3 Steps to Better Sex
Today’s entries in things I’m grateful for, thankful to and something loving all converge on a topic that takes some wordage, so enjoy an extra special essay edition! I’m writing here specifically about overcoming effects of sexual abuse, but many of its lessons are transferable to anyone facing an intransigent obstacle.
I have a history of pain during sex, probably due to physiological and psychological issues. From ages thirteen to fifteen, I was the focus of sexual stalking and inappropriate touching from someone I was very close to. Along with my religious upbringing that taught me sex was shameful and women were temptresses, I learned to regard sex as something scary and only for pleasing men. I’ve been doing a lot of work around this in the last year, and I think it bore some fruit today (no, not that kind of fruit!). I was able to be fully present and feel very little pain. I know a lot of people, women and men, have similar issues. I’ve struggled to find relevant information on the internet, so I thought I’d write about how things got better for me here.
The first thing people who’ve been abused (including emotional abuse, not just sexual) need is a sense of control. Each of us wants to express the choice that comes with being our own protagonist and not feeling like we’re the helpless pawn of others’ whims. Often in sexual trauma we either pursue sex vehemently because it’s the way we know to experience “love,” or avoid sex at all costs as the way we’ve experienced betrayal. I avoided it at all costs. When I was finally in a sexual situation, it was difficult to accept that my partner wouldn’t become so self-serving as to hurt me or even forget I was there except as an object. For that reason, connection became paramount. I wanted to know that my partner was into me and not some interchangeable woman, and hyperaware of any issues that might come up for me. While certainly I was right to demand partners be sensitive to my history, in my case it also often dampened spontaneity and play.
Despite asking for accommodations in sex, I didn’t acknowledge my own desire. Desire was what men had, and in my mind women’s task was to escape men’s objectification. So the second step after coming to realize that sex is a choice and not an obligation or a taboo was acknowledging my own desire. Desire then becomes an aspect of our shared humanity, not a threat imposed from the outside. Acknowledging my own desire allows me to express more compassion for desire directed at me and deal with it appropriately instead of reacting out of fear that I’ll once again be the object of someone’s curiosity or need regardless of what I want. The difference between responding to others and reacting to others is incredibly freeing. Beyond the internal freedom, responding calmly to others, even if their assumptions are offensive, often elicits a more respectful response from them in turn. We women can sometimes consider compassion as another thing we have to give to others in an exhausting spiral of self-sacrifice. Compassion is about doing (and thinking) unto others as you would have done unto you under the same circumstances, and as Gloria Steinem so rightly pointed out, doing unto yourself as you would do (or think) unto others under the same circumstances. Paradoxically, acknowledging my own sexuality made sexuality less threatening in others.
The third thing I did was closely related to the second. I said, “If a person, my fellow sexual human, is attracted to me and we agree to share physically with each other, this is a gift that person chooses to share with me rather than a threat.” This statement would seem to follow from what I’ve already said, but I didn’t really feel that way until I said it out loud. It bears repeating: consensual physicality is a gift, not a threat. In our patriarchal world where women are constantly objectified, I think it’s easy to fall into a mode of thinking that men’s sexuality is predatory. While it’s helpful to identify predatory sexuality in order to call it out, overgeneralizing distances women from men. Patriarchy is as damaging to men’s humanity as it is to women’s, even if men experience patriarchy from the relatively more pleasant position of privilege. Men have the same need to be vulnerable, to be loved, and to express connectedness. Maybe they express it differently sometimes, but it’s there. Many men’s frustrations in dating revolve around women’s automatic assumption that they’re scary. As a woman having dated online, I know that’s not fair but also know it’s safer to assume the worst until a guy proves himself trustworthy. Furthermore, in sex itself men often have the upper hand when it comes to strength, so it’s natural for us women to be wary.
As everyone who’s experienced any kind of trauma knows, it’s safer to be cautious, but ultimately to experience anything we have to come out from behind our fortresses and make ourselves vulnerable. Sometimes that courage will be rewarded, and sometimes we’ll be burned again. The cost, the unending effort, put into hiding is ultimately more painful than the cost of those few times when we’ll endure a little pain to reap the rewards of living life connected to others. For me, my body took a decade longer to learn that lesson than did my mind. As any soldier can tell you, the body stores memories a long time. This essay is meant to address those times when we perceive more threat than actually exists in the present. Awareness and being in the present means sometimes recognizing there’s a very real threat: in the present! If your partner is doing anything threatening, bring it up with them and/or get out now, depending on the level of severity. If they aren’t able or willing to change it, leave! Compassion is meant to honor both parties, not be an excuse for someone to wield abuse.
I hope you recognize something of your story in something of my story, and that it helps you, if only a little from where you were before reading. I’d read a lot of articles like this in the past, and only through getting a lot of perspectives and a lot of repetition was I able to recognize and change my thoughts. That took years, though it doesn’t have to. Heartfelt thanks to thinkers Thich Nhat Hanh
, bell hooks
, Joanna Macy
, David Weinstein
, Rachel Grant
and James Morrison
for sharing their helpful perspectives. For anyone struggling with trauma from sexual abuse, I recommend Rachel’s blog
, and in particular, her steps to thriving