How can you have sex after surviving the trauma of sexual violence?

Some road-tested ideas. From one survivor to another yo!

Take your time. Start to learn your triggers. What are they? Do they change with anything? Are there times when you’re more trigger-able than not?

Explore with yourself. Have your turn-ons changed? What feels good? How do you feel initiating sex with yourself? What doesn’t feel good?

Chat with your partner. What would you like them to do for you? How would you like them to support you? Recognize that your desire might change, your interest in sex might be raging or sporadic, you might not be able to say or plan anything with certainty. And that’s okay.

Flashbacks could be a possibility. Safety plan with your partner around this. What are the signs that you’re numbing, detaching, or re-living trauma? What do you need your partner to do? How do you want to calm and ground? What do you need after? Flashbacks can lessen over time, but in the moment feel terrifying and very real for many survivors.

Take the pressure off. What are safe ways of connecting intimately? Are there alternatives that calm you, rather than trigger you? What is your body telling you?

You get to set the pace. You get to say no and yes as often as you want. You get to change your mind. You’re entitled to hot, gratifying sex after trauma, when and where and how you want it!

The Arc of a Love Affair

Here’s how it goes. You meet this man, right. He’s fucking beautiful. Like: chiseled jaw, groomed stubble, lats and pecs and biceps and shoulders and cock and TATTOOS. Sleeves.

And you kiss. Open mouth, confident tongue and his hands, twisted in your hair at the back of your head, pulling in and back, just enough to know that he’s naturally in charge. You melt, and finish in his car, sweaty, with his dog tags slapping your chin as he fucks you with all the sexy propriety of a man who plans to own you one day. Cumming, thighs and ankles wrapped hard around him as he thrusts himself up against your cervix, you reflect for seconds that you have never felt so consumed by one person in such a short period of time. (5 hours, to be exact).

That consummation continued for 10 days. In those days the two of you:
spent a day as loved up tourists at niagara falls
ate a lot of fudge
fucked in the bathroom of a dessert house at 2pm in the afternoon
watched The Hobbit
had Denny’s breakfast twice
fucked in an empty ballroom
met significant others (sister and best friend)
watched Silver Linings Playbook
gave an outstanding example of perfect road head
admired
laughed
talked
and

fell
(hard).

12 and a half months later, I have never anticipated seeing someone as much as I did with him. After a year of emotion, excitement, lust and promise I descended into that freezing, concrete city, applied makeup and perfume with shaking hands in the airport bathrooms after a 22 hour flight and then, wiggling into white lacy thong, I strode out to collect my baggage.

I saw him before he saw me. He was much bigger, broader, muscular than I remembered, wearing a green hoody. He’d snuck through the doors, to MY side of the arrivals. This was unexpected, I thought I still had the wait for my baggage to collect myself and so I saw him, and then pretended that I hadn’t. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him spot me as I glided down the escalator, and aware of his movement, I shuffled myself through the crowd in the opposite direction from him, eyes glued to the baggage carousel. I was aware of him coming closer to me and I felt terrified, heart beating and almost for a moment I wished I was somewhere else. And then he gently pinched my ass, and I turned with surprise in my face, and kissed him, long and deep, and pressed my chest against his and the world disappeared.

I never told him this, that I saw him first and my fear of him approaching me. It wasn’t HIM that I was afraid of…it was the fear of leaping off, of anticipating something and someone so deeply and then when it’s about to happen you panic, afraid that the anticipation was all in vain, that the anticipation is sweeter than reality, that the anticipation is actually the best part. And then you leap, and kiss, and the story you’ve been weaving together is now coming to life and this is sad for a moment, you’ve lost something and you can’t go back from that.

We were so very guarded around each other. I feel that we had the same unspoken agenda: protect ourselves, play it cool. In retrospect, I wanted to protect this….idea, image, dream I had of what he’d be like, what we’d be like together. I almost wanted to keep my eyes half closed and hang on to this vision we’d been weaving..I didn’t feel ready for this vision to suddenly have to be held up to reality.

But then, of course, amongst all this uncertainty was the pure wonder of touching each other, really seeing each other, looking into each other’s eyes and kissing, fucking, joining our bodies together. These opposing emotions created a strange blur over that first week. We didn’t talk much, slept in hotels in awkward angles to each other, overly aware of intruding on space that for the last year, had very much been our own personal bubble. Thinking about those first few hotel days, I feel the sadness, emptiness. It wasn’t like how I imagined. We weren’t like how we had been. This felt so tragic to me, but I was supposed to be happy and delighted and I couldn’t understand my emotions, so I numbed them.

He was distant with me, cold at times, almost as if he was trying to show me that I was superfluous, replaceable. That I wasn’t as important as I thought I was.

I think we tried, over the next 5 months. We had beautiful breakthroughs: lazy, wandering rainy mornings in Kensington market, easy conversation over pizza. Gasping, hungry sex, reaching for each other, consuming each other’s bodies and pleasure with greed and sweaty, grasping limbs. Midnight kisses at The Garrison, my hair covered with snow and icy breath. Purposeful grocery shopping, meals made with love, so many blow jobs, so many. And through all these love moments were tears, circular conversations, changes won and then forgotten, pained conversations and hurt glances that made me want to rip my own heart out. Why was it so hard? Why, when we spent the year planning us, did these plans never come to fruition? How could we not work? Were we best apart, in anticipation, dreaming of our perfect partner who could never exist? Why did we feel so wrong for each other?

I never found the answers to these. Some days I retreated into myself, pointed my finger entirely at him and relieved myself of responsibility. And then, embarrassed by my own righteousness, I’d completely flip the coin: he’s an angel and I’m the one who screwed up. The closer I’d get to trying to Figure It Out, the more wispy and elusive the answers and reasons would become, changing according to my mood, to how successful I felt like I was at creating a new life here, to how angry I was. The coin kept flipping until it didn’t matter anymore.

It’s been 2 months since we last had contact. After we broke up, the final time, I ached for him, on more than half the days I hid under my sheets and cried my pain and fear and anxiety into my pillows, living on cherries and almonds and littering my room with tissues. His trace was still there- a stray hair under my pillow, a thumbprint bruise of his on my inner thigh. My body missed him, and I’d wake from tortuous dreams…his cock grinding into my pelvis, long and hard, pushing into me until my body and mind were totally consumed by him.

But, I rode out this sadness and grief with a bravery that took me by surprise! I romanced myself with introspective solo tips: a pool bar, a beach dance party, a hiking trip, a theatre show. I used to do these things and wish he was with me. Now I do them and I feel a rush of pride and self-love: I am not broken, I am not a failure, I am beautiful and legendary. This emotional fallout is inevitable of any breakup, I’ve been through it before and although I know it well, I’m always shocked at how much love can hurt.

I observe the arc of our romance from this solitude. He is who he is. He is not the fantasy. He is his own, complex person and it doesn’t matter that he can’t be to me what I want him to be, I will always love him for exactly who he is, even when it means he can’t be my partner.

In a month I’m going as far west as I can. I’ll paddle my feet in the pacific ocean- my ocean- and view our relationship from there, as if I’m falling off the western edge of the canadian shield he is so rooted into. It’s ironic, I packed up my life to come here to be attached to this shield with him, I craved this security, I craved his solidity. But now I feel more transient than ever, sliding over the world on my imagined octopus legs. I’m water, he’s rock.

Do I regret it? Yes, in moments of rejection, low self esteem, anxiety and fear all I want to do is run back to Auckland. I feel angry at coming here for plans and dreams that shattered so quickly. But then I don’t, really. I did a crazy thing, I met a stranger, fell quickly in love and moved across the world for him. I took such a risk! And if I didn’t take this, then I would have wondered for the rest of my life, what part of me was left in Toronto, living in his heart.

(Respect to Paul Simon: Hearts and Bones “The arc of a love affair. His hands rolling down her hair.”)

When anxiety, vulnerability and insecurity got the better of us

I know my sadness was hard for you.
I know that it made you hurt, and all you wanted to see was me smiling and laughing and perfectly, endlessly happy.

I wished I could open my mouth, and the right words would come out, expressing so very eloquently everything I was feeling.

I don’t know how to just talk, sometimes. And it physically hurts, I open my mouth and my mind just goes blank, and my throat gets a huge lump in it and my mouth gets dry and all I can do is give a little smile, and quietly say “yeah”, or something else equally neutral and inoffensive.

So I practice saying things to people in my head, over and over again, I have conversations and I imagine how I would say something and how they could respond, and then how I would respond and back and forth. And it’s funny, because when I have these conversations in real life, people never quite respond the way I imagine and then I can’t figure out how to do my part, and I end up feeling unsatisfied, because there’s still so many words still inside me that I didn’t share.

I got really good at doing this with you, over the year. I felt like we had two relationships. The real one, and then this one in my head, where we had endless conversations. I would talk so freely and expressively, and you would respond with respect and interest.

I’m got sick of imagined conversations.
Instead I craved the solid certainty of our bodies.
The blunt, hungry negotiation of sex.
The simple communication of touch.

Here’s some words inside me that I tried to say to you and couldn’t (in no particular order).

I love you so much I want to wrap my entire body around yours, and never let go. I want to be with you constantly, I’d love to know you so well I don’t have to wonder or have stupid conversations in my head, because I just know what’s going on for you and we can dispense with awkward, tangled words.

I wonder about you a lot. I want to form a better picture of You in Real Life. I’d like to know how you feel about everything in the world and in your life. I think you’re a very private person and I try hard to respect that. I don’t know if me asking lots of questions would annoy you, or if you trust me enough to tell me more about yourself. I always have wanted to know why people are the way they are, and you are no exception.

I can’t quite grasp how you feel about us, about me, and right now, when I’m searching for something concrete and certain in my life, this is challenging to me. And maybe you don’t know how you feel about us. I have lots of thoughts about us, and actually none of them are concrete or certain, beyond what I know right now, which is that I love you and I feel like I can’t get enough of you.

I dream about curling up on your chest, burying my face deep into you until you block out all the world, feeling your arms around me and your heartbeat and thinking of the ocean, the crashing waves, taste of salt, and hair whipping back from my face, heart open and toes digging down under cold wet sand. And knowing that you know me, that you know me so well I can forget having to explain myself, and I can just sink into your knowing and be loved and safe for a while.

In retrospect, I wonder if you had a similar dry lump in your throat? Or maybe your block was deeper? In the end, neither of us could have the conversations we needed to have. And that was that.

The good army wife.

And there it was. A pinprick thought. She pushed her chair back, put down her fork, exhaled shakily. Stared at the television, with it’s muted men in combat uniforms, now a procession, now cut to a politician, now a coffin, now a flag and weeping parents.

Not hers, but.

She loves this man.

Then her mind jumps forward, way, way, illogically forward to ten years in the future, as the widow of a deceased soldier, forming a group on base for other widows, organising now-solo parents, campaigning for veterans rights, and…

Being efficient in her grief.

She looks away from the tv, eyes tracing through the net curtains, out of the cheap motel glass and aluminium windows to the parking lot, minature garden, weathervane. This is a possibility. This is a possibility.

She asks herself the question: does she want to let herself fall in love with a man where this is a possibility?

And then: Is this even a question?

An imagined conversation with my friend who is remembering childhood sexual abuse.

What is it like?

It’s like…doubting every memory. Every thought. Doubting the way you perceive people. Doubting your history.

It’s like…replaying tracts of your childhood that have suddenly taken on a new meaning. You can view them through a different lens now, and my god, does it change everything.

It changes EVERYTHING.

You try this lens on, and it fits so well, all the puzzle pieces that never made a picture suddenly do!

But.

It’s too jarring because it shatters the very ground that you stand on, the assumptions and happy family memories that make up who you are as a person and so you discard this lens, you throw it away and feel guilty and embarrassed and shameful and sick and wrong and evil and mean.

And you tell yourself this: “You’re crazy. You are a crazy person for thinking this. You’re wrong for thinking like this. You’re a bad girl for thinking like this. You’re only thinking like this because you’re a little fucked up since you were raped last year, and that’s why you’re thinking like this. You’re incorrect. You don’t remember shit. You’re wrong.”

Then you push it aside, you bury it, you focus on healing from rape and planning your future and you try to laugh this off. You convince yourself that you’re making it up, and good thing you didn’t tell anyone, because they would think that you’re crazy and sick.

It comes creeping back in. It always comes fucking creeping back. You try to squash it, that thought of…what if? And then before you know it you’re walking around every day feeling nauseous, feeling like your stomach has been punched through to your spine, feeling an ache inside you that hurts so much you actually moan out loud, while you’re in bed with your arms wrapped around yourself, trying to keep yourself together, trying to hold yourself in one piece, because you’re scared, you’re so fucking scared that you might suddenly remember and then disintegrate, as your life explodes and burns around you, and you’ll forget how to survive when your entire childhood is exposed for what it really was.

Because. What if. What if your body is trying to tell you something? What if your instinct is right? What if, your memories, thoughts and perceptions are to be trusted?

I see your pain, my love.

A snapshot: an out-of-place teen in rural New Zealand

1.

She was back.

She paused at the door to her form room, blue and white checked skirt neat just above her knees (not yet rolled up). Crisp white polo, bag over one shoulder, all with her latest accesories: sweaty hands, dry mouth, heart beating up in her throat. She is 14.

Pause. Open. Smile. (Uncertainly).

The first person she sees is her ex best friend. Years of dance, sleepovers, petulant fights and secrets is discarded in her quick up-down, a glimpse of surprise quickly masked by “Oh, look, Grace is in our form room”. She says this with overly sarcastic joy, and no eye contact, loudly enough so everyone turns and stares at her.

Blush.

2.

She had to ‘re-adjust’. Every adult said this to her. She had to find her feet again (where did she leave them?). She had to settle back in (as if she had been settled before). These contradictions stayed unspoken, mostly, and she nodded, smiled and hid into herself, wishing.

Grace’s wish list: I want to go back to England to live, for good this time, not just a year. I want to be ‘the kiwi’, the foreigner in a friendly country, and stand out in a good way, as the shiny interesting person, not as the weirdo who left for a year and was now back, with a slightly different accent and stories that no one cared about. I want to be with my old friends, my wacky, loud friends with their total disregard for personal space. I want to talk about snogging, and Muse, and wear flares, and fantasise about Josh Hartnett.

These wishes started to pile up, and she was surprised at the weight of them. She fed and added to them by writing long letters to these friends, in different coloured markers, folded into intricate squares that only they knew how to open. In moments of solitude (and she found there were quite a lot, now) she would paw through the mementos her friends gave her, the ankle bracelets, the goth necklace with huge spikes, the tie-dye tshirt and rings and earrings, enjoying the feel of the different textures on her fingers as she gently remembered.

Slowly at first and then with a rush, this wishing and remembering starting hurting. It was an ache, right beneath where her ribs joined, and it was too much, it hurt too much and she would cry, in her single bed each night, arms wrapped around her middle and hunched right over, hurting and rocking and aching and crying. And wishing.

Grace’s wish list: I want to stop feeling. I want to stop experiencing my life. I want it all to go away.

These new wishes overtook the old ones. They filled her mind, every lonely, plodding day through school, through the dusty bus ride home where she would shrink and hope not to be picked on, through the cycle back to her house along the flat, gravel road, through the absent conversations and zombie chores and half hearted homework attempts. They would fill her mind until she’d be alone in her single bed again.

One night she found herself digging her nails into the skin on the inside of her wrist, tears wet on her cheeks, and unable to look away or stop herself as she slowly dragged one nail down towards her elbow. Only a centimetre or so. But it was enough for the skin to scrape back, the pricks of red blood to turn into drops and the pain the radiate up her arm, through her chest and down into that hole of hurt.

And she felt so calm.

This continued, not every night, but most. Her days would be exercises in invisibility and survival until she could retreat to her cocoon and hurt herself. After a while her fingernails weren’t enough and she searched around for something sharper, fingers landing on the goth necklace her English school-girl crush had given her, black and silver beads interspersed with centimetre long silver spikes. That night she pushed the tip of the spike into her skin, wiggling it around until the pain became too much and she sank into a dreamless, numb, sleep.

3.

Tess saved her life. (She said this to her, once, sharing her double bed and whispering to each other: “You saved my life”. She laughed it off like she always did, but under the sheets, reached down and gave her hand a light, brief squeeze). Continue reading

Why being in the BDSM closest sucks. Or. Am I a crazy person?

There is a group that has started in my city called Sexual Politics Now. I love that they exist. I back the work they do and I really believe that we need to be able to talk openly about porn, to critique and discuss the impact it has on our lives.

A few weeks ago, this group showed the Australian documentary Sex and Love in an Age of Pornography, directed by Maree Crabbe and David Corlett. I went along to it, and felt myself shrinking. By the time it came to the discussion I felt intimidated and marginalised. I kept quiet, and slunk out as soon as it was over, even foregoing the free wine and snacks. I’ve tried to forget this experience, because to be honest, I have been pretty up and down over the last few months and I’m learning how to rebuild my trust in my feelings. (Although, based on the fact that I didn’t stay for snacks, this is a pretty clear indicator that I felt sad and weird.)

But, I can’t let this go! And I so wish I had the guts to send this to the film directors, or to the organisers of Sexual Politics Now. But I don’t, at the moment, so I’m doing the next best thing and posting this on my (anonymous) blog. If you read this, it would be great to know if you think I’m completely out of line, or if you agree with my point of view. I kind of need that outside perspective right now, you know?

Okay, here goes.

My ass. Cane, bruising and photo courtesy of VanErotica. Yay for submission and degradation!

My ass. Cane, bruising, rope marks and photo courtesy of VanErotica. Yay for submission and degradation!

I do agree with Love and Sex in an Age of Pornography. We need this documentary. It is important. We need to be discussing porn with teenagers and young adults, and this documentary represents a way to do that.

However. While watching it I started to feel like my sexuality was not the RIGHT sexuality. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making shit up, so I tracked down an article the directors have written about the issues the film addresses:

there has been a marked shift in pornography content towards rougher, more aggressive sex—including, for example,

  • fellatio inducing gagging
  • heterosexual anal sex
  • ejaculating on women’s faces and breasts, and
  • double penetrations in which one woman is penetrated anally and vaginally at the same time.

Significantly, porn is normalising sex acts that most women in the real world don’t enjoy, and may find degrading, painful or violating. […] We are seeing young women internalising the messages of porn (Zwartz 2007). The porn erotic is so ‘normal’ that women may not see that this construction of sexuality is about appealing to men. It is not about a woman’s own dignity, respect or multidimensional nature—not to mention her pleasure.

Okay, okay, so can we pause a second please? Sure, the activities listed in the four bullet points are pretty much at the top of my fetish list, but I accept that I may be in the minority with this, and I accept that they’ve written ‘most women’ don’t enjoy this. That ‘most’ is important. But. I feel offended that after that innocuous ‘most’, they proceed to say I’m unaware how my fetish has been constructed by porn, my turn-ons are only about appealing to men, and my sexual activity does not allow me dignity, respect or pleasure.

I call bullshit. I feel that Crabbe and Corlett have a view of what empowered sexuality looks like, and this is decidedly vanilla. I can understand if you think I’m reading too much into the documentary and the article. I have thought that too. But it was impossible for me to ignore vanilla-biased discussion afterwards. There were about 50 people in the lecture theatre, including Crabbe and Corlett. Two thirds of the audience were women, and the majority in their twenties and thirties. At one point, someone in the audience said, “No woman likes having cum on their face!” There were murmurs and laughter in agreement, the directors up the front nodded sagely, and I shrank. I so badly wanted to stick my hand up and say, “Yes! I’m a woman and I think having cum on my face is the best thing ever! I would happily start every day with a rough blow job and a face full of cum!”

I didn’t, though. I’ve had one negative experience with a feminist group in June 2012, and since then I’ve been wary of being told my experience isn’t valid, that I’ve been “brainwashed by the patriarchy” (yes, that’s a direct quote). I’m afraid of being accused of sidelining the real argument, of distracting or being irrelevant. And, I knew my opinion would be unpopular.

At the end of the article, Crabbe and Corlett write:

While the porn erotic is normalised, it is possible to imagine an alternative vision. As porn demonstrates, it is possible to eroticise inequality, mere physicality, and even degradation and violence. But it is also possible for the erotic cultural sensibility to allow diversity and individual taste, and at the same time to promote equality, tenderness, communication, consent and mutuality.

The last sentence: Yes, oh my god, yes. I am so on board with this. I am so passionate about this! I want to become a sex educator to promote exactly this! But, are Crabbe and Corlett able to promote it in a way that actually IS about diversity? I feel they’ve completely ignored kinksters who are living proof of diversity and individual taste, who are highly skilled at respectfully communicating and negotiating consent, but do it in a way that EXPLORES inequality, physicality, degradation and violence.

Here is my ‘alternative’ alternative vision to the “porn erotic”. My vision would include: ‘your kink is not my kink and that’s okay’. My vision would replace the word ‘tenderness’ with respect. (Tender just alludes too much to a particular type of sex, which again, might be your kink but it’s not mine). My vision would not privilege one type of sexuality over the other.

At this point in writing, I pause and ask myself: “okay, it’s one thing having this alternative alternative vision, but how would I communicate this to young people?” Because I really do agree with the emphasis Crabbe and Corlett have placed on teenagers’ (particularly young womens’) sexual empowerment. So, since the only experience I can really speak of with any authority is my own, I think back to being a teenager.

I started watching violent porn when I was in my early teens, I actually would search for it, and feel very turned on, and then very guilty. I told myself I was a sick and bad for getting off on this sort of stuff, and I hated myself for it. In my alternative vision, I would have a sex talk with my teenage self. (And actually, it wouldn’t just be ‘a talk’. It would be an ongoing discussion throughout her teens and early twenties). I would tell her that what turns her on is what turns her on. I’d ask her WHY did this particular porn, erotic fiction, cartoon turn her on? How did she feel about this? What did she find appealing about the misogyny and unequal power relationship? What did she find problematic, what was it exactly that made her feel sick and bad?

We’d discuss whether porn actors can give enthusiastic, informed consent when faced with outside pressures (agents, fans, money), and can we ever really be sure whether porn is entirely consensual? I’d ask her how she felt about that. We’d explore how she could find a medium ground, recognising that she still wanted to watch porn, but discussing ethical alternatives (like feminist porn, porn with before and after interviews, erotic fiction for example).

I’d invite her to discuss her sexual desire, her inner erotic life, her fantasies. We’d talk about ways for her to explore her desire in a way that was safe, sane and consensual.

I would not try to ‘fix’ her. I would not tell her that her preferences were a phase. I would not tell her that she only thought she enjoyed these things because the porn she was viewing had manipulated her, or because she was a product of a patriarchal society.

Because actually, if our goal is support young women and men to a fulfilling, nurturing and empowered sexual identity, whether these things are true or not is irrelevant. I am far more interested in seeing young people as whole and highly functioning. What can we do to support them (and ourselves) to explore and make conscious choices about all the wonderful, complicated and contradictory sexual desires they may have?

Thank you to Maree Crabbe and David Corlett for making this documentary and to Sexual Politics Now for showing it and encouraging discussion. The very fact that I’ve spent hours writing this is testament to how thought-provoking this stuff is! Let’s continue this discussion, but please, let’s do it in a way that embraces all the beautiful complexity of personal sexual identity.