Editor’s note: This story discusses and references sexual trauma.
According to sex therapist Caroline Leach, talking about your previous trauma, first-time sex expectations, and boundaries with your husband-to-be will help you navigate future sexual experiences in a way that feels safe and less anxiety-provoking.
- You should also get to know your own body through masturbation and other activities that involve being in touch with your body, like yoga, putting on body lotion, or stretching on the floor of your living room.
- Being honest with your partner and in tune with your body will help you to avoid and work through any trauma-related triggers you may encounter while being sexually intimate.
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I’m getting married this summer and I’ve never had sex before, even though I’m 21.
I’ve heard that it hurts, which makes me nervous.
I’m also nervous about the fact that I don’t really have any desire to have sex. I’ve had past trauma in my life to blame for my lack of interest in sex, and never experiencing penetrative sex before just adds to my anxiety.
Is there anything I can do to prepare, crave sex, and have a good first time?
You’re dealing with lots of impending life changes right now, so it’s completely normal to feel anxious and scared about all of it, including your first time having penetrative sex.
The best way to cope with those feelings and prepare for intimacy after trauma is, like the great Salt-N-Pepa said, to talk about sex, baby.
According to Caroline Leach, a sex therapist at The Mind Embodied in Broomfield, Colorado, talking about your previous trauma, first-time sex expectations, and boundaries with your husband-to-be will help you navigate future sexual experiences in a way that feels safe and less anxiety-provoking.
But first, it’s important that you recognise your lack of interest in sex is normal and an experience many people who have dealt with trauma go through, regardless of the exact traumatic event they lived through.
“Trauma is trauma, whether sexual or not,” Leach told me. “It lives in the body and it can affect your libido, the level of safety you feel, and prevent relaxation, which is important for enjoying sex or orgasming.”
In order to move forward from that trauma and develop a satisfying sex life, Leach said it’s important to take a slow approach that involves both exploring your own body and getting support from your partner.
It’s important to create “scaffolding” to support your budding sex life
You wouldn’t build a skyscraper from the ceiling down, and the same thinking can apply to developing your sex life.
According to Leach, people who want to have sex for the first time should first put up “scaffolding,” as she calls it, or the foundation for a positive and pleasure-filled experience.
That scaffolding includes getting to know your own body through masturbation as well as other simple activities that involve being in touch with your body, like a yoga practice, putting on body lotion, or stretching on the floor of your living room.
Basically, you want to “build the muscle of tracking and listening to your body,” Leach said, because it will help you focus on the present moment your body is in, a sensation we’re often disconnected from in our fast-paced world.
Tuning into your body and the way it reacts to different touches and environments can also help you better understand which things trigger you in relation to your previous trauma.
For example, if the traumatic event you referred to occurred in a dimly lit space, you may notice that your body tenses up whenever you’re in a similar environment. Or, if a dog was around, the smell of dogs could trigger you, Leach said.
“When someone experiences sexual trauma, our bodies are so intelligent in protecting us from experiencing the same trauma again, they sometimes form associations by encoding little details of what else was happening at the time, like the way light streamed in through a window,” she said.
You should talk with your partner about your needs and limits
When you’re dealing with personal trauma, it might feel like it’s something you have to do on your own, but according to Leach, navigating sex after trauma is something a couple should do together to create an empowering and safe sexual bond.
If you haven’t already and you feel comfortable doing so, you should tell your partner that you’ve experienced trauma. It’s a personal choice whether you do or don’t disclose this part of your past and you don’t have to go into a detailed explanation, but if it feels good for you to to share your experience with your partner, it can help them understand your potential trauma-related responses during sex and help you to slow down the process to avoid retraumatization.
Leach suggested creating intimate moments with your partner that don’t involve penetrative sex to ease into it. Experimenting with physical touch like kissing or cuddling naked together can help you “learn about your partner in a sensual way and move toward sex without going right for the thing that could wake up the most reaction or fear” inside of you like penetrative sex might, Leach said.
During these experiences, and whenever you decide you’re ready for penetrative sex, ask your partner to pay attention to your reactions. According to Leach, survivors of trauma may have flight, fight, or freeze reactions when they feel triggered or unsafe.
No two trauma survivors will react in the same way or to the same triggers, but if your partner noticed you tightly balled up your fist during sex, for example, it could mean you had a fight-like response to a certain trigger, Leach told me.
A flight trigger, meanwhile, could be turning your head away from your partner during intimate moments and a freeze trigger, which Leach said she sees often in her patients, could mean you disassociate or try to zone out of the moment.
If your partner notices you reacting this way, they can help you pause whatever you’re doing, come back to the current moment, and turn that reaction into a positive experience.
If you tend to disassociate, you could ask your partner to say, ‘Take your time, look at me, and see if I feel like a safe place.” They could also encourage you to look around our room when they notice your trauma-related response. Or, if you tend to ball your fists up, explaining to your partner that they shouldn’t take it personally because it’s a trauma response can help immensely, Leach said.
“It’s a self-protective response,” she said. For some couples with appropriate guideance, the partner can empower them in this situation by allowing the trauma survivor to physically push them away. “A partner can say, ‘I won’t take it personally and I want you to feel like you can win if you want my body off of you, so push me,'” Leach said.
As you navigate these new experiences as a survivor of trauma, remember that it’s normal to feel vulnerable, but it in no way means you’re weak or broken. Quite the contrary, it means you’re a brave woman with so much life and love ahead of you.
As Insider’s resident sex and relationships reporter,
is here to answer all of your questions about dating, love, and doing it – no question is too weird or taboo. Julia regularly consults a panel of health experts including relationship therapists, gynecologists, and urologists to get science-backed answers to your burning questions, with a personal twist.
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