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Sexpert: Finding intimacy after trauma

“Ask the Sexpert” written on a light blue background. In the bottom left corner sits the yellow, red, and blue Peer Health Advisors logo. “The Prospect” is written on the bottom right.
The Design Team / The Daily Princetonian

Content warning: The following column contains references to sexual assault. If you or a friend have experienced sexual misconduct and are in need of assistance, Princeton has a number of resources that may be of use. You can also reach SHARE, Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources and Education service at 609-258-3310. 

Dear Sexpert, 

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I feel safe and respected by my partner, but my past experience with sexual assault has made it so that I have trouble focusing during sex. I find it pleasurable, but I cannot orgasm. I have disclosed to my partner that I am a survivor, and they’ve been understanding and patient. Lately, I’ve been feeling pressure from them to orgasm, but I don’t want to fake it. Just because I don’t reach an orgasm doesn’t mean that I’m not enjoying being intimate with them. I’m so confused.   

— Sincere Survivor

Dear Sincere Survivor, 

Dealing with intimacy can be a delicate topic in any case, not only between you and your partner, but for yourself as well. Layering on the complex feelings, both physical and emotional, experienced by many survivors rarely makes things simpler. Navigating intimacy after assault, harassment, or other harm can be a confusing and variable process, as you’ve observed, but it’s not one you are alone in. Many people have explored and shared what has been helpful for them, which we will discuss a bit here, but at the same time, only you can decide what does and doesn’t work for your body, mind, and desires. 

Sex and sexual assault are not the same things, and it can take time for your body and mind to understand the different experiences and sensations since the trauma caused by an assault can actually change the way your brain reacts or how it associates sex. It is possible that you might feel ready to move on from your assault in one moment and experience flashbacks or activations in another, making it seem like you’ve taken a step back in your healing journey. No one’s experience is the same, but it is not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault to dissociate (which is often described as feeling detached from one’s body) during sex when activated by a smell, sound, touch, etc. This can make it challenging to experience or focus on pleasure. 

One helpful approach, if you would like to try it, might be to focus on solo sex or masturbation. It can also help you to reclaim your body on your terms and under your control. This can be a great way to explore your likes, dislikes, and activations without the pressure of another person’s timeline or expectations. You can even document activations, body sensations, and emotions that you experience during solo sex, so you can find what is pleasurable and safe for you.

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When talking about the idea of pleasure vs. orgasm, a common shorthand is to use these terms interchangeably. This association supports a checklist-oriented mentality, which can contribute to individuals putting their sexual goals (i.e., orgasm) above others’, and supports an attitude that may uphold violence. For most people, it is possible — and not atypical — to experience pleasure during intimacy without reaching orgasm. However, this “pleasure equals orgasm” shorthand can often result in pressure to reach orgasm during sex. In your case, it sounds like you are feeling pressure to orgasm from your partner. This may come from a variety of causes — perhaps they themself have the desire to orgasm frequently and assume you have a similar one, or perhaps they worry that the joint sexual experiences aren’t bringing you pleasure at all, or it could be something else entirely. You might currently have some insight into their thought process, but gaining clarification on their thinking may be helpful for your confusion and could give you an opportunity to share your own thoughts too. 

Communicating with your partner, whether it be verbal and independent from intimate moments or any other situation which you deem fit, is an important step towards not only creating a stronger relationship but in making sure that your voice is heard. Find a time and place to chat where you both feel comfortable in sharing your perspectives and conveying your boundaries. For example, you could let them know that you really enjoy having sex with them and want to continue doing so while taking your own orgasm out of the equation, or you could start by asking if they have any concerns regarding your mutual sex life. It’s completely normal, no matter how close you and your partner may be, to have boundaries during intimacy. Identifying and communicating your boundaries and expectations to your partner and hearing about theirs is an essential, though not always easy, step in any sexual relationship, but it may be particularly relevant for yours. 

This can be a very challenging, stressful, and delicate topic, but there are many resources available to help you through it. Some resources are intended to be long-term, while others are shorter-term and often more immediate. Likewise, some resources are confidential, and others are private – both of which you may find useful when you are preparing for your conversation with your partner and afterward. If you are looking for more professionally-oriented support, consider connecting with clinicians in the SHARE office or Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) (confidential), or chaplains in the Office of Religious Life (confidential). SHARE Peers or Peer Health Advisers (private, non-confidential) may be an option if you feel more comfortable speaking with peers. (Note: SHARE Peers are only non-confidential because they let the SHARE office know that you spoke with them. You can request that the SHARE Peer keep your identity anonymous, and just the general details will be shared.) For off-campus options, you could connect with Womanspace, a support and counseling resource that serves all survivors and their families in Mercer County. It is normal to feel anxious when accessing new resources or even talking to friends about this challenging topic.

I hope you know that whatever you are feeling is valid and that you are worthy of comfort, support, and safety. Hopefully, this information can help make intimacy with your partner enjoyable, both for you and them, and take off the pressure of orgasming. Remember that we are all here to support you. 

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Sincerely,  

The Sexpert

The Sexpert is a monthly column written in collaboration between The Prospect and the Peer Health Advisers (PHA) program. For more information, you can visit the Sexpert’s website. If you are interested in submitting a question, you can send it through this form: tinyurl.com/princetonsexpert.