Trying to Mix PTSD and Pleasure

Friday, February 10, 2017

Dear Patrick: I'm an abuse survivor who left a relationship two years ago and am ready to try sex again. During that long-term relationship I was denying there was anything wrong, pretending to like sex and waiting for that to happen. It never did and I developed an aversion. Now, I realize I'm a little different from other people. Part of me is looking for what turns me on (pain and probably masochism). Another part thinks I should at least try to associate sex with love and intimacy. In either case, I'm not interested in monogamy but rather sexploration. I'd appreciate some advice! Thanks

—Trying to Mix PTSD and Pleasure


Dear TTMP&P: Many (if not most) people assume that an erotic response to pain or physical restraint was created early in childhood, by an abusive adult caretaker. I have not conducted systematic research on this point, but at this time in my life, I have met literally thousands of adult practitioners of consenting BDSM. I would guesstimate that the percentage of people in that subculture who were abused as children is no higher than the figure for people whose erotic interests are focused on vanilla sex.

As a corollary, many people who do not have direct experience with BDSM assume that these connections are mostly conducted between strangers or for money; they don’t associate BDSM with love or intimacy. But I can reassure you that if that is what you want, there are people available with various fetishes who have tender hearts and an abundance of loyalty and love for their chosen partner. The miracle of finding someone special who “gets” your erotic needs heightens relationship bonds, whether you are kinky or not. But there is also something very romantic about loving someone whose sexual persona is reviled by the larger society.

Finally, after counseling dozens of people who survived child abuse, both sexual and non-sexual, I can say that relatively few of them have any interest in BDSM. Most of them find it, as you say, “aversive.” They fear disassociating if a specific sex toy or a harsh word uttered during a fantasy enactment triggers traumatic memories.

Given all of this, you can still, on an individual basis, be an abuse survivor who is interested in BDSM. You may also want to experience those forms of sexual exploration in a compartmentalized fashion, separate from intimacy or romance. I am not sure how much experience you have in that realm, or what your specific interests might be. So it is hard for me to advise you. I don’t know if I should speak to you as a complete novice who needs basic safety information, or if you are a more experienced practitioner who wants advice about how to navigate kinky play when you have a past full of terrible events that can interfere with your pleasure.

Let me give you some resources first. One book I frequently recommend is Staci Haines’ Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma. This book deals extensively with the real effects that child abuse or violence against women can have on adults, and outlines several very helpful guidelines for how to identify a safe space and stay present within the here-and-now. Haines is a sex-positive educator who has profound compassion for those of us who have suffered through coercion. She also, unlike many workers in this field, keeps an open mind about kinky sex, and has some helpful words to say about that.

Unfortunately, from my perspective, the book is written for female survivors, and so a man who had a traumatic childhood may have to do a lot of extrapolation to find Haines’s text of any help.

The BDSM community has certain norms and conventions that can provide safe boundaries for survivors. One is the firm, bedrock precept that nothing can happen without mutual consent and safety. An encounter that is going to involve dominant/submissive role-playing, physical restraint, or intense sensation (pain) has to be negotiated in advance. People typically spend time talking about what has worked for them in the past and what hasn’t worked, what they are curious about, and what drew them the idea of a scene together. Limits are specified. If the scene is going to involve the bottom pretending to resist, they might be given a safe word, a code word that can be used to stop the action. (Safe words are also used during other types of play because it may be easier to say “pickle” to notify the top you are in trouble than it is to find a whole phrase that will explain what is going on.) Whether you use a safe word or just agree to take each other at face value, both partners have a right to stop what is going on and change it at any point. You can agree to take a break, switch to another activity, call a cab and go home, etc.

Not all BDSM encounters involve genital sex. It’s prudent to ask if your partner expects that, before you begin to play. A misunderstanding here can result in hurt feelings. Ironically, you may find it easier to enjoy the arousal generated by hot wax or nipple clamps than you do to stay in your body during stimulation intended to result in an orgasm. In either case, remember to check in with your environment and your partner. Ask yourself if you feel safe. If you do not, what can be changed to help you to feel better? Ask for help if you need it. Keep breathing at a slow, calm rate. It’s always okay to slow down or do something else, whether that is paddling or cunnilingus. A good top wants to make you happy, and will not be offended by clear communication about what you need.

It’s also useful to remember that feeling weird or very sad or scared doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop what you are doing and go home. Sometimes all that is needed is to say out loud, “I think I am in trouble,” and get some TLC and a break from the heated action. Have a hot drink, talk about something else, giggle a little, make sure you are warm and your blood sugar is normal. If you can trust your partner to take care of you when you are having a flashback, you may be able to go a little further next time. And “next time” may take place in two weeks or in 15 minutes.

Being able to own your own sexuality, to take care of it and control it, is a learning process. Be patient with yourself and don’t give up.

If you need more information about BDSM, I can recommend a pair of books by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton. Both women are experienced players who know a lot about the world of kink. Easton is also a therapist. The New Bottoming Book and The New Topping Book are full of good humor, sexy anecdotes, practical directions, and wise suggestions for enjoying yourself as a sexual rebel. There are many, many good books about BDSM safety, but these make an excellent starting point.

If you feel that I have been too general, and you need more specific help, please write again. I am happy to help you even if you don’t want your letter published in this column.

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