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My girlfriend and I have been dating for about a year and have both expressed interest in having sex with each other. But we also both have sex and arousal-related trauma/haven’t had sex in years/do not have any experience with having sex with a person with a vagina. And I think I’m healing enough that I do want to be sexually intimate with people again. And my girlfriend has told me the same thing about themselves, and I believe them. But I don’t know how to actually move forward from conversations of, “This would be nice to do,” to actually trying anything. I’d be perfectly happy with this relationship even if sex never happened, but the fact we keep having the same conversations about sex without really going anywhere with them makes me feel embarrassed and insecure. I’m scared I don’t actually know how to act in bed and I’m terrified I’ll just shut down if I put myself in sexual situations. And while I feel a lot more comfortable about the possibility of shutting down with this partner then I do with pretty much anyone else, it’s still a really hard feeling to get rid of, and I worry it gets in the way of doing sex acts I would otherwise enjoy.
There’s a lot to unpack here, friend, but I’m 99.9% sure it’s all unpackable. Super duper unpackable.
You’ve found another person in this world who you love and with whom you want to take things to the next level of intimacy. It sounds like you’re super happy and care quite a lot for each other and I hope it feels amazing!
Here’s the thing about sex: We all put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have sexual relationships that we think we should be having, based on cultural or societal norms and pressures. There really is no normal or right way to have a sex life. You aren’t weird for feeling this way and neither is your girlfriend.
Here’s the thing about sex after trauma: It can be hard to feel safe to be vulnerable with someone and trusting them with your naked body is probably the most vulnerable anyone can be with anyone else. It sounds like you’ve taken the time to make space for each other to heal and that’s really, really good.
What I hear you saying is that you both want to be able to cross that invisible threshold into a sexual relationship because your relationship is good and safe and you like each other and you think you’d like sex with each other. Those are perfect reasons to try something that feels a little scary with a romantic partner! If this is where you’re at, skip the next few paragraphs and let’s get down to getting down.
However, your motivation is outside pressures, like you feel like you should want to cross that threshold more than you actually do, you should probably take a step back and consider if this is the right choice for you right now. I hear a little hint of that when you wrote that you’d “be perfectly happy with this relationship even if sex never happened.” Have you considered that your girlfriend might feel the same way? Or that she’d be open to hearing that? You need to make sure your expectations of yourselves are based in reality, not what you assume the other person wants.
For example, in a totally non-sexual context, I recently had a performance review at my day job. I knew that I was mostly doing great, but there was one project I knew I wasn’t delivering on and I felt incredibly guilty about it. It was something that just loomed over me every time I talked to my boss, even when she didn’t bring it up. Every time she did bring it up, I wanted to hide under my desk even though she was never pushy about it. I definitely felt “embarrassed and insecure.” I think we both knew I was struggling with getting it done. And I know I’d be good at this project if I could just get it to the top of my to-do list with everything else I have going on.
At my performance review meeting, I finally brought the project up and admitted that I wasn’t where I should be on it and that, quite frankly, it wasn’t personally something I wanted to be working on. My boss then told me that she’d given me the project partially because she thought it was the kind of thing I wanted to do and she was afraid I wasn’t challenged in my job anymore because I was doing so well in my primary responsibilities. But I love my primary responsibilities! It turns out that we both had untrue assumptions about what the other person wanted from us. I’m still working on the project, but I feel like I can be more honest and open about what I need to get it done and my boss isn’t worried that I’m not satisfied with the work I’m doing.
What I’m saying is, it’s 100% possible that you and your girlfriend are both assuming that the other one wants to be sexually active ASAP in order to be happier in your relationship when actually it’s more a long-term to-do list item and you’re already quite satisfied with your whole relationship situation.
OK, but let’s assume that you both actually do want to have sex, soon, now even, except TERRIFYING FEAR TRAUMA INSECURITY SHAME FEELINGS. Here are some things to help you both get on a path to a healthy and fun sexual relationship. It’s very possible and achievable! These tips are for both of you!
1. Get Support
Having someone to talk to who isn’t your girlfriend is important as you work through the various fears and issues you’re experience related to becoming sexually active. If you can find a therapist or counselor, I’d highly suggest it! If you can’t access professional help, maybe you have a close friend you can talk to who’s a really good listener. Either way, while talking to your girlfriend directly is important, it’s also valuable to have someone you can talk to who isn’t also your potential sexual partner. Because when you’re talking to your girlfriend, you’re inevitably going to be worried about making it weird or making them feel bad or whatever other fifty things run through your head when you’re having a difficult convo with a partner.
Then, when you do talk to your girlfriend, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what you feel and what you really want to communicate to them.
2. Touch Yourself
I don’t know if you’re sexually active with yourself, but if you’re not, start there. I’m not just talking about masturbation, though masturbation is a great thing to try if you feel ready for that. I mean, just do kind things for your body that make you feel sexy.
Reestablishing positive feelings with touch can be hard when your body has been touched in a traumatic way. Take a bath and let yourself feel your body relax into the suds. Put lotion on and focus on the feeling of touching your own skin. Try just caressing or lightly massaging your own arm or any body part that feels safe gently and slowly.
Relearn your body for yourself and establish a positive connection with your body and with touch.
3. Practice Mindfulness
Have you ever had that feeling like your mind and your body are in two different worlds? Sometimes negative experiences like sexual abuse can cause us to disassociate with our bodies or, in other words, cause us to shut down mentally when we experience a touch, even when that touch is consensual. This can happen all the time or can be triggered once in a while or maybe it’s something you’re scared will happen when you have sex for the first time.
Along with reestablishing a positive feeling with physical touch, we can learn to reestablish a mind-body connection to help us resist “leaving our bodies” during sex. Things like yoga, meditation, or just taking time to be still can help. Eat your favorite food and take the time to really focus on how yummy it is in your mouth and how good you feel while enjoying it. Close your eyes and breathe deeply and focus on how your body feels one body part at a time, from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head. Look at your body in a mirror and just be there with yourself, looking at yourself, noticing your physical form.
Come up with a mantra that works for you when you feel like you’re disassociating, like “I am here.” Repeat it in your head when practicing mindfulness activities so you’ll have the mantra as a tool to reconnect if you find yourself disconnecting during sex in the future.
4. Set Boundaries
This is true for any person having sex with any other person ever forever. But, like, setting boundaries involves talking about sex and making affirmative declarations of consent before having sex and, well, things a lot of us don’t do. It doesn’t come naturally. We don’t see it modeled on TV or in movies. Nobody teaches it in high school sex ed.
Before you even get to the sex part, you should reflect on your own physical, emotional, and sexual boundaries. Are there places on your body that you don’t like touched? Or do like touched? Sex acts that appeal more or less to you? Things that you’d like to do to your partner or things that you never want to do to them? Words or phrases that are triggering for you? Or that really turn you on?
This worksheet to help you talk to your partner about sex might help you start thinking about your boundaries in a sexual context. Both you and your partner should fill it out separately, then come back together and discuss it with each other. Do this NOT when you’re about to try having sex, but somewhere and some time that’s more neutral, like over breakfast at your kitchen table. Talking about sex is awkward, so why make it more awkward by doing it naked and in bed, you know? Create ground rules around your boundaries before you get anywhere close to a bed.
Consider using a safe word, a word that either of you can say if things get too intense and you need to stop immediately. This word or phrase should be something you wouldn’t normally say during sex, like “pina colada” or “bumblebee.” You could also try the stoplight approach, using “red” “yellow” and “green” to indicate how you’re feeling. “Green” means “Yes! Go!,” “yellow” means “approach with caution,” and “red” means “HARD STOP. DO NOT PASS GO.”
5. Go Slow
Take the time you need to feel comfortable. Don’t worry about orgasm. I repeat: don’t focus on orgasms. Sex doesn’t have to result in orgasm. Seriously, it doesn’t. It can and you can totally go there right away if you really want to, but especially when you’re just starting out, consider doing low-touch activities together or sexual things that feel less raw and vulnerable.
For example, you could start with a sexy topless (or bottomless) massage. Or just making out and rubbing your bodies together with your clothes or underwear on. Or cuddling naked without sexual touching. Or masturbating together. Or cuddling your girlfriend and kissing her neck while she masturbates or vice versa. Try something that you both agree to and see how it feels. If you want to keep going, say so and check in every time you take a new step. Use your “red/yellow/green” words.
6. Talk, Talk, Keep Talking
Communication is the only thing that’s going to help you get through this. It’s the key to any sexual relationship and especially one like yours. Talking about sex is best done when you’re in a neutral, non-sexy space, not when you’re about to dive under the covers.
Arrange a regularly scheduled sex talk in a place where you wouldn’t likely have sex. Putting a meeting on the schedule means you can’t avoid talking about it, and you have time to mentally prepare for a talk that might be triggering or hard. It can be a set time and place to discuss anything that comes up as you have sex, if you don’t feel like you can share it in-the-moment and a place to negotiate boundaries and make plans together. On top of all of that, it can be a fun time to look forward to together, as you progress in your sexual relationship and build a stronger sexual intimacy.
My friend, you deserve to have the sex life and sexual sense of self that you want, whatever that ends up looking like. There is literally no wrong way to have sex or to have a sexual relationship with your partner (even if that means not having sex). The thing that matters most, above all else, is that you are both happy and communicating and working towards a healthy relationship together! Good luck and much love to you both!