Sex & Relationships

Sex After Trauma: The Psychology Behind My Promiscuity

I'm finally laying everything out on the table, because I know there are people in the world who need to hear this.

Portrait of young hugging lovers, close-up.
Photo Credit: Guryanov Andrey

About a year ago, I wrote this column for my college newspaper's special issue on sex, love and intimacy. It's about the difficulties with having sex after experiencing sexual trauma. It's about 99 percent truthful.

Nowhere in that column do I tell lies. But I did omit certain things that would have been relevant to include. I wrote a scrubbed clean version of my story partially to make it more palatable, and partially because I didn't fully understand the psychological mechanisms behind what I was going through. I was trying to protect my reputation, before I realized I had nothing to be ashamed of.

I'm finally laying everything out on the table, because I know there are people in the world who need to hear this. And any company that doesn't want to hire me because I openly discuss the side effects of sexual trauma is a company I don't want to work for anyway. I have nothing to apologize for, or to be ashamed of.

Hypersexuality is a common side effect of sexual trauma (as is avoiding sex altogether). I didn't know this at the time I wrote that piece. During that period of my life, I wasn't just, "taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to." I was actively going on Tinder and looking for guys to meet at bars and then bring home with me, because I felt like I needed to.

My logic was: If I can sleep with random people, that means I'm fine. That means my trauma doesn't affect me.

Oh, the irony.

I didn't realize that this was a completely normal reaction to sexual trauma until I talked about it in therapy, and my counselor assured me that it was a common response.

I also recently read Come As You Are, by sex educator Emily Nagoski, who describes how trauma can press on your sexual accelerator:

Sometimes, too, survivors find themselves locked in a pattern of sexual behavior. Their brains become compulsive about undoing the trauma, redoing it differently, or simply understanding it. Like biting on a cold sore or squeezing a pimple, the brain can't leave the trauma alone, even though you know you'd heal faster if you could. The result is that the survivor has multiple partners, often following a habitual pattern, without feeling perfectly in control of the decision to have those partners.

I described it as always having my finger on the "yes" button. I was "yes" happy. But I wasn't happy. I was waking up in the morning with a stranger's arm around me and feeling sick to my stomach.

One of these endeavors went terribly wrong and sent me into a huge panic attack that lasted until about 5 a.m. I vowed that morning to leave behind my promiscuity for good.

If you are a survivor and you are reading this, and you are thinking, "Wow, that sounds an awful lot like me," know this: Your response is normal. And if you're feeling trapped, frustrated or unhappy, you can do something about it. There is a way out.

I deleted Tinder, took a break from men for a while, and did some pretty intenseEMDR therapy to reprocess all the memories of what happened to me. Therapy can be scary. The prospect of looking your trauma right in the face, rolling up your sleeves and doing the work required to put it in its place is beyond intimidating. But I can say from personal experience that you'll come out on the other side feeling 1000 times better than you felt when you started.

I never went back to sleeping with random people. When I felt like I was ready to start dating again, I wrote in my new Tinder profile: "Do not message me if you are only looking for hook-ups." (More on how that turned out next week.)

Now, this is not to say that everyone with a lot of sexual partners has a mental health issue. My goal here is not to condemn promiscuity; it's to recount how I went from handling my trauma in an unhealthy way to handling it in a healthy way. My problem was not just that I was sleeping around -- it was that I was sleeping around with people who I didn't even really want to sleep with.

During one of my sessions, my therapist told me this:

"Society has all kinds of value systems for determining when sex is okay and when it's not okay. But the only one that really matters is the unity of mind, heart and body."

I have never heard anything more true about sex in my entire life.

My mind, heart and body were not all on board with the people I was bringing home. That's where I went wrong. Part of my therapy was learning to trust myself to make good choices -- to listen to all parts of myself, and yield whenever one is saying no.

As I've talked about before, most of the information our culture feeds about sex is wrong. We're caught in tangle of mixed messages, wondering what the characteristics of healthy sexuality are -- having only one partner, having many, or having none? -- and trying to replicate those characteristics in order to feel "normal." But the key to healthy sexuality has nothing to do with social standards; it's whatever your mind,your heart, and your body agree is right for you.

So if you are a sexual trauma survivor seeking to find a sense of normalcy in your sexuality, listen to all those parts of yourself. Recognize that sometimes they might say different things. Forgive yourself for not listening to all their voices in the past, and promise always to listen to them in the future.

And when the day comes that they are all saying the same thing--yes--that is when you will find the sense of empowerment, and healing, that you have been looking for.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.


Katherine Ripley is a writer, feminist, bibliophile, and political junkie.

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