Trauma-Informed Dating Practises
If you’ve been living in the milieu of public life, the last week or has been thickly saturated with conversations about sexual trauma. The reverberations of your own bodily trauma and gendered violence (and that of the people you love) have most likely saturated your recent experiences as well.
While you may never imagine wanting to be touched anytime in the forseeable future, we are going to offer you some tools to consider for the future. There is also the truth that sexuality and touch are interwoven into many people’s lives, and can also be a tool for finding your way back to your body after a week of heavy disassociation.
If you have a body and anticipate interacting with another person’s bodily in the forseeable future, this is information you can hopefully use. If not, please know that we’re thinking about survivors and everyone who has struggled to get through these gutting last couple weeks.
Disassociation Can Look Like . . .
You may very likely have spent this week in a thorough state of overwhelm or disassociation, which mimics a lot of people’s experiences of sexual violence. This is nearly-universal experience of trauma, but not everyone has words for what it looks or feels like.
Disassociation can look a lot of ways, including like spacing out, feeling floaty and not-present,conspicously or inconspicuously avoiding triggers such as specific feelings, relationships, or environments.
It may look like lost time or memories, though not as a result of overuse of substances.
That said, there are many among us that experience disassociation on a daily level that may or may not be indicative of An Unusual Problem.
Disassociation exists on a spectrum of mindlessness. The exercise that proponents of mindfulness are trying to get you to tune into which is to be present with the moment you are in, and whatever feelings that moment contains. A mild disassociation when you find yourself tuning out from a moment that you find disengaged/annoyed/bored/triggered is very common.
There are many other ways that disassociation can look, but these are some rudimentary ways to frame it, if you’re new to the exercise.
In the realm of dating and sex, the triggers for disassociation may be so subtle or specific that it can take a lot of time and insight to develop awareness about how quickly you check out, where you go, and what took you away from the moment.
Interior Strategies for Managing Disassociation in Sexual Contexts
Okay, but realistically- people with a trauma history can struggle with connecting sexually. So what should we do about that?
It begins with locating yes/no within your body. Unless you are a person currently engaging in survival sex/sex work, most of us would ideally or preferably only engage in sexual experiences that we are actively enthusiastically consenting to.
So how do we locate the yes and no? By getting really acquainted with how our body experiences a yes or no. Some people begin this by tapping into their preferences of color, or flavors.
It’s hard to shame yourself for liking a color (people have done it) but ideally, beginning with these fairly value-neutral preferences is a way to begin.
Moving forward, spend some time reflecting on/articulating what you really find interested in experiencing with your body. Not everybody likes it the same way!
Are you into power exchange, or moving really slow, or lots of kissing, or no kissing, or lots of knick-knacks, or just skin?
All of these, or none of these, or one after the other?
Good for you, great! Do those! If they change, try something new!
The Sex You Like Having vs The Sex You Think You Should Be Having
Lots of folks have a really specific idea of the kind of sex they think they should be having. What this might look like: multiple orgasms, simultaneous orgasms, the imperative of not using sex toys, the imperative to use really niche sex toys, etc.
The reality is that ideally, you should have the kind of sex you want to have, with a person with a similar vision. There is not a right number of orgasms or positions or partners. Part of the healing from trauma that we talk so much about includes accepting what works for you, and that includes sexually.
Best Practices for Dating
Also, I asked kind people on the internet to offer suggestions for trauma-informed dating practices!
Some suggestions include:
Pay attention non-verbal cues and ask before initiating hugs. If you do touch without verbal consent, do so lightly, briefly, and sparingly in safe zones like the shoulder.
If you’re masc of center and date women/femmes consider such habits as walking next to or ahead of them (rather than behind them) and stay in their range of sight.
Watch out for people bring up exes and past relationships excessively, and disclosure of potentially abusive behavior like “having a short fuse.”
Track the balance between overdisclosure/dumping lots of personal details in the first few dates and also rigidity and unwillingness to open up.
Shutting down profession of affection that are too soon or too enthusiastic for the length of time we’ve been together.
Asking “Are there any parts of you that you’d prefer I not touch?”
These are all just rough ideas, but if you’ve been walloped with the realization that sexual trauma was a much bigger part of your life and history than you realized, this may be a place to begin to move forward.
Manage Your Boundaries, Not Other People’s
It is your job to inquire and respond to people’s boundaries, not to intuit them. If you are having sex with a person, you are not their therapist.
It is your job to respond sensitively to their stated boundaries and nonverbal cues.
It is not your responsibility to prompt someone to disclose their trauma history beyond what they share with you in concrete, actionable terms.
Sexual trauma is endemic. If you have a marginalized body, it has very very likely been trespassed upon, violated, objectified, or harmed. This is not your fault.
If you are someone having sex with another person who has not experienced these things, they cannot possibly know what that is like. It is their prerogative to treat you kindly and respond to your needs and boundaries appropriately.
If you are having sex with another person with a marginalized body, this is not a time to stack up traumatizing experiences to decide whose needs matter more. Be gentle with yourself and each other. Leave each other alone if you can’t.
This is such a rough time for so many folks- take good care of yourself, let’s take excellent care of each other. Especially in times when terrifying things are happening in systems of power- we still have each other, and we still can do incredible things for ourselves and for each other. If one of the ways you need to take care of yourself looks like therapy, give me a call.
About the Author
Maria Turner-Carney has a BA in media studies and queer identity development from Fairhaven College. She received her Master’s in Social Work with a focus in Mental Health from the University of Washington. Her work background includes LGBTQ mental health; work in the anti-violence movement; dating and domestic violence; harm-reduction; mental health case management; chronic mental illness; intergenerational relationships; and managing chronic health conditions. Her practice is located in Seattle, WA, which you can book here. You can follow her on Instagram here. This article was originally posted in Maria’s blog, which you can read here.