Both sex and trauma (whether sexual or otherwise) are part of a complex set of biopsychosocial interactions, meaning that they affect people in ways that goes beyond surface level. A good example is a car crash. You can see and physically feel the effects of the car crash in a literal sense, but there is so much more to it than that. We carry traumatic events inside of us in ways that we may not even be aware of. The aftermath of trauma can haunt us—and not many people have the coping tools to be able to fully heal.
James G. Pfaus, Ph.D., a prolific researcher and internationally recognized expert in the psychology of sexual behavior, tells TheBody that we don’t talk about trauma and its many impacts because, well, we don’t want to. “The lines that traumatic experiences cut run very deep into us. And when a psychologist or a good friend earns the trust of someone who has had extremely traumatic experiences, those lines are now tracks used for their own psychological high-speed trains … to get them out of a potentially bad situation quickly, even if no situation really exists.” In other words, sometimes when someone gets too close for comfort, it’s easier to up and run rather than be vulnerable.
These effects are perfectly highlighted by the ways in which trauma can impact our sexual response. From vaginal numbness to vulva pain, and from erectile dysfunction to an increased risk of sexually transmitted infection (STI) transmission, there are so many ways our sexuality can be negatively impacted by traumatic events. Our bodies are literally shutting down the sexual response cycle in response to deep psychological wounds that we may not even be fully aware of.
It’s high time we stop pretending everything is fine, so that we can give voice (or, in this case, words) to what so many of us have experienced. Because, honestly, a lot of “sexual dysfunction” is linked to psychological issues. Sexual difficulties are often a symptom of something more sinister—a monster under the bed that we need to face and exterminate if we want to be fully healthy sexual beings.
Trauma and Psychological Factors in Sexual Response
Low libido, vaginal pain, erectile dysfunction, and other sexual health concerns are intrinsically linked to the psychological. Many sexual conditions (such as vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, and vulvodynia) are rooted in the psychological sphere as well as the physical body. The thing that puzzled experts and sexologists alike for so long was that there often seemed to be nothing “physically” wrong with the health of the vagina, clitoris, or penis in question.
Remember how I said that we store trauma in our bodies? Well, this is how it works. It’s like an ugly, uncontrollable, completely unfair banshee that haunts you and then sinks its teeth into your soul and needs intense therapy to manage. You can tell yourself to “buck up and be fine” all you want, but guess what: That’s not going to happen. “How trauma impacts your sexual response will depend on the kind of trauma you've experienced, your personality, your internal resources, your relationship with your body, [and] the relationship with your partner/s,” Lucy Rowett, a clinical sexologist and certified sex coach, tells TheBody. “Some of the many ways trauma can impact sexual response can be dissociating during sex (when you just tune out and leave your body), numbness and physical pain, difficulty getting aroused, flashbacks during physical arousal, getting triggered, panic attacks, difficulty trusting your partner, wanting to have rougher or more intense sex in order to be able to feel something, or just feeling completely disconnected from your body.”
When trauma manifests as a lack of sexual response, a compulsive need for sexual gratification, or a physical pain response, this comes from the autonomic nervous system. It sends signals of sexual feeling to the brain and from the brain to the genital network. This same autonomic nervous system also controls the fight or flight response. As trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., puts in his groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, the brain says, “I’m in pain,” “I’m in danger,” or “I’m not in the mood for sex in any way, shape, or form,” or “I want to be hypersexual in order to feel better.”
Meanwhile, the body does not respond in a concordant way. This can happen for many different reasons, but sexual assault or other deeply traumatic events certainly rank high on the list. “As desire, sexuality, and pleasure often come from a place of safety and care, trauma can break this bond, creating disconnect and discord within the body as it becomes difficult for the body’s response system to survive and thrive simultaneously,” Amanda Rue, M.S., a reiki master practitioner, tells TheBody. Rue is also a teacher and founder of Reiki Bondage and The Shift Work Shop, a human resource consultancy offering consent-forward sexual harassment prevention programming and training.
STI Infection Rates and Trauma
Due to the effects that trauma can have on us, we tend to act out in self-destructive ways at times. Studies have shown that childhood sexual abuse is closely linked with high HIV risk-taking behaviors. Another study showed that women who had a history of sexual abuse that resulted in later drug abuse were far more likely to engage unprotected sex. A history of trauma and STI infection risk are extremely closely related, and there is no denying that. “Trauma affects both the body and the brain, so cognition, perception, memory, and decision-making can also be affected as a result of trauma,” Rue says. “It seems counterintuitive, but the trauma response in the brain can negatively impact decision-making, opening the door for additional trauma and harm.”
I am in no way saying that trauma makes people be inherently irresponsible with their sexual health. What is evident is that traumatic events, especially those of a sexual nature, can dramatically impact the way our brains process critical information. It can literally alter our perception of our own safety, leading to what on the surface looks like “rash” decision-making but is truly a behavior designed to cope with untold psychological stress that said person is under.
Maybe if we actually gave kids proper, inclusive sex education and a better understanding of their right to bodily autonomy, and stopped shaming them with abstinence-only education (which does not work), we’d be able to better equip our children with the tools that they need to protect themselves from danger. Sure, dangerous situations are often inevitable. But the more relevant and useful information you have, the better positioned you are to navigate danger.
Isn’t that the world we all deserve to live in?