We don’t see it coming.
We are having a moment of intimacy: a moment we’ve been desiring and have been moving towards. And here it is, clothing is coming off and the connection is good and new and hot and then boom—a flashback comes at the tip of a lover’s fingers, the thrust of a tongue, a hand at the throat—suddenly we are pulled back to a moment of terror, violation, or confusion.
Our bodies feel caught up in that memory state and cannot register the present moment, can’t tell if we are, in fact, safe here. Our hearts pound, sweat comes to the palms and upper lip, perhaps we gasp for air, pull into balls of ourselves, lose our ability to explain coherently what is happening. We break the connection with our lover.
Or perhaps we are the lover, and we are moving forward with consent and connection and suddenly see fear and withdrawal in place of arousal and excitement.
I use ‘we’ intentionally here, because so many of us have experienced trauma related to intimacy, and so many of us have experienced moments of getting triggered by that trauma when we are in situations where we want to be present and healed and connected. And we feel super isolated in these moments of being triggered or triggering.
I have been put off for a while at the overuse of the word “trigger”—I think too often people use it when they mean annoyed, or offended, or something less visceral than triggered. Inside that sense of overuse, I am simultaneously glad that people are finding ways to say, in real time, something happening right now isn’t right for me.
For this article, I am using the word trigger to mean experiencing a visceral reaction of sensations and emotions in the body that we can’t control, an experience that brings past trauma to the present. There are so many reasons why these triggers happen. Childhood sexual trauma, abuse, sexual assault—triggers can include times when we are made to feel scared or powerless, even if there was no physical harm.
And as I write this, it’s been a week of news about an encounter between a woman called Grace and Master of None creator, Aziz Ansari. I have had all the responses to the story, wondering why she didn’t say no, why I didn’t learn to say no, when men aren’t taught to feel and hear no, swinging on a pendulum that keeps landing on “this iceberg of rape culture is the entire planet.” There was so much detail in the story, but I didn’t see anything about either player’s background of trauma, and what dynamics and socialization might have been playing out in that room.
What I do know is triggers can look like extreme and overt responses, but they can also make us freeze, keep us very quiet, steal no from our mouths, keep us from being clear about what we want and don’t want, and cause confusion afterwards. We are socialized to swallow extreme reactions, to be pleasant instead of present. So, here are a few tips* for what to do if you find yourself triggered, or suspect your partner is triggered, in a consensual sexual experience**.
Pause what you are doing.
If you can speak, say, “Wait, stop, I need a moment.”
If you can’t speak, remove your partner’s hands from your body and step away, holding your hands up.
If that is too much, just fully withdraw your body from contact.
If you know from past experiences that you have some triggers, it can help to name this up front and let your person know what they can do if you get triggered. This is also a good thing to ask a new lover—“Is there anything I might do that could trigger you?” Or, “if anything I’m doing doesn’t work for you, please say ‘stop’ or hold up your hands.”
Take Time to Recover
Let your breath return to normal, however long that takes. Notice if you are caught in a memory, or if you are actually feeling unsafe in the present moment. Again, if you can speak, say “Something is coming up from my past, I need a moment.”
If you can’t speak, closing your eyes can help you to establish a boundary around your attention and keep it on your own well-being and breath.
Decide What To Share
You are not obligated to disclose your past trauma. At this point I generally assume that anyone I am beginning a situationship with has some sexual or other trauma in their history, and I try to be forthcoming about the fact that I do as well. But actually sharing the details of it in or right after the moment of trauma may not be appropriate for the connection or the moment, or your healing. Or it might be exactly right.
“I want to share more about my history of trauma with you, but not right now.” Intimacy, yes, but I need time. This might include, “I’d like to continue—but can you avoid [if the trigger is a physical place or activity, name it as an emerging boundary]?”
“Are you open to hearing about what’s coming up for me right now?” Hearing about other people’s trauma can be hard, even re-traumatizing for people. It can also be a swift transition from heavy petting to deep sharing. The connection may not be about that kind of connection, even if something is coming up in that moment.
“I am feeling like myself again. I don’t want to talk about it. I would like to keep making out, if you’re down.” Sometimes the trigger is familiar, and once it passes I just want to keep going, not move into a big process moment.
“Something is coming up for me‚ I’m not ready to share it, I think I/you need to head home.”
Let Your Body Follow Your Words/Desires
If you want to leave or want your lover to go—make those moves.
If you have a friend who can come and get you, call them up. You don’t need to drive when your system is taken over by trauma.
If you want to continue the encounter and your lover is still game, start slow. Move within the boundaries you need. But it’s really important to know that you deserve pleasure. Experiences where you can be triggered and recover, which usually come after doing healing work at a somatic and/or therapeutic level, help to reset your system to know that you can enjoy the connections you choose to and reclaim your freedom and pleasure inside of spaces absent of harm.
Make an intimate trigger map. This map is just for you. Draw a mug-sized circle in the center, with two to three concentric circles around it. The center circle represents a full trigger, and as you move out from the center there can be things which are painful to remember, but have less of a full body impact.
Fill it in: Are there certain touches or experiences which you know can completely hijack your system? Those go in the center. You can leave it empty if you don’t actually get triggered in that way. Experiences which make you extremely uncomfortable can go in the middle ring, and so on.
The more clarity you have on what pushes your buttons, the more informed and empowered you can be in navigating pleasurable sexual experiences with others.
*In a future article I will explore skills for negotiation and agreements from BDSM communities.
**If it’s non-consensual, there are lots of options.