Sex is touted for its pleasurable, relaxing, and intimacy-inducing benefits. But sometimes, after a trauma, the way you experience sex shifts. Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event, and though it may be in the past, its effects can linger. During sex, this can cause someone to feel numb, disconnected, irritable, intensely sad, angry, uninterested, or on edge.
Regardless of the type of trauma, “All trauma survivors share the experience of receiving too much stimulus without the ability to control it, producing a nervous system response of overwhelm and a sense of unsafety,” explained Rachel Harlich, LMSW, a psychotherapist, speaker, and consultant.
“This is usually even more pronounced for those with repeated traumas, traumas during childhood, and those who were harmed or neglected by primary caregivers,” Harlich said.
Harlich used the phrase “too-muchness”—where the intense feelings, even positive ones that sex can facilitate, can send a traumatized person’s nervous system signs that the trauma is occurring again. “I like to explain trauma triggers by comparing them to landmines—we didn’t put them there and we may not even know where they all are, but when we or someone else trips them, we sure do feel it,” Harlich said.
Dr. MaryCatherine (MC) McDonald, Ph.D., a trauma researcher, author, certified life coach, and author of Unbroken: The Trauma Response Is Never Wrong, explained that one misconception people have is that only those who have experienced sexual assault encounter disconnection during sex. “The truth is that any experience of trauma can make you feel unsafe in your body, which can then make it very difficult to be present for or enjoy sex,” McDonald said.
How Trauma Can Impact Sex
Trauma can impact sex differently depending on the type of trauma and the person. You might feel disconnected, afraid, or really emotional, McDonald explained. “Your mind might go blank, you might have intrusive thoughts or memories, or feel emotions that don't feel appropriate for the moment, such as irritation or intense sadness.”
If sex was previously a pleasurable experience, the shift can be frustrating. “The connection might feel stressful rather than relaxing, and you might feel confused and disappointed that you can't seem to enjoy something that you used to,” McDonald said.
Sometimes, dissociation is a trauma byproduct that can obstruct the ability to feel present during sex, explained Dr. Lori Beth Bisbey, a clinical psychologist, sex and intimacy coach, author, speaker and podcast host.
Exploring Pleasure After Trauma
Mindfulness practices can be healing for a range of traumatic experiences. “One way to regain pleasure is by starting to explore pleasure in non-sexual ways, and imprinting that pleasure is a safe thing to experience,” McDonald said.
McDonald suggested practicing mindfulness by savoring your favorite meal, or feeling the sensation of sunshine on your face. “Try and mindfully bring yourself into your body when you are enjoying something and pay attention to what that feels like,” McDonald said.
McDonald asked, “Does the tension in your shoulders melt away? When your belly is full, do you feel relaxed and content? The more you bring your bodily awareness to the experience of pleasure, the more safe your body will feel in those moments.”
Body scans, or mindful awareness of the body and accompanying sensations, can help with interoception or attentiveness to what’s happening in the body. “Focus on sensations without the goal of arousal or sexual pleasure,” said Inka Winter, feminist erotica director, and sex educator at ForPlay Films.
During these practices, one of the most crucial pieces is honoring when it’s time to stop. “If you find you are no longer embodied, stop, take a break, and then move back a step and start again,” Bisbey said.
Permission to Take Things Slowly
“There’s a saying in trauma therapy, ‘go slow to go fast.’ Too much too fast is what got you here, so do your best not to repeat that trauma when trying to heal. There’s time,” Harlich said.
When you’re ready to start exploring pleasure with yourself or a partner, go slowly. “If something feels good, pay attention to just how it feels good. If something doesn't feel good, let yourself stop without judgment. Be patient. You will get there if you let your body determine the pace. Whether you are alone or with a partner, have a plan to get back to calm if you begin to get activated,” McDonald said.
Harlich added that when you’re ready to try masturbation, noticing where your body is connected to a surface can help ground you in the moment. When you’re ready for partnered sex, communication before and during the experience is essential. “Discuss what is not only okay but what is desired too,” Harlich said. Discussing triggers beforehand can help partners better avoid them.
Winter said therapy can help offer tools for reconnecting with pleasure and help you work through the trauma. “Working through your trauma will make it much more likely for you to experience sexual pleasure again,” Winter said.
Sometimes, people use sex as a catalyst for healing trauma. Some trauma survivors find the practices of BDSM healing, for its attentiveness and reliance on consent and establishing safe boundaries.
“Re-enacting sexual acts that were previously done without consent can be extremely powerful but also, these re-enactments can be extremely triggering. A therapist can help guide the process, help you learn to risk assess properly so you pick a partner who will be healing and educate the partner along with you before you go off and attempt any re-enactment,” Bisbey said.
Bisbey pointed out that sometimes people engage in sexually risky acts to feel again, such as choosing random partners or having unsafe and risky sex. These behaviors can compound the trauma, and they warrant help from a trauma specialist.
Ultimately, healing trauma that’s impacting sex involves creating a sense of safety. “The best way to reclaim pleasure is to focus on helping your body feel safe in the world in general. If you are feeling unsafe during sex, it's very likely that your body feels unsafe at other times too,” McDonald said.
While healing trauma can be a slow process, finding pleasure that feels safe is entirely possible. “If our body feels unsafe, it is critical to listen to that and respond to it without judgment. It is possible to heal and enjoy sex again, you just have to let your body have a say,” McDonald said