To say that sex has a complicated history for me would be an understatement. Like many other women, I have a complex history of assaults, of boys and men who didn’t accept my “no” or ignored my pushing away, of partners who thought our relationship was a free pass for them to do whatever they liked regardless of what I wanted.
I live daily with complex post traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) from years of emotional abuse and multiple instances of sexual abuse. The US Department of Veterans Affairs states that C-PTSD differs from regular PTSD in both what causes it, as well as how the symptoms manifest. C-PTSD comes from “chronic trauma that continues or repeats for months or years at a time” as opposed to short-term or individual traumatic events. According to the organization Beauty After Bruises, in addition to the symptoms associated with PTSD (such as flashbacks and nightmares, emotional dysregulation, and hyperarousal), those with C-PTSD often experience other symptoms. Specifically, they experience a shift in their very “self-concept — how one sees themselves, their perpetrator, their morals and values, their faith in others or a god.” For me, my C-PTSD has rocked my very identity to the core, causing me to question who I am, who I can trust, if I am safe, and whether I’m “bad.”
These feelings spilled over into my sex life, where I felt a combination of shame, guilt, and “dirtyness,” with the very act itself.
Sex was something that, for the most part, I endured, and rarely enjoyed. Even if a loving and considerate partner touched a certain part of my body could trigger my deep-rooted trauma so much that I’d disassociate. I’d become nothing more than a body laying there, having sex done to me, while my spirit floated somewhere above myself, watching my body in a distant way, my mind blank and numb. There were times I’d disassociate to the point of having a psychogenic non-epileptic seizure (one of the symptoms of my C-PTSD) during or immediately after sex.
For me, sex was not the fun or beautiful thing that so many of my partners and friends experienced, but a retraumatizing experience. I didn’t want that though. I wanted the joy, the fun and playfulness, the exquisite beauty that I was told sex could be.
Taking matters into my own hands
I tried to move on from the years of trauma. I read books, listened to podcasts, journaled, and went to session after session of therapy. And slowly, so slowly, I found myself healing.
After a few years of doing the hard work of therapy and self-exploration, I figured that if I could do this work to heal my body and emotions from trauma, then I could do the work to heal myself sexually, too. I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands, quite literally. My hope was that if I allowed myself to find pleasure in my own body by masturbating, then I’d be able to rewrite my internal narrative that my body was bad, that my body was shameful, that my body was the source of pain and hurt.
According to Britta Love, somatic sex educator, writer, and healer, “A big piece of sexual healing after trauma is relearning to access our full embodiment and choose pleasure. Masturbation is a powerful way to reclaim one’s body and sexuality, to learn to find pleasure after pain, to come out of disembodiment and dissociation and into presence and embodiment.”
That is exactly what I wanted. Instead of seeing my body as negative and sex as traumatic, I wanted to see my body as a good body. I wanted to see sex as a source of pleasure and joy.
When I first bought myself a sex toy, I embarrassedly went online and randomly purchased a dildo, one of the first I clicked on. When it came in the mail, I hid it, too ashamed to look at it or take it out of its packaging. I used it once, then immediately threw it away in a dumpster, wrapped in layers of other trash so nobody would see it. So nobody would see my shame.
But I tried again. I wanted this for myself.
And thus, taking a deep breath, I bought another sex toy. This time I did a bit of research, visiting some online groups to read what other people recommended and enjoyed. My vibrator came in the mail, and this time, I was actually excited to get it. When I used it, though, I felt the same anxiety and fear rising in me that I did when having sex with partners. As the early signs of dissociation began working their way into my consciousness, I stopped. I reminded myself that I was safe in that moment, alone with myself. I reminded myself that there was nothing wrong with what I was doing; that I deserved pleasure.
I began to masturbate whenever I wanted to. Even the act of recognizing and naming my desire to myself, without judgment, was healing for me. When I masturbated, every time I encountered these rising feelings of fear and shame, I’d stop and breathe, calming my body. I began, slowly, to teach my body new ways to experience sex and sexuality.
“Ultimately the most important sexual relationship you will ever have is with yourself,” Love states. “Masturbation is fundamental to sexual healing. Choosing to be alone with our bodies and finding pleasure is deep neural repatterning that teaches new possibilities after trauma and disempowerment.” In other words, through masturbation, those of us who have experienced trauma can re-teach our brains how to experience sex in a powerful and pleasurable way.
Eventually I got to where I could masturbate without the fear and anxiety, without feeling myself on the verge of disassociation. I learned what my body liked and what it didn’t.
Eventually I got to where I could give myself the gift of pleasure.
This, combined with the other work I was doing (and that I’m still doing!) to move beyond my trauma allowed me the space to then have sex with partners in a new way. Love says that “when we learn to find our own pleasure, we become better equipped to find more consensual, mutual, and pleasurable connections with others as well,” and I certainly have found this to be true.
By reclaiming my body as my own, by learning how to be in charge of my own pleasure, and by making choices about my own body, I have empowered myself to feel more in charge of my sexuality. This is not to say that I no longer get triggered, that I don’t have moments in sex that feel scary, or that I don’t revert into old trauma patterns. But when that happens now, I can stop, tell my partner that I need a minute, and remind myself that I alone get to choose what I do (and don’t do) with my body.
I breathe. And then I allow myself to experience the gift of pleasure.