Trauma can disrupt and damage a person’s sexuality. It can shape the development of their sexual self. So, let’s talk about how trauma affects sexuality.
The use of the word “trauma” has seemingly skyrocketed over the last few years. When I use the word trauma I’m referring to a distressing or disturbing event, or condition that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Traumatic events and conditions often result in emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical repercussions.
There are different types of trauma, but all of them hold potential to derail a person’s intimate life. Developmental trauma, complex trauma and single incident trauma can all compromise our ability to bond. They can hamper our engagement in sexual desire and pleasure. The effects of trauma on sexuality are oftentimes complex. Symptoms can vary widely depending on the individual and the nature of the trauma.
Here’s How Trauma Affects Sexuality:
- Physical Impact: Traumatic experiences can sometimes lead to physical changes in the body that affect sexual function. For example, tension, pain, muscle tightness, tissue damage, scarring and other physical symptoms related to trauma can impact arousal, desire, and comfort during sexual activity.
- Emotional Impact: Post traumatic reactions are typically include a range of emotions such as fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, and anger. These emotions can interfere with sexual desire, arousal, and enjoyment. They can fuel compulsive sexual behavior, or interfere with pleasure and eroticism. A very common emotional impact of trauma is that individuals may struggle with emotional intimacy and have difficulty trusting others. If you have experienced interpersonal, relational or developmental trauma, fear and distrust can silence and separate you. One of the most heartbreaking of the aftereffects of trauma is the disconnection that ripples through the survivor’s life. For many, this is what what stops them from to engage in healthy psychologically intimate sexual relationships.
- Hyperarousal and Hypoarousal: Trauma survivors typically experience either heightened or diminished sexual responsiveness. Much of this is due to the way that traumatic experiences dysregulate our autonomic nervous system. Hyperarousal of the autonomic nervous system can lead to feeling constantly on edge, panicky or frozen. This can interfere with the relaxation that is necessary for enjoyment during sexual activities. Hypoarousal, on the other hand, can manifest as emotional numbness, lack of interest in sex or difficulties in becoming sexually aroused.
- Flashbacks and Triggers: Some trauma survivors experience visual flashbacks or intrusive memories related to the traumatic event. These can be triggered by certain sensations, situations, or stimuli. But many flashbacks are not like what you see in the old movies. Often times, clients can experience “body memories” or “emotional flashbacks”. These are clinically referred to as “re-experiencing symptoms” and they can flood a person with fear, helplessness, shame or anger. When the safety brain takes over, it can disrupt pleasurable sexual activities and cause great emotional distress.
- Body Image and Self-Esteem: Trauma can negatively impact body image and self-esteem. Individuals who have experienced trauma might struggle with feelings of shame or self-consciousness, which can breed discomfort with their own bodies. If you feel ugly or deformed it’s a hard task to be psychologically and physically vulnerable with a partner. Often this has bears no relationship to “the facts”. For example, I’ve worked with both male and female fashion models who intellectually understood they were beautiful. But their inner experience and beliefs were the polar opposite. Despite earning a living in the way they did, on the inside they reported to me that they felt repulsive and ugly.
- Intimacy Issues: Trauma can devastate a person’s ability to establish and maintain emotional intimacy. Survivors usually have challenges in trusting others and forming close connections. This distrust can influence their ability to engage in fulfilling sexual relationships.
- Dissociation: Some trauma survivors might dissociate during sexual activities, which involves mentally detaching from the experience. This coping mechanism can prevent them from being fully present during intimate moments and can lead to difficulties in feeling pleasure or connection. In my practice, I’ve had clients describe the continuum of dissociative experiences during intimate moments. On the milder end, many clients have shared how they numbed out and lost interest in pleasure. On the more severe end, I’ve had clients confront extreme dissociation in the form of derealization, depersonalization and “losing time”.
- Avoidance: One of the worst things about how trauma affects sexuality is the way avoidance can subsume a person’s life. A hallmark of PTSD, Complex PTSD and developmental trauma it the way that trauma survivors avoid situations or activities that remind them of the traumatic event. This can include intimate emotional and sexual activities. This avoidance impulse can limit their willingness to engage in dating, in sexual relationships or limit the exploration of their own pleasure and desires. Avoidance is probably the key factor that maintains trauma symptoms, and is known to underlie anxiety disorders of all kinds. There are two types of avoidance, situational and experiential. Trauma survivors typically avoid situations that trigger symptoms and work to mentally avoid thoughts, feelings and somatic reactions.
- Communication Issues: Trauma survivors can shut down deep, heartfelt, intimate communication in relationships. Survivors might find it humiliating or frightening to express their needs, desires, or boundaries. In a quest to “feel like a normal person”, a trauma survivor might avoid sharing much. As heartfelt communication stops flowing between lovers, it often leads to painful misunderstandings and difficulties in achieving satisfying romantic and sexual experiences.
It’s important to note that not everyone who experiences trauma will necessarily have these specific effects on their sexual experiences. Trauma impacts each person’s sexuality in highly individual way. It can be influenced by factors such as the type of trauma, the person’s coping mechanisms, their support system, their background and their overall emotional well-being.
Society’s Damaging Sex Myths Hurt Trauma Survivors And Everyone Else
We live in a world that is rife with sexual images and sex talk. But unfortunately, much of what we see and hear about sex is not only false, but it is also harmful. In fact, much of the sexual content of what we see and hear is frankly traumatizing. As a therapist, I’ve had a front row seat to the front pain fear and shame that is born by people of all types, shapes and sizes. People of all persuasions suffer and get the message that they don’t belong, aren’t good enough or have nothing of value to offer.
But don’t think it’s only survivors of frank sexual abuse and assault that suffer. Few people seem to have gotten adequate support around developing healthy sexuality. And it’s a mistake to think that just one type of person who has confided in me about sexual issues. Most men and women, gay, straight or whatever, receive all sorts of harmful messages about their bodies, their emotions, their safety, their value and their desirability. And they carry those psychic scars with them into their intimate relationships.
By the time many people reach adulthood, they have tied themselves in knots trying to live up to what they think is expected of them sexually. They have ideas about “normal” that are at complete odds with who they are and how most people’s relationships actually work. Oftentimes these beliefs about sex and intimacy bear little resemblance to the actual reality of most peoples sex lives. But they have no idea.
When It Comes To Sex, Many People Have No One Helpful To Talk To.
How Trauma Affects Sexuality? One of the worst things it does is it silences people. Recently, I was reading that the overwhelming majority of psychotherapy clients have sexual concerns that they never bring up. They wait for their therapist to ask. Most times they don’t talk to their medical doctors either. Guilt, fear and shame silence both the traumatized and the untraumatized alike.
And so the average person waits in silence. Or worse, they get misled by the media, popular self help authors, pornography, Hollywood and their friends.
There are a few common bits of malicious misinformation that have been on my radar screen in my recent clinical work. These sex myths exact harm on everyone, but particularly damage trauma survivors. Here are some of the recent ones I’ve been hearing:
- Sex should be easy and effortless
- Your emotions shouldn’t affect your sexual performance
- You should be up for sex any time
- Sex is not a relational act, it’s a solo performance done in the presence of someone else who is also performing solo
- You should not feel emotionally vulnerable regarding sex (whether you are male of female)
- You should not have to talk about sex for it to be satisfying…if you do, you are weird and broken
- Rapid casual sex with someone you just met is the ideal. If you struggle with it, you’re a prudish freak
- Sex is a performance and you are being graded harshly (for men and women)
- You are weird if sexual intimacy is complicated for you
- Male and female sexuality are markedly different
All of these damaging myths exacerbate the sexual pressure, fear, shame and frustration that abounds. If non trauma survivors are struggling with sex and relationships, just think for moment about how these myths compound a trauma survivors intimate life.
But, despite the obstacles, please remember it’s quite possible to resolve trauma and build a high quality personal life.
Trauma Survivors and Sex
You can restore sexual intimacy and pleasure by doing 3 thing:
- Work with a therapist who will guide you through resolving your trauma and it’s effects on your sex life
- Educate yourself. You are not going to get accurate information about human sexuality from porn, the media, Reddit, most self help books, or the locker room. Seek out wisdom and solid sex education.
- Use a couple of different therapy approaches when necessary. To recover a fulfilling sex life, most trauma survivors need practical tools as well as “inner emotional work”. Your therapist can help guide you through communication skills, sexual behavioral skills and practices that will help you improve your sex life
Resolve Trauma: Restore Pleasure, Desire and Intimacy
So, if you are reading this and wondering how trauma affects sexuality, there is a good chance you are wondering about yourself… and your own love life. If past trauma is affecting your current day sexual experiences, seek support from mental health professionals, such as a therapist specializing in trauma and who works with clients on sexual issues.
Their professional service can benefit you by helping you in address your intimate challenges. A qualified therapist can help guide you down the path of healing and reconnecting with your sexuality. So, when it comes to how trauma affects sexuality, remember that you trauma can be resolved.
Lastly when it comes to trauma survivors and sex, here is a word of encouragement; living well is the best revenge. Don’t let what happened to you limit your life for one more day.
If you are a trauma survivor looking to restore intimacy and pleasure to it’s rightful place in your life, please feel welcome to schedule an initial consultation.