I have trouble with intimacy from previous childhood abuse and normally space out during sex. I am working with a therapist now who wants me to explore my body to see if I can orgasm. This has been difficult but I am going to try it. I bought my first vibrator. (I've never used one before.) Do you have any helpful techniques?
Spacing out during sex is a common reaction among abuse survivors. Therapy can really help to pinpoint when (and why) this happens. Often, it is a response to not feeling safe. Survivors can stay in their bodies and enjoy more pleasure if they are able to identify what helps them to feel safe and what triggers a bad memory or some other form of anxiety. This isn’t always easy because memories of traumatic events are often spotty or even missing altogether. Some traumatized people get triggered and aren’t sure why or how that happened. Be patient with yourself as you piece together your life history and learn new ways to respond to being touched.
It is real progress to realize that sex is not something you have to endure. If you don’t want to ever have sex again, you don’t have to. It is okay to reject it 100%. But if you are curious or feel desire, sex can be an experience you have for your own benefit. It can be selfish. It can be just for you, just the way you like it. Allowing yourself to be used for another person’s pleasure is not a good idea even though it may keep the peace in a relationship. A partner who really loves or respects you wants your participation and enjoyment, on your own terms. In the beginning, that may mean really simple or small things, like being the one to initiate a kiss, or asking your lover to slow down, or changing the position of your body so that you are more comfortable. Some abuse survivors are more comfortable during sex if they get to experience being the one who orchestrates or directs the activity. You can access the realm of sensuality at any level that makes you feel happy to be a physical being.
What is safety during sex? It can mean a lot of different things to different people. As a bottom line, feeling safe has to rely on consent. If you aren’t sure you want to do a specific behavior with a specific person, you may start to feel unsafe. Safety comes from having more knowledge about your own desire. It also comes from the ability to say no. Most people will support you in saying no to sexual behavior you do not enjoy, even if it is their favorite thing, and even if you have enjoyed it in the past. You always have a right to say no. You do not owe other people sexual gratification, even if you have taken off your clothes and gotten into bed with them. Sex is a continual process of negotiation (sometimes silently communicated) during various kinds of bodily touch and contact. I use the term “negotiation” because I want more people to think about sex as a process that includes perpetual checking-in, compromise, communication, refusal and acceptance.
Some of these issues don’t come up when you are alone, touching yourself. You don’t have to worry about disappointing or frustrating somebody else. Of course, it is still possible to feel unsafe. A certain fantasy or a smell or a sound may trigger a memory of violence. You might also be tempted to perform an ideal image of self-stimulation while you are actually checked-out and not feeling anything—as if masturbation was an act on stage. Just go slow, breathe, remember there are no expectations or rules, and you can stop any time you feel uncomfortable, even if you don’t know why you feel that way.
I recommend touching yourself with your hands before you use the vibrator. Vibrators can be harsh or even hurtful if you are not in tune with your own sensations. Some of us like being stroked with feathers, velvet, or fur. Do you enjoy tickling, a firm touch, or the sensation of massage oil? Are certain parts of your body more sensitive than others? Explore your body and see what you can learn. If something feels good, that’s important information. Don’t feel that you have to touch your genitals the first time you masturbate. Just doing whole-body stimulation and getting comfortable with that is a big deal.
If you want to know what an orgasm feels like, some form of genital stimulation will probably be necessary, when you feel ready. That may be the first time you do these exercises or it may be the 25th. Although a few women have reported being able to have an orgasm during nipple stimulation or just having a fantasy, these are rare experiences. If direct genital touch feels too overwhelming, you can try squeezing your legs together or rubbing a soft object like a small pillow between your legs. If you are using your fingers, sometimes a dry touch feels better than a touch with water-based lubricant. You decide what you want to try.
A woman’s primary sex organ is her clitoris. This is a bud-shaped structure that can be found at the top of the vulva (external female genitals), where the inner lips meet. There are many different ways to touch this sensitive bundle of nerves. Some women like to use their whole hand while others may use just one finger. There are clits that enjoy being pressed and moved around, while others want to be circled, stroked, or teased above, below, or to one side. Explore and experiment. If you have fantasies, they can help you to become aroused. Other women enjoy listening to music. It’s important to make sure you won’t be distracted or interrupted by phone calls or some other rude reminder of the outside world.
Arousal feels like a growing sense of urgency, You don’t want whatever you are doing or thinking to stop. Your focus narrows. You feel happy and free of inhibitions. Breathing and heart rates speed up. You might feel as if you are flushed or blushing. The muscles in your stomach and thighs may tense up. Touch becomes more urgent and quick. You may notice that your genitals are lubricating. (The vagina starts to secrete slippery moisture when a woman is aroused.) Sometimes it may even feel as if you are about to urinate, but don’t worry about this. There are muscles inside of you that will prevent this from happening.
Not every attempt to have an orgasm is successful, even for people who have been making themselves come for several years. You can get derailed by interruptions, thoughts that change the mood, or something as simple as a muscle cramp in your leg. You are teaching your body to do something new. So at first, you may find that you get very aroused but can’t quite reach a peak of gratification. When you do, it’s like no other experience. Orgasm may feel like contractions inside your sex organs or external pulsing and throbbing. At best, it is an intense, ecstatic feeling of letting go. You feel long seconds of release and pure pleasure. But there are also milder orgasms that are brief and only feel sort of okay, better than a sneeze but nothing to hold a parade about. If this happens to you, congratulate yourself on getting closer, and don’t give up.
A few women find that self-stimulation by hand takes too long or just won’t be effective. When you are able to stay present in your body most of the time, it is safe for you to try the vibrator. Remember that it is a little machine that has no knowledge of how you feel. Control has to come from you. So experiment with caution. Be gentle with your body. If you use a vibrator too long or too hard, you can bruise yourself. If you feel yourself starting to check out, turn off the vibrator and go back to touching yourself by hand. As you develop more ease with masturbation, the vibrator might become a helpful accessory for times when you feel too tired or bored to get off by hand. Some women prefer to use a vibrator just about every time they masturbate, and that option is open to you as well.
If you do have a flashback, an unwanted memory of an unpleasant experience from the past, take care of yourself. Take a break. Get a cup of tea or a snack. Take a shower. Change the music. (These are suggestions for getting control over your environment and lightening the mood.) If you need to, call your therapist or a friend. Journaling can also be helpful. Unwanted memories are not very nice, but they also don’t have to stop you from enjoying your own body. Allow the negativity to pass. It is in the nature of emotions to change, so let yours change for the better. The fact that somebody mistreated you should not eliminate the possibility of intimacy or pleasure. Just wait until you feel that you want to try again, and go back to learning how to have an orgasm.
Your body wants to be able to have this experience. You are pursuing something natural and almost automatic. I hope this is helpful. Feel free to write again if you need further advice.