Sexual Abuse & Rape Triggers Are Real, So Here Are 5 Ways To Deal In The Moment

We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions remain anonymous. Now, onto today’s topic: how to handle getting triggered during sex.

Q: I read the question from last week about the woman who was molested as a child. I was also abused. I’ve gone through some of the steps you mentioned in the article (I’ve done the therapy thing, I think I have a better relationship with my body, etc), but I struggle with what to do in the moment during sex. I’m with a partner whom I really trust, but sometimes I still react when she touches me. We can be having a really great time, when all of a sudden I’ll feel uncomfortable. Do you have tips for how to manage getting triggered in the moment?

A: Thanks for writing in! Sexual abuse is obviously a very complex topic, and not everybody is at the same point in their healing process. If you're currently sexually active, here are five tips for handling sexual triggers as they come up.

1. Disclose Your Abuse

It wasn’t clear from your email if you had told your girlfriend about your abuse. If you feel comfortable, opening up to your partner about your experience of being molested can be incredibly beneficial. As you already know, physical touch can be triggering, and you may find yourself experiencing a mind-body disconnect, or feeling emotional. If your partner has a heads-up about what to expect, they’ll be better prepared to be kind and supportive.

This is personal information to share, so wait until you have an established relationship and you feel confident that this person is deserving of your trust. Say something along the lines of, "I really trust you, and I want to open up to you about something from my past. This is hard for me to talk about, but I think it's important." Tell them whatever feels important for them to know. You and your partner should have ongoing conversations about how to make intimacy feel safe and pleasurable (all couples should be having conversations like this, not just those who have experienced abuse).

2. Come Up With A Trigger List & A Safe List

Since you've already done some work around your abuse, you probably have an idea of some of the things that can trigger you. Start making a list of all of the experiences you've had of being triggered, and see if you can come up with specific acts that should be avoided.

For example, you may realize that you've been triggered several times when you didn't have eye contact with your partner, so you may realize that it’s important to be in positions where you can clearly see each other. Or you may know that you don't like being touched on your thighs, or touched in a light, tickle-y way. Ask your partner if she's noticed any particular things that make you jumpy too. Together, the two of you can come up with a list of things that should be avoided. Keep adding to the list whenever you get triggered. Creating it will help you re-establish a sense of control, and will of course help you avoid the things that make you feel unsafe.

Sometimes making a list like this can bring up sadness because you're acknowledging the impacts that the abuse has had on you. Some of that sadness is unavoidable, but you can also have your girlfriend make her own list. This should make things feel a little more balanced. You can also make a list of the things that feel safe and good. For example, perhaps you've never been triggered by kisses on the lips or oral sex. Maybe you always feel safe and loved when your girlfriend has her arms wrapped around you.

3. Give Explicit Consent

It’s really important to remember that you don’t ever have to do anything that you don't want to do. Even if you're in a relationship. Even if your partner is awesome. Sexual abuse has a horrible way of messing with your understandings of consent. You and your girlfriend may want to talk about the best ways for both of you to initiate intimacy. If initiation ever feels triggering to you, ask her to make sure she gets a clear and enthusiastic "yes" from you each and every time. Each time she asks, remind yourself, "I get to decide what I want right now. Do I want to be intimate?" This may sound like overkill to some people, but the more careful and thoughtful you are about consent, the less likely you are to fill triggered.

Another thing to remember is that you have the right to revoke consent at any point. Just because you’ve started being intimate with your girlfriend doesn’t mean you need to see that interaction through until the end. Keep asking yourself, “does this feel OK to me? Does this?” You can also ask your girlfriend to ask you. Remind yourself that it’s OK to say “no” or ask for a minute to think. You can even practice asking your girlfriend to stop in the middle of things, just to drill in the message that you’re in control, you’re safe, and you can stop things whenever you feel uncomfortable.

4. Come Up With A Trigger Plan

Another way to help you feel more calm and in control during sex is to come up with a plan for what to do when you feel triggered. Think back to your past experiences of being triggered, and see if you can remember anything that helped you in the moment. Maybe your girlfriend looked you in the eyes and told you she loved you. Maybe she took her hands off of your body entirely. If you don’t have specific memories of things that helped, you can try to brainstorm possibilities alone or with your girlfriend.

Some ideas might be to have your girlfriend remind you, “it’s just me,” have her hold your hands, or spend a few minutes counting your breaths. Try out a few different options, and see if you can hone in on one or two reliable techniques to help you feel more grounded.

5. Be Kind To Yourself

Even with your best efforts, there are going to be times where you’re just going to get triggered. Sometimes you’ll be able to help yourself relax relatively quickly, and other times the triggering is going to be more intense.

Try not to see these as “failures,” and remind yourself that you’re not a “broken” person. Everyone has moments where sex doesn’t go the way they want it to. It’s perfectly understandable to feel frustrated and sad, but when you’re able to, try to see these experiences as opportunities to learn more about your body and what it needs to feel safe.

Want to learn more strategies for managing the effects of sexual abuse? Check out my online course, A Survivor’s Guide To Reclaiming Your Sex Life After Abuse.

Images: Pexels (3)