It is possible that someone may feel panicked or triggered during sexual encounters, and as a result, may freeze. It is a good idea to come up with a non verbal signal for “stop” in cases where someone is concerned that they may become stressed, panicked or otherwise unable to verbally say “stop.”
It’s also a good idea to plan for multiple check-ins during your activity, as this helps with potential situations where a person may freeze entirely and be unable to use even non-verbal signals to communicate. There can be a way to do this in a “sexy” and fun way that doesn’t break the mood. For example, you can ask your partner to check in with you by saying a variety of things like “does this feel good?” or “talk dirty to me.” It’s important that your partner understands that not getting a signal, verbal or otherwise, may indicate that you are experiencing a “freeze” response and that it’s better safe than sorry for them to stop all activity immediately. If possible, having a plan for “freeze” responses is ideal. These plans may include grounding techniques or ways for your partner to help calm and ground you.
It’s okay if you are not ready for certain things, but feel you may be ready in the future. It’s okay if there are certain things you feel you will never be willing to do. It’s okay if you are ready for things and then later decide you are not ready for the same things. It’s okay if you are ready to do things with one person but not with another person. It’s okay to say no to some things, or to everything. It’s okay to say “stop” at any point during sexual activity. It is good to communicate with any potential partner about all of these things. Clearly set boundaries are beneficial to everyone involved. If you hesitate to tell a potential partner about something you do not feel ready to do because you feel like they may not take it well, that may be a signal to consider whether they are the right person to do this with.
Before sexual activity
There are many things you can do before sexual activity in order to improve your chances of having it go well. Some of these are things you can do with your potential partner, but one of the things that might be most helpful is to explore things by yourself and figure out what feels good for you. You may find it beneficial to be able to communicate about that to any potential partner.
Another extremely important thing to do is to make sure you feel safe with the person, especially if you have had sexual trauma. Feeling emotionally safe is important. While this is something that seems to be more likely within a relationship, it is definitely possible with casual encounters and one-night stands. A lot of times, feeling heard and respected can go a long way. Having a level of physical comfort with the person you are planning sex with could also be very helpful. If you are in a relationship with them, you may want to spend time beforehand with each other’s bodies in non-sexual ways like dancing or cuddling.
During sexual activity
There are a lot of potential pitfalls to be avoided when having sex with someone else, especially if one or more people have trauma. One useful thing to remember is that other than the need for consent, there is no rulebook for how sex “must” happen. While many media portrayals may suggest certain conditions or acts that are necessary, there is no actual requirement beyond what the people involved decide to do.
This means that if you do not want to do some of the things that are often shown as being done by people before they have sex, you do not have to do them. For instance, many people like to kiss as they are working their way up to sex (whether in the long term, like days beforehand, or the short term, like minutes beforehand) but many others do not like to kiss. This also applies to other acts described as sexual but less “serious” than sex, such as touching each other in sexual ways, or oral sex. Some people like to take all their clothes off before sex, but others may prefer to keep a shirt, and/or other clothes on. Also, many movie scenes of sex show it being done in the dark, but this is not at all necessary. Having the lights off could be actively triggering for trauma survivors. If you choose to have the lights on brightly, that’s completely fair and reasonable.
Trauma can also cause physical issues with sex. One of these potential issues is vaginismus, a condition where the vagina tightens involuntarily in reaction to an insertion. This may be any insertion, including a tampon, or it may only be some insertions. This condition can make penetrative sex extremely painful. It can develop after trauma even if a person has previously enjoyed that type of sex. There are several possible methods of treatment. If you are concerned that you may have vaginismus, you may wish to consult a doctor. A therapist may also be able to help. Another potential issue is erectile dysfunction. Again, consulting a doctor or therapist may be useful in treating this condition. One other issue is that some say it can be harder to reach an orgasm after trauma, and focusing on that might add to stress. Focusing on current pleasure over orgasm might help. It should also be noted that even without any experience of trauma, many people with vaginas rarely or never have vaginal orgasms - so difficulty in orgasming may have nothing to do with trauma.
After sexual activity
There may be unexpected responses to the ending of sexual activity. Even if the activity was good and fun, some people may experience a mood drop. This may have nothing to do with your actual mood and everything to do with the chemistry involved in intense activities like sex. It does not mean that the experience was bad. During these activities, chemicals such as adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and oxytocin may all be mixing together in the brain to make you feel extremely good. After sex, levels of these chemicals in the brain can drop, sometimes very quickly. This is what causes a mood drop.
In trauma survivors, there may also be a feeling that they are somehow “dirty” or “wrong” for what they just did. It may be important to plan for time afterwards. Some people find cuddling with their partner can help with the emotions, whereas some people prefer to practice their own self-care and self soothe instead. Some people even have a “self care” box for after that includes a variety of things that may be helpful. Some examples may include: a comfort item, a tasty treat (like chocolate), a favourite movie or other calming things. If there are things that your partner can say or do to help, make sure to communicate that with them.
Other things to consider
There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of problems in sexual activity caused by trauma, but there are many ways to reduce the risk. On top of the points discussed above, here are some other suggestions:
When you are considering what might happen during sex, come up with a plan for what you and/or your partner can do if you are triggered, in order to ground you or otherwise help you get through it. Be patient with yourself. You may think you will be able to do things but find that you freeze, or react badly. You may stop things and later think “I could have pushed past that” - but it’s much easier to say that in hindsight than to decide on the right way to go in the moment. If you’re unsure in the moment, being more cautious is probably the safer choice, but you have control and should be the only one who decides. (Side note - if your partner cannot be patient with you, it might be best to re-examine that relationship.)
If you are seeing a therapist, you may want to talk about this with them. They may be able to help you work through your motivation for activity and help you to decide if you are ready or not. If you already had been sexually active when your trauma happened, it is possible what works for you will change, and that’s okay.
At the end of the day, remember that it’s okay to enjoy sex. But it’s also okay if you don’t enjoy sex. You should never feel pressured in any way to participate in sexual situations and it’s really valid if you aren’t ready - or if you are never ready.