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Queeries: what can I learn about approaching intimacy with survivors of sexual trauma?

You should be thinking about elevating your level of care and communication with every single sexual partner you have, says Fagony Aunt Aisha Mirza.

21 Aug 2020

Illustration by Soofiya

Dear Fagony Aunt, I have started seeing someone who has told me they want to take things slow physically. They’ve hinted at some bad sexual experiences in the past but I don’t know the details which makes me feel unsure of what to say or how to move forward. I didn’t have sex through the whole of lockdown so I am quite keen to do it at some point. How do I handle this with care?

This year has watered seeds of revolution in communities the world over, as we’re brought face to face with the stark reality of just how little material or spiritual care there is available, particularly for marginalised people, from the big boys in charge. We have turned to mutual aid networks, crowdfunding, chosen family and grassroots collectives to keep us nourished and safe while we build for an alternative future. It’s as important as ever for us to challenge ourselves, to constantly revolutionise the way we think and move as individuals, especially behind closed doors. All that to say, let’s have some good sex. 

The fact you’re taking time to do the work of asking this question, about how you can handle this situation and this person with care, is revolutionary in itself because imagine if we all did that all the time. Every interaction we have had and ever will have is loaded with power dynamics, individual and collective traumas and cultural differences. That’s why it’s so difficult to decide on which takeaway to order when you’re in a group.

The pandemic is ongoing, everyone is confused, and the soundtrack to our lives has been reduced to two options; Best of TikTok playlists and the gentle hum of low-key terror. It’s not the easiest time to get laid, but it is a great time to remember and re-learn how to share intimacy in the safest and hottest ways possible. 

“Every interaction we have had and ever will have is loaded with power dynamics, individual and collective traumas and cultural differences”

I think it can be useful to assume that anyone we want to be intimate with has experienced sexual trauma at some point. I think this because a) most people have and b) if we strive to treat everyone we’re close to with the same diligent level of care, attention and gentleness regardless of how traumatised they are, way fewer people will get traumatised. You should work on elevating your level of care and communication with everyone you’re intimate with now and in the future – not just with those who have disclosed to you.

You don’t need to know the details of this person’s bad sexual experiences in order to feel empowered moving forward in whatever way feels right for you both. Those details are for them to share if and when they feel moved to, but they are not necessary. The fact you feel unsure about where you stand suggests to me that you need to talk to each other more – not necessarily about the details of their past, but certainly about the specifics of your future together, whatever that may look like. 

They’ve mentioned that they want to move slowly, and slow is subjective, so perhaps this is a good place to start your clarifying conversations. Some examples of the kinds of conversations you may want to have are:

Can you tell me more about what you mean by going slow? What, if anything, do you feel comfortable engaging with right now? 

What turns you on? What feels particularly good and desirable? Which parts of your body do you want to be touched? How would you like me to touch them? Can we have a signal for if I’m touching you right? 

How do you think we should communicate if something changes about how something is feeling? I’ll make sure to stop when I don’t feel you reacting the same way, too. It’s not all on you to communicate. 

Which parts of your body should not be touched at the moment? Do you have any other boundaries I should know about? 

How would you like physical intimacy to be initiated while we are together? What should this initiation look or feel like? 

Is it helpful if I verbally ask for consent before engaging in any touch? Are there other ways you’d like me to confirm consent? Here’s how I like to communicate consent. Here’s how I like to initiate intimacy. Where do you think our preferences overlap? 

I really don’t like when people do ___ to me during intimacy. Do you have any triggers I should know about such as pressure on your chest, heavy breathing or not being able to make eye contact? 

How do you normally experience and express being triggered and what would be the best course of action if that does happen? Of course, I’ll immediately stop. But after that, what’s the best way to comfort you or give you space? 

What do you like to hear during sex? Are there any specific words or phrases you like or dislike? What words do you use to refer to the different parts of your body? 

Wanna tell me about the best/hottest hookup/sexual experience you’ve ever had? What made it so hot? Do you want to brainstorm about how we can bring those elements into our intimacy? (Bonus points on this one: it might make your belly feel weird to ask, but you get to look secure AF, and confidence is the best natural lubricant). 

Do you have anything you’ve ever wanted to explore/try out, but didn’t know how to ask or talk about it? (Maybe this is the time to mention your curiosity about feet.)

Don’t approach this as The Queer Inquisition. Consider making a list of questions together, and answering a couple each day. Listen carefully to the answers. Offer your own experiences, boundaries, likes/dislikes. Surely you’ve had less fun sexual experiences and more fun ones. Share your preferences, so that the person you’re seeing doesn’t feel like a sexual gatekeeper, or that they have to share all the vulnerable details without you meeting them there. Preferences and boundaries are normal, and you should have them too. Make sure to be clear on what is a preference and what is a boundary, and use them to guide the way you play. I highly recommend being able to answer all these questions yourself, mirroring vulnerability without equating your sexual experiences to your partner’s trauma.

Think of these conversations as erotic experiences themselves. And, you’ll be part of a long legacy of such discussions. In 1996, Tupac released ‘How Do U Want It’. With the dawning of the new millennium, Ludacris asked us what our fantasies were. In 2005, Pharrell asked Gwen Stefani if he could have it like that, and she informed him that he could, in fact, have it like that. And just this month, Megan Thee Stallion told them exactly where they could put it

However you do it, the point is you’re getting enough information to enable you to make absolutely no assumptions about how the person you’re with wishes to engage with their body and yours. Remember to agree on a rough timeline for when you will have this conversation again, as needs and desires are constantly shifting! Do you want to run through them every time you’re intimate? Once a week or once a month? When one of you feels like something has changed for you? Should you get them down in writing? Is a Google Doc the key to your partner’s heart? You may want to find out if they are feeling held in other areas of their life too – do they have a good therapist and supportive friends? How about you? How can you both strengthen your community connections, to support your intimate life? 

Hopefully you know what foreplay is. But what about having some afterplay? After you’re intimate, take some time to talk through how it went, how it felt for you both. What you liked the most, what was funny, what was unexpected, what felt weird. Then you get to stretch those positive endorphins out further and further, reflecting on your collective experience. And, you can make any adjustments to make it even hotter next time. This also helps set up precedent for talking about experiences between the two of you that don’t go as well, rather than pretending that could never happen. Hot sex is a practice, not an art.

“Make space for honest, non-judgmental conversations where you are truly receptive to what you’re hearing”

These conversations shouldn’t just be for this person because of their trauma. These conversations should be your sexual blueprint to build from with anyone. Make space for honest, non-judgmental conversations where you are truly receptive to what you’re hearing and committed to adapting your behaviour, within your limits, to accommodate the needs of people you care about. And you should expect the same willingness from your partner. It’s one of the kindest and most radical gifts you can bestow. Not only is it kind of transformative once you get into the habit of it, but it also helps you find out if you’re compatible and can help avoid miscommunication and unnecessary hurt including physical violations.

You say you’re keen to have sex, but queers know better than anyone that this could look like and feel like a lot of different things. Don’t assume you have the same definition of sex as someone else. Talk it through and find out if you are both going to be able to get your needs met safely. Some people will want to hug you all night, some people will want to fuck – no kissing – and then go home. Always back these conversations up by listening to non-verbal cues, checking in during sex and debriefing afterwards. 

When consent is sexy became a thing, I had trouble understanding exactly how or what that meant. At the time, the idea of discussing the particulars of what I’d like to do with someone seemed in no way sexier than clenching my teeth, going for it and hoping for the best. Then one day, sensing that I wasn’t quite hitting the spot, I asked someone how they like their dick sucked, and by way of an answer, they took my fingers into their mouth and showed me. In this time of extreme uncertainty, we don’t know what tomorrow will be like, let alone our futures. Yet, if you start to include these conversations with your sexual partners I can promise you better intimacy for the rest of your life. 

Survivors and everyone else we are intimate with, including ourselves, deserve a level of care and communication that makes space for exploration, closeness and pleasure within comfortable and well defined limits. It doesn’t always feel easy or possible to create those spaces, or be honest about what we want or need or can or cannot offer someone else, and we won’t get it right all the time. The key here is creating an environment quiet and careful enough that you can hear your body, and the body of the person you’re sharing intimacy with. We know our bodies better than anyone else, even when we are feeling alienated or unsure. They really do have the answers if we listen. We were raised in sex-negative, shame-riddled cultures, and therefore these types of sex-positive conversations are radical acts. Bring the revolution into your bedroom…shower…kitchen floor…

With endless love, respect and gratitude to Beth Whalley, rape crisis advocate and assistant professor of sociology at Framingham State University, for her guidance with this column, her tireless work fighting rape culture, and her friendship.