Content note: this post refers to both self-harm and sexual abuse, but doesn’t go into excruciating detail about either, and of course deals with being sex-repulsed as a result of sexual trauma. If that’s gonna be hard for you, give today’s post a miss – as always, your wellbeing comes first! 💙
I don’t exactly keep it a secret that I’ve experienced sexual abuse. There’s no shame in having been subjected to that, and I try to be vocal about the importance of consent and the devastating effects its absence can have. I talk about struggling to masturbate and about PTSD symptoms like anxiety, hypervigilance and self-hatred, both on and offline. But one thing I feel vulnerable and frightened to post about is the sex repulsion that so often accompanies sexual abuse.
Among my friends, I am the sex nerd. I am known for loving sex – having it, learning about it, celebrating its importance and beauty. I started a sex blog because I love to think about and write about sex. The fact that I sometimes experience severe sex repulsion is not exactly in line with this branding; even though “sex-positive” and “sex-repulsed” don’t have to be mutually exclusive, it feels incongruent and, frankly, embarrassing. My personal branding aside, I’m a human adult in 2021 and to admit that there are times I find even hints of sexual activity decidedly icky kind of makes me cringe. I’m also worried about lending credence to the perception of all promiscuous people as traumatised individuals who secretly hate sex, and themselves for having it, because there are people who have a lot of sex simply because they really like it. Typically, I am one of those people.
Except when I’m not.
There is nothing about experiencing trauma-related sex repulsion that makes you less sex positive. Our brains are great at finding and remembering patterns; the traumatised brain will link various sensory experiences to memories of abuse, so that the same suffering can be avoided in the future. Fear of, or being grossed out by, sex in response to trauma is common and it’s your brain trying to keep you safe, regardless of your values regarding sexual freedom that exist separately from all that. Going through this doesn’t mean you’re weak and it doesn’t mean you’re permanently doomed to be afraid of sex, either; time as well as counselling and other mental health support can help you to tackle that, if it’s something you’d like to work on. With work, you can decouple the sensory experiences of sex from the abject terror and ickiness associated with your trauma, so you can return to enjoying sex (when and if you want to). I know all of this, and I say it to you compassionately, but I struggle to believe it when I say it to myself.
It sneaks up on me. I find my interest in sex education-y content waning, but chalk it up to unusually-limited processing power, and wanting to “save that for when I’ll actually absorb the information”. When my fiancée, who I live with, suggests sex or kink things, I end up giving her a thousand reasons why “not tonight” – I’m tired, my joints hurt, I just ate and my stomach is still full, anything that makes it clear it’s nothing to do with her or my attraction to her. I kind of convince myself that the reason I give her is the only reason, because I don’t want to dig into why sex and kink seem unappealing. I ignore porn on my Twitter timeline and assume it’s because, you know, there’s a lot of porn around and I’m looking for news. Eventually, though, I run out of excuses, or get tired of making them, and I acknowledge that I am experiencing a problem. It becomes apparent that the thought of sex makes me increasingly anxious, and that my own arousal in particular triggers a desire to just turn inside out, escape my own body somehow. Trying to engage with sex and kink when I’m in this state is likely to give rise to thoughts of self-harm, and/or dissociation. And then I have to ask myself: do I care?
Once I’m sufficiently sex-repulsed, usually through a refusal to address whatever is triggering me, sex is scary and gross on an animal level, and it takes effort to walk my brain back to a state of neutrality around it. I realised recently that one of the reasons I typically immerse myself in sex ed materials and kinky communities is so that I can’t reach the level of disconnect I’m currently at, and can instead maintain near-constant contact with the bit of my brain that actually likes and is not scared of sex. Once I’m this far out to sea, though, I’m well aware of how much effort it will take me to swim back, and I’m too disconnected from the liking-sex part of me to actually want to put that effort in, because I can only understand on the most abstract of levels that I will enjoy sex again, but that the longer I wait the harder it is. The more often I’m triggered by sex or kink things, the more closely my brain links sex and suffering, as is always the case with encountering triggers outside of a very purposeful interaction with them. It’s therefore necessary for me to find ways to encounter sex/kink things without spending the whole interaction in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode, if I can actually find the motivation to arrange those encounters.
So what now? Well, tonight I’m going to a very familiar kink event populated by very familiar people, with the option of hiding or leaving if needs be. Things which are specifically sex-related are really challenging for me to engage with, but the biggest challenge is engaging with my own arousal, so I think a good first step for me is to engage with educational media rather than strictly erotic media. Hopefully, the familiar educators whose content I follow will reassure my brain that sex is not a faraway scary thing, but a familiar and safe part of my life. From there, I also have to, at some point, try to actually do sex things with my actual body. I can’t even contemplate having solo sex yet, so I imagine I’ll end up doing some kink things with my fiancée that maybe do or maybe don’t escalate into sex-and-kink things, since she is also very familiar and safe-feeling. Eventually I’ll be back up to my neck in sex ed stuff, kink plans and orgasms, but I am going to try and take it slowly to avoid reinforcing the stress response.
Wish me luck!