fbpx Navigating Pleasure After Sexual Trauma

Navigating Pleasure After Sexual Trauma

Communication, grounding strategies and time will help you rediscover your sexual self.
Written by

Akhila Menon

For many sexual trauma survivors, post-trauma reality is further burdened by a realization that their experience has drastically altered their approach to sex. In many cases, this manifests as dissociation—wherein the individual disconnects from their current situation—and a fear of intimacy, both of which make it difficult to form and maintain a healthy, meaningful romantic and sexual relationship.

"There's not necessarily one way that trauma presents itself," said Nedeljko Golubovic, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program at the University of San Diego. "Responses to [sexual] trauma can vary greatly. However, some things that are most likely to happen in terms of physical consequences are greatly impacted by the level of physical pain that was endured."

Understandably, recovering from a life-altering traumatic experience requires adopting healthy coping mechanisms, re-centering priorities, seeking therapy and healing—all of which take time. This process may complicate how you navigate your relationships alongside your sexuality and sex life. However, it is important to find a safe way to address and reconnect with your sexual self.

The thing about touch

A number of sexual trauma survivors struggle with touch and may develop an aversion to certain forms of it. Some survivors experience what is known as an "automatic reaction" to touch, which can result in flashbacks, panic attacks, dissociation, nausea, pain, a sense of sadness and/or fear, or freezing as a result of their nervous system shutting down.

Trauma therapist Marcia Moitoso, MCP, who specializes in sexuality and sexological concerns, has noticed certain trends in her clients.

"I see many people who have a lot of difficulties being fully in their bodies when they're intimate," Moitoso said. "Dissociation seems to also be a very common effect of sexual trauma, and part of that is because quite often to survive the trauma, people have had to dissociate."

Survivors may find that some sexual experiences are more difficult because they cue memories that act as triggers.

"Memory, in general, is held in a bunch of different spaces—the image, the possibility of a sound, smell or touch, all those things," Moitoso said. "The nervous system hasn't been able to process that memory. For example, [when] a similar touch happens, the brain has this short-circuit—an amazing ability to go, 'Okay, I think this is danger, we've experienced this before,' and shuts down."

When engaging in acts of intimacy, it is important to realize triggers are common and likely. While this may be painful and frustrating for you and your partner, the severity and frequency will likely minimize with time and healing. In the face of an automatic reaction, you should immediately stop the activity and engage in a self-soothing exercise that can help you ground your body and mind.

A level of vulnerability

Establishing a relationship and engaging in intimacy with a partner requires a level of vulnerability that sexual trauma survivors can struggle with. While the stereotypical idea of a sexual assault might be that it happens in a dark alley by a stranger, in some 8 out of 10 instances, it is perpetrated by someone the survivor knows. But no matter the perpetrator, survivors often feel robbed of their sense of trust—in themselves, in others and in the world at large.

"Sexual assault robs an individual of their ability to be autonomous and in charge of their own body," Golubovic said. "It's the most intimate violation a person can experience. A high level of trust can be eroded during that experience."

Golubovic also said this cause and effect can greatly impair future relationships for the victim, as their notion of trust and comfort with being vulnerable could be stunted by a variety of triggers, any of which could lead them to pull back out of self-preservation.

These physiological reactions can have debilitating effects on a survivor's ability to engage in meaningful relationships and intimacy, which is why it is so important to create a safe space that allows room for healing and the gradual unlearning of these auto-responses.


"Another important element to recovering from sexual trauma is self-healing, including work outside of therapy," Moitoso said. Survivors need to modify the way their brain works with grounding exercises, which can help them feel present and in the moment.

Grounding strategies include meditation and mindfulness activities, practicing saying "no" and deep sighs, as opposed to deep breaths. According to Moitoso, deep breaths can sometimes trigger the nervous system, but deep sighs (which she recommends as an alternative) are slower and the exhales are accompanied by a noise that can be more calming.

Some grounding strategies can be difficult at first. It's best to gradually build up to doing these exercises to their fullest extent.

Effective communication

One of the strongest emotions a number of survivors of trauma describe is a feeling of shame. This shame often originates from a place of self-blame because the survivor attempts to retain some faith in the world around them. By assuming the blame for the trauma, they can try and convince themselves that the world is still a safe place.

And since in many instances of sexual trauma, the perpetrator is known to the victim, this further exacerbates the survivor's feelings of guilt and shame around the trauma. It can also lead to a struggle with trust and vulnerability.

Despite this, open and active communication with a partner can help reestablish your control over your sex life and sexuality. Moitoso said this can be encouraged if both the survivor and their partner fully respect and embrace boundaries.

While sexual trauma can lead to insecurities about sexuality, triggers and rejection can bring out feelings of rejection and insecurity in your partner. This could result in you feeling pressured to agree to sexual activities to prove your love for the partner.

This potential scenario is why discussions around what "no" means and how the processes of setting boundaries and practicing grounding are essential. It can also help establish trust and intimacy, while simultaneously helping you regain control over your sex life.

"Every 'no' is sexy because every 'no' is getting you closer to an embodied and enthusiastic 'yes,'" Moitoso said.

For more help

As well as online support groups, there are some books that are recommended reading, such as:

  • "The Survivor's Guide to Sex: How to Have an Empowered Sex Life After Child Sexual Abuse," by Staci Haines
  • "Heal the Body, Heal the Mind: A Somatic Approach to Moving Beyond Trauma," by Susanne Babbel
  • "Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma," by Staci Haines
You've got the power

Reestablishing a connection with your sexuality by yourself—without relying on a partner—can be additionally helpful. You can do this through artistic hobbies like painting or dancing, or by dressing in clothes that make you feel sexy or powerful. Any activity you enjoy that encourages you to accept yourself more on a physical, emotional and mental level can be extremely helpful.

These small steps may help you regain control and reestablish a healthy emotional state. Before trying any new practices or methods, be sure to discuss your intentions with your doctor and/or therapist.