How To Handle Traumatic Resurgence During Sex

feature image photo by Jonathan Knowles via Getty Images

While having sex last year, my partner did something completely innocent. He got on top. He towered over me in an exhilarating way that also gave us an awesome angle. It looked great. It felt amazing. Until I felt what I can only describe as glass shattering in my skull. My rhythmic moaning slowed. My arms slid to my side. I became a bit glassy-eyed — but in a way that could easily be mistaken for pleasure.

A figure looming over me as I lay on my back. That’s what I saw. That’s also one of my earliest memories. I saw the same thing when I was molested as a toddler.

That was the first time one of my traumas re-emerged during sex. And because it was the first time, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t give my partner any sign that I was unwell. I kept signaling my consent. I started processing it days after the event.

I don’t blame myself for my reaction, nor do I blame my lovely partner for carrying on in the absence of any worrying signs. I just didn’t know what was happening and how to react.

This is the article I wish I’d read before it happened.

This is how to handle traumatic resurgence during sex.

See something, do something, then reflect

“Trauma lives in our bodies. Because sex often involves bodies, connecting with another person in this way can cause trauma to resurface. Being vulnerable can bring up past trauma, especially if that trauma was experienced at another time when that person was vulnerable,” says licensed therapist Meredith Siller.

Sex reflects our emotions in a way matched by few other activities. It places us close to others in a stripped-down (often literally) state. We’re generally familiar with how sex can comfort traumas or produce new ones. But trauma has a long tail. Trauma has a way of resurfacing in vulnerable moments. It can happen even if there’s no relationship between that trauma and sex.

Traumatic resurgence feels different for everyone. It’s too broad to outline plainly. Therefore, the first step to managing traumatic resurgence is also the most painful: reflection. Opening ourselves up to past experiences and triggers can identify markers of impending trauma. For some people, the sign of incoming trauma looks like anxiety. Others lose control of their body or go blank.

When it happened to me, I disassociated. Licensed psychologist Kerry McBroome calls it, “How your body protects itself. When physical intimacy has not been safe in the past, your nervous system cannot tell the difference between fear and sexual arousal.”

That gives me some insight into why I felt the way I did. I learned that when my trauma resurfaces during sex, it comes with a particular feeling. Sex goes from something we’re having to something that’s being done to me. I still had a lovely evening the first time it happened, but it left me with much to think about.

Identifying markers of trouble from past experience is the foundation of learning. It’s far from easy; even the lightest trauma begs for the touch of a feather. But the consequences of suppressing or ignoring these markers can be far worse.

Once we know a bit more about our trauma (even knowing it exists is good), we can decide on an approach. Some people take their stories to therapy. Therapy isn’t in my life right now, so I give an earful to my girlfriend or our bestie. We can also inform our partners. That’s complex though, because we don’t always want to discuss the painful past with our sex partners. But there might be risks to skipping the talk.

Meredith says that, “It is absolutely critical for people to feel that they can pause or stop sex any time, for any reason (or for no reason at all).” This is important. Even non-sexual trauma can represent the fracturing of our boundaries. Reinforcing our right to consent tilts our mind back toward independence.

She also recommends a care plan: a mental (or written!) idea of what to do in case of a traumatic resurgence. These can be kept to ourselves or presented as a contingency to partners. She notes that, “A care plan will look different depending on the person, but it is generally a way to help them feel as safe and as comfortable as possible until the trigger passes.”

Once the triggering event passes, we can look forward. Trauma recovery shares qualities with eating disorder recovery. It takes gentleness, reflection, and works best with loved ones.

Traumatic resurgences are awful things, but they also contribute to healing. They’re signposts of the progress we’ve made and stress we still have to explore. They give us information we can use to plan the next move. They give us a target.

If we trust our sexual partners enough, we can invite them into the healing process – but only if we want to. Meredith notes that, “Consensual sex with trusted partners in long term relationships is often important for activating past trauma in ways that bring it to the surface to be experienced, expressed, and released.”

And while this is happening, don’t forget to breathe.

Digging my way out

I’m with Kerry when she says that, “Cruelty, horror, and traumatic shit can become fertilizer for you to grow a life worth living.”

It’s not fair that I was molested. It’s not fair that I’m still facing the pain over two decades later. It’s not fair to my partners who are impacted by my perpetrator’s actions. But I remain determined to learn from each incident and grow a life I deserve. I might make a bullet-pointed care plan for myself, but I’m definitely more aware of my body’s trauma responses. I don’t have to restart therapy until I’m ready, but I’m keeping my friends and partners informed and aware of my health. Most importantly, I want others to have knowledge that I didn’t have last year.

This isn’t a joke piece about sexual misadventure or a yet another explainer.

It’s an act of recovery from my undeserved past.

It’s a love letter to myself

And it’s a lifeline to anyone else who needs it.

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Summer Tao

Summer Tao is a South Africa based writer. She has a fondness for queer relationships, sexuality and news. Her love for plush cats, and video games is only exceeded by the joy of being her bright, transgender self

Summer has written 39 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. With regard to trauma being fertilizer for a better life (in addition to being just a horror show), there’s a quote from Kahlil Gibran that I’ve used as a mantra since first stumbling across it: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” In my life, that’s manifested in never taking good things for granted.

    I’ve had to do a lot of work erecting guard rails so that my appreciation for good things doesn’t spiral into catastrophizing about how soon I’ll lose them, but it’s kind of a superpower to never feel blasé about it when my partner says or does something kind, when my day turns out slightly better than expected, when a friend sends a text just to say hi. Is this awareness of and value for the good things in my life worth the price I had to pay for them? Probably not. But it has value to me.

    • Oooh yeah, that’s not a bad outlook. We have to rebuild after our collapses. It’s not necessarily turning the bad moments into something good. To me, it’s always looking forward to my future.

  2. Thanks for this. I haven’t had the experiences you had (I don’t think…) but as gender dysphoria functions in a similar way to complex trauma, us trans folks are particularly prone to this kind of experience. Figuring out the difference between focusing on a partner and dissociating from myself is particularly hard.

    • Yeah, gender dysphoria can leave us feeling really… disembodied or even dissociative. When I slept with men while living as a man, I had to go to extraordinary lengths to not feel like my brain was crashing. There’s a lot that hasn’t been explored about the interactions between gender dysphoria and gendered sexual experiences or trauma.

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