By columnist Diana Pearson
Q: My last relationship was abusive and there was an instance of sexual violence. Since then, I have a found a new caring and understanding partner, but because of my past trauma, I feel I can’t give my new partner oral pleasure because my throat will close up unexpectedly. I have had panic attacks even though I know my partner is respectful, loving, and understanding of my limits. Do you have any tips on coping with and overcoming this past sexual trauma?
A: I am sorry to hear you’ve gone through this. Sexual trauma provokes symptoms such as dissociation, avoidance, flashbacks, feelings of guilt/shame, fear, emotional numbing, and problems with orgasm. Your throat closing up is an expression of your body’s physical and psychological trauma.
Time, space, slowness, care, and mindfulness are all essential as you heal from your ex’s actions. If you haven’t already, you might like to check out VIU’s Wellness Clinic (bldg. 200) which offers free counselling to students. If you’re looking for healing work, I highly encourage you to check out sexological bodywork with Elfi Dillon-Shaw on Gabriola Island.
It’s wonderful that your new partner is respectful, understanding, and loving. Sex, when practiced respectfully, is a communication between two or more people; I hope your new relationship will be an opportunity to re-build feelings of trust and intimacy which were compromised by your ex’s actions. You might also consider seeking support from a trusted friend or family member. Thank your new partner for their patience, and ask for continued patience as you re-build a safe sexual environment together.
Have you considered writing a list of sexual boundaries together? What about making a list of YES, NO, and MAYBE sexual activities? Taking time to write these lists with your partner will bring you both awareness of the pace at which you’d like to re-build safety in sex. Ask for reassurance from your partner that saying “no” at any point is welcomed and taken seriously. Revisiting sexual memories could be painful, and writing a list might be too. Be gentle on yourself as you work slowly towards healing.
Sexual trauma can be triggered by a specific sexual act, sex position, smell, sensation, word, or phrase. If you experience this, stop, and take time to identify that trigger. Start slow. When you’re ready to perform oral sex, you might ask your partner to keep his hands back. Choosing a position that puts you in a dominant position might be helpful as well.
Practicing mindfulness is often recommended by sex therapists as a way to re-connect with your body’s pleasures. Mindfulness involves paying attention to your thoughts, your bodily sensations, and it can be very helpful in sexual activity. You can practice mindfulness while doing a physical activity such as walking, swimming, doing yoga, or eating a piece of chocolate. You might also try this in a sexual situation: how about a quiet night to yourself to explore your body? Masturbation could be a really great way to re-connect with your body’s arousal process, and doing this solo means you are in control.
It is absolutely possible to bounce back from sexual trauma. Some statistics say it takes on average three months, but everyone’s healing journey is different.
Healing Sex: A Mind-body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma (2007) by Stacie Haines
Finding and Revealing Your Sexual Self: A Guide to Communicating about Sex by Libby Bennett and Ginger Holczer (in particular, chapter 3). Bonus: this is available for students through VIU Library!
Applying direct or indirect force to a sexual partner without their consent is classified as sexual assault under Canada’s Criminal Code (read more at sexassault.ca). Feeling like you cannot say no because of your partner’s controlling behaviours is a technique called coercive control. This experience highlights the statistic that only 50 percent of acts of sexual violence between spouses, and a meager 10 percent between non-spouses, are reported to police. If you are in crisis, do not hesitate to call Nanaimo’s Haven Society 24 Hour Crisis Line at 1-888-756-0616.
What are your thoughts on Dirtyin’ The Nav so far? What conversations about sex are you having with your friends? Which sex-related topics don’t get enough attention? I want to hear from you! Send your questions, concerns, and curiosities about sex and sexuality to me (Diana) via firstname.lastname@example.org. My goal is to start open, inclusive, and exploratory conversations about sex. Not to worry–your questions will remain anonymous and confidential.