I’ve started seeing a new person and I am ready to have sex with them, but I’m kind of nervous. What is a low-pressure way to disclose that I have trauma and that it sometimes affects me during sex?

Disclosing trauma can be difficult. In the most basic terms, trauma is defined as a serious injury to the body or psyche. Events that can be traumatic can include, but are not limited to: a large-scale disaster such as a flood, a car accident, having a loved one die, physical abuse, or sexual abuse. It is possible to experience “complex trauma,” which is when someone has been exposed to multiple traumatic events. Multiple people can experience the same event and have very different responses to it both in the short and long term. A month after the event, if the individual displays emotional or physical distress or disruption as a result of the incident, that condition is known as Acute Stress Disorder. If the symptoms don’t resolve after that period of time, it can often be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

All of this is to say that sexual trauma is not uncommon and the way that the effects of trauma surface are varied and sometimes unpredictable. So be patient with each other and yourself! You are not always going to be able to tell who has experienced trauma and what their specific needs around it are. Your new partner may have trauma of their own to share with you.

When you are hooking up with a new person, it is not always desired or advisable to delve deep into your personal trauma. If you know what some of your triggers are, you can state them up front without explanation. This is easily achieved by telling the new person, “I like it when ______ (and say a few things you want them to do);” and “I don’t like ______ (and say the things that are off the table).” And you can ask them, “How about you? Anything that I should avoid or go for?” Hopefully that person will also be a bit prepared and be able to give you some insight into what is going to make this a good experience for them as well. This activity is a practical exercise in communicating your desires and boundaries around sex in general. Everyone has sensations and activities they like and don’t like, for whatever reason, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. In terms of your needs being respected, it shouldn’t matter if something on your “don’t” list is there because it is attached to trauma or not.

With that approach, because there are no whys attached to the actions you have listed, it keeps the dialogue on more of a surface level which can be helpful when you’re still getting to know someone. Maybe they will want to know why they can’t do something; pay attention to if they respect your boundaries around it even if you don’t want to get into details. If during sex they do something on your “don’t” list, that warrants a check-in and is potentially something to note for any future engagement. At best they are careless, at worst they are seeing what boundaries they can push. Either way, not ideal. If they feel that they need an explanation on why you don’t like certain things before they have sex with you and you do not want to offer up a why freely, perhaps this is neither the time to have sex nor the person to have sex with.

Perhaps you have been dating someone for a while and you are ready to go a little deeper with them. You trust them, you have a good feeling about them, you want to build intimacy with them. This is an opportunity to have a more in-depth conversation about your personal experiences and how it might affect your relationship with this new person. It is best to not spring this conversation on someone out of the blue. You can ask someone in person if they’re up for talking about some potentially heavy topics with you; or you could send them a text or DM asking if you can make a date to talk. The dreaded “Can we talk?” text feels a bit ominous, so I think it is a good idea to add some encouraging words, such as “I’m having a great time with you—can we talk soon? I’ve got some stuff I’d like to share.”

You could be more explicit and set a date to specifically talk about your sex life with your new person and everything that entails. This is helpful because it is an activity that engages both the good and the challenging surrounding the ever-so-charged topic of sex. The key here is that you are coming together as equals with mutual respect and trust for each other. You could have this talk after you’ve been having sex for a while, or before you have any sexual encounters with each other at all. It is a time to disclose what you are excited about and what feels difficult for you, and hopefully come out of the conversation with a new understanding and joy about your shared sex life. This conversation is also usually best had in a mostly neutral environment, which could be your kitchen, a coffee shop, or on the banks of the Mississippi.

Maybe none of those places feel right for you, and that’s OK. The reason I am suggesting this exchange happen outside of the bedroom (or wherever you engage in sex) is to separate the feelings and concerns connected to sex from the physical act itself. The conversation could very well lead to sex or potentially build up sexual tension; but if you decide to have sex, it takes an extra effort to make it happen. You are removed from any expectation or routine that you may have connected to the bedroom or other sexually-charged space.

All of these conversations presuppose that you know what your trauma triggers are during sex and are able to vocalize them to a partner. What about if you are having sex and out of nowhere you freeze up? Personally, I hate surprises, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t happen. Our brains are real annoying like that. In this case, it is good to talk after you’ve had a little breather, a glass of water, or a walk around the block—whatever you need to make yourself feel better. Maybe you want to discuss it with your therapist or best friend before you see your date again. Maybe you’d like to journal about what happened. Either way, this is now information that you have and it is up to you what you do with it. It can help build intimacy with your new person by talking about what happened as this was a shared experience.

Presumably your partner was present during the sex when you were triggered. Maybe they noticed that something was off, but maybe they didn’t. If your reaction was visible, the experience could have been a scary or confusing moment for them. It can be helpful to get on the same page about what happened. As mentioned earlier, it is possible your new partner has their own set of baggage or triggers that could have been activated. For each of you, an external support person, or another way to work through feelings about what happened, could be valuable so that they aren’t processing their own feelings about the event with only you. This might be a favorable time to figure out what kind of support you need from each other if a similar incident occurs.

Sharing our personal traumas—and desires—is a vulnerable act. Do it with care and intention. Being kind and careful with ourselves and each other necessitates owning our own feelings and experiences. I mention this because when you share your truth about how your trauma affects sex for you, there is always the possibility of being rejected. Some folks aren’t ready to hold space for it, some never will be ready. Some may see it as a personal flaw. For some it will hit too close to home. Everyone is entitled to their own feelings. However, their rejection of your shared relationship is not about you personally, and it is not your responsibility to help them process their feelings about your experience. If you can be present with your feelings and experiences, you are less likely to be knocked totally off balance when a hurt such as this occurs, because you will be grounded in your truth. You can be sad and disappointed, but these are much easier emotions to work through when you feel able to care for yourself.

Basically, be honest about where you’re at and hopefully your new partner will be able to meet you.

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illustrations Ruth Mascelli