As a survivor of sexual assault, being “weird” about sex is far from unusual: Why wouldn’t we fear the act that was used as a weapon against us? Or, as Sarah Melancon, Ph.D. and Clinical Sexologist, asked over the phone: “If you survived an airplane crash, nobody would be shocked if you had a phobia of flying after that, right?” Right.
But my fear-of-flying (read: sex) feels unusual in the sense that it took years to develop. At first, I was fine (with sex, though not otherwise). I spent the years following my assault pursuing a profusion of pernicious partners: Men who would have sex with me once (maybe twice) then disappear. On-and-off abusive boyfriends (who in hindsight resembled the rapists), who wouldn’t beat me but break me other ways.
These were the men with whom I’d “make love,” as I was somehow convinced that a deluge of drunken “date nights” were good for me. Convinced that casual sex could help me heal, granting me what I’d never had but had always wanted: Agency over my body. (Something I hope to someday achieve — unlike orgasms with those men.)
Drunk and numb, I felt in control. Liquor allowed me to finally be “free.” Or so I thought.
This newfound “freedom” was a drinking problem in disguise. But I was in denial, despite knowing addiction ran down my bloodline — both sides — and my adolescence spent as a perpetual AA plus one. Those people were “real” addicts, though, the kind who cried describing the stench of beer emanating from bar floors. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I didn’t crave liquor, let alone despair over dirty dive bars’ liquor-soaked landing.
I simply needed it for all forms of socializing and sexual intercourse. And that’s healthy, right? (It’s not.)
It is however “normal” — though that doesn’t make it a good thing. According to Melancon, there is debilitating cultural and social anxiety surrounding sex, and lots of people use drugs and alcohol to it easier — regardless of whether or not they’ve experienced trauma. And while there isn’t necessarily any issue with drinking socially on occasion, developing a pattern of thinking in which you “can’t” do something unless you’re intoxicated does present a problem, which it clearly did for me — and several other women I know, as well.
When I first met my husband, I was at the peak of self-sabotage. I’d graduated college, and cocaine for the most part, having just moved onto an MFA program where I’d abuse Adderall instead. Back then, we made no sense: He was a nice guy. He worked with kids! Plus, he had just crashed my birthday party after rejecting me on Tinder.
My now husband and I had met on Tinder a month or two prior to the party. Recognizing him from college, I swiped right — the polite thing to do. He, however, did not, which I knew right away when we didn’t match. I matched with everyone — I was adorable and quirky and highly photogenic. Nobody swiped left on me! So his appearance at my party (as a friend, his at-the-time roommate’s, plus one) was exceptionally offensive, and I took it upon myself to tell him off. “Why didn’t you swipe right on me?!” I slurred (surprise, I was drunk), to which he suavely replied, “Do you have any idea how gorgeous you are?” Shocked and flying high off tequila and flattery, I kissed him and we’ve been inseparable since.
Sex wasn’t an issue at the beginning — in fact, we didn’t have it at all. Yes, we’re one of those couples who actually waited to have sex! (My husband’s idea.) When we did eventually consummate our relationship, it was fine — at first. But a few months in, something strange happened: Amid an otherwise pleasant moment of passion — sans alcohol — I started to panic, and sprung up and away from him, hyperventilating in cold sweat. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” I asserted through sobs, eventually divulging what happened when I was fourteen. Still naked, I wept for hours — I was re-traumatized, but mostly afraid he’d stop loving me now that he knew I was damaged goods.
Reader: He married me.
Yes, despite the initial episode and thousands that would follow, he did decide to stick around. But that meant figuring out how to make this whole sex thing work. You see, for whatever reason, the more comfortable I got with him, the less comfortable I got with having sober sex. So as our (otherwise very healthy) relationship progressed, I found myself seeking comfort in my old ways: Ordering one too many drinks on date nights so I’d be ‘in the mood’ by the time we got home. Because, while I identified as a steadfast feminist, those heteronormative social expectations about sex still weighed heavily, having guided nearly all sexual endeavors up until then: “Put on lingerie. Fake your orgasm. Pretend you’re having an amazing time,” the patriarchy whispered into my naive ears.
So I did. But I’d spent so long playing drunk sex doll I never bothered to learn how to enjoy sex myself. And when I finally started to with my husband: It frightened me.
Before meeting my husband, I’d only had one orgasm with an ex. The rest were fake. Back then, sex was just a performance. (And for that I blame my Leo Rising.) But now that it wasn’t, and instead for *gasp* true love: I had no idea what the hell I was doing. (That’s my Aquarius moon.) I truly thought I was broken — just one of those people who’d never come during sex. But I didn’t mind, I had my vibrator — which did work every time — I assume because it felt safe. I mean, what was this little pink thing going to do to me? I’d accepted the trade-off years earlier: I’d have pleasureless sex with partners, and use my cute toy in my free time. Everyone’s happy (ending)!
Except, now, I wanted to enjoy sex. I loved this man! And loved having sex with him! I wanted to do it without, well, panicking, but also with an orgasm! But vaginal sex didn’t do it for me, even at my most emotionally stable. And I’d cry: “My vagina is broken!” (For the record, it’s not: 45 percent of vagina-havers can’t orgasm from vaginal penetration alone.) So, we came up with a solution — of which I was wildly embarrassed at first: Incorporate my sex toys into our sex life. It took some getting used to, and a lot of repositioning, but eventually, we got the hang of it. And now, sorry if this is TMI (though you’ve read this far, so I assume it’s not?) I orgasm every time I have sex.
I do however acknowledge that I’m in the extraordinarily privileged position to be able to navigate this journey with my life-long partner. Not everyone who’s been assaulted is married, let alone in a relationship or having consistent sex, and easing back into it on your own can seem isolating, terrifying, and not even worth it (as it often did for me). But, I’m here to tell you: That even if you’re having casual sex with people you don’t know very well, or by yourself.
And, pro-tip: Sex toys can and will help make the transition a little easier.
“Playing with yourself and being really gentle and slow in that way, can help you start to feel comfortable with feeling sexual again,” Melancon said. “By bringing a partner in and having safe experiences where nothing bad happens, your body can start to trust itself again, then start to trust your partner again.”
Eventually, little by little, you’ll learn to trust sex again — like I did.
Of course, there are still setbacks: Sometimes I panic, fighting the urge to make a cocktail to calm my pre-sex nerves. Other times I demand all lights are turned off; my own naked body inducing anxiety — and nausea.
Whatever the case, I’m back on the plane, and don’t need, or even want, the free in-flight cocktail.
And that’s my version of a happy ending.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or needs support in dealing with sexual violence, there is hope and support out there. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is free, confidential, anonymous, and available 24/7. 800.656.HOPE & http://online.rainn.org .
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