Welcome to Ms. Opinionated, our weekly advice column dealing with questions of life, love, feminism, and pop culture. Submit your anonymous questions here. This week, Andi Zeisler takes on a tricky question from someone who just doesn’t want to talk about sex.
Dear Ms. Opinionated,
I don’t like sex at all, and in fact it brings up some traumatic memories. It’s painful for me to be around sexual situations. Even seeing certain phrases or behaviors makes me panic, and this makes my sex-positive friends very angry with me. How can I live my life in peace without having to deal with sexual material all the time? How can I get my friends to accept me when I’m so different from them? And how can I calmly tell people that statements such as “Women love sex, too!” and “Sex is a natural, healthy part of the human experience” that those statements make me feel worthless and marginalized? This is a big problem for me, and I would appreciate it if you could give some advice to sex-averse people like me.
Your letter has so, so much packed into it, and so I want to separate out the distinct parts and address them individually, because I feel like there’s more than one issue here—not to mention quite a few unanswered questions.
The first of these, and the most troubling part of your letter, is the traumatic memories that actual sex—as well as sexual situations and references—bring up for you. I’m wondering if you’ve sought help and counseling for the past sexual trauma in your life, as that seems to be the crucial factor in whether you can “live [your] life in peace,” regardless of what else goes on. If you haven’t, seeing and talking face-to-face with a clinician trained in helping others work through past experiences seems like a key first step. Your letter didn’t mention having used therapy thus far, and if that’s the case I cannot overstate the importance of it. Whether you try a traditional talk therapy or something like cognitive behavioral therapy, you absolutely, unequivocally must interface with someone trained to identify and work with cases where abuse and/or post-traumatic stress disorder are interfering with daily life and wellness. Full stop. I mean, as much as I want Ms. Opinionated to help you, I can only be the maitre d’ for the grand buffet of healing, truth, and understanding that you are due.
The second part of your letter is a little more complicated. It sounds like, simply put, you’re just not into sex. You don’t want to have it, you don’t want to hear about it, and you’re tired of being made to feel like you’re weird because of it. If you hadn’t mentioned the previous sexual trauma, I might have suggested that you seem like you’re presenting as asexual—which, while a misunderstood and misrepresented sexuality, is fully valid and increasingly visible, with organizations like the Asexual Visibility and Education Network advocating for a better understanding of this identity. But because so many people suffer damage to their sense of self in the wake of abuse or trauma, it seems important for you to explore whether your panic and triggers around sex are a result of what’s happened in your past. Again, this is where a professional comes in very handy.
But let’s say you are asexual. Maybe it’s not important to know whether whatever happened in your past is connected to it or brought it on. After all, there’s no known causal link between sexual trauma or abuse and asexuality—if there were, there’d be a whole lot more people identifying as asexual than there currently are. So it could be this: You’re asexual, and you have this traumatic stuff in your past, and you’re just super fucking tired of sex being the main thing that people end up talking about. If that’s the case, the key is standing up for yourself and your identity, and helping to educate others. The Thinking Asexual is a great resource for learning more about asexuality and addressing questions you might be asking yourself.
But whether on not you’re asexual, whether or not your trauma around sex has made it a hardcore trigger, your so-called sex-positive friends need to get on board with your feelings and stop being jerks. They have no business calling themselves sex-positive if they’re unable to understand that panic is an all-too-common reaction to sexual topics as a result of trauma. Unless you haven’t told them. In that case, see step one—talk to a professional, and then decide if and how you want to broach the subject with your pals. If you have told them, they really are just being insensitive. Both asexuals and survivors of sexual trauma shouldn’t have to keep silent about the way that sex and sexual images are inescapable, particularly in American culture. You may not be able to change it, but you have every right to talk about your discomfort and your friends—if they truly are your friends and value your experiences and point of view—should be able to listen.
Ultimately, being asexual and being sex-averse are different things. Your letter indicates that you don’t want to “fix” your aversion to sex, but rather you want to be understood and validated. The first step to that is understanding where your emotions and triggers are coming from. I truly hope you find someone who can help you pinpoint this; if you need further help finding resources where you live, feel free to follow up. In fact, please follow up regardless—the fact that you are strong enough to seek help and answers and to assert yourself as a conscientious objector in an increasingly sexualized world is brave and crucial, and I wish you the peace you deserve, as well as the healing that will set you on that path.