*Warning that this article will mention sexual violence and trauma, though not in detail of case studies or specific incidents.
Words by: Lauren French, MSexol (Curtin) Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine
Trauma is a hard word. When we talk about sex and trauma we often focus solely on sexual violence, which I get, as unfortunately, sexual violence is still extremely common in Australia. In 2020 alone, there were 27,505 sexual assault victims recorded by police. Now while that number already seems too high, sexual crimes are often underreported, meaning the real number could be much higher. However, there are many other types of trauma that can have a big impact on our sex life.
Trauma can be a single life event, or a series of events, and has less to do with the incident details and a lot to do with the impact of the trauma. Trauma could be real or perceived threats to our life, incidents of neglect, witnessing acts of violence, witnessing someone's death or sexual trauma. But sexual trauma is broad, not only including rape and sexual abuse, but also childhood sexual abuse, coercive sexual behaviour, invasive surgery and accidents on the genital area. For our queer & trans community, there can be specific trauma related to harassment, erasion and systematic oppression. We also need to highlight the intergenerational trauma in Australia, specifically for our First Nations people. So while the trauma might have nothing to do with sex, the impact can affect our ability to explore sexual pleasure.
When we move towards trauma-informed approaches to pleasure, we must first understand that all trauma is valid. Many will downplay their trauma if it doesn’t fit the social idea of assault, or make comments around their experience not being as bad as some. This isn’t a trauma competition, no one should be judging someone on whether an event is really traumatic. We believe survivors of trauma, always. We also understand that anyone with trauma is still entitled to sexual pleasure, but we need to be creating a truly safe environment for that sexual exploration.
Safe means understanding; understanding your partner's trauma triggers and being clear on how to stop or pause sexual play. Now we might know some of our triggers; these might be certain physical touches, smells, sexual positions or words. However, we might not realise something is a trigger until we experience it. So this is always an ongoing conversation. We need to be attuned to our partner’s behaviour to help sense these triggers, as well as have open conversations around what we like sexually just as much as what we didn’t like. Consent is always important in any sexual relationship, with trauma it needs to be a dynamic practice. This means we want consistent check-ins with our partner, but things can change within the sexual moment, so something that might normally be fine cannot be assumed to always be fine. Respect each other's sexual needs while also respecting each other’s sexual boundaries, which you’ll need some great communication to make sure your stick to! Remember, our focus should always be on pleasure, and everyone has a right to pleasure.
If anything in this article triggered something for you, please reach out to a safe service.
Lauren French is a proud First Nations woman, a member of the Society of Australian Sexologists & a clinical Sexologist working with the Australian Institute of Sexology and Sexual Medicine. Lauren is also a sexuality educator with Body Safety Australia, a non for profit organisation specialising in childhood sexual abuse prevention.