A man giving a woman a piggyback ride

Just the Tip is a sex and relationship column hosted by queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. Here you will find interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email  jera@jerabrown.com or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.

I’m 24 years old. I’ve been with my boyfriend for 4 years now, and I’ve been having a sex drive problem since the start. In the past I haven’t really had this problem, I’ve always been very sexual & open to new things. Many of my past lovers I fell for them HARD and had a crazy obsessive infatuation with them, my current boyfriend I have never had that obsession (I want to jump on him every minute) with him and that scares me. Many of my past relationships were not healthy. Some were verbally abusive, and this is the first time I’m actually with someone that I don’t have to chase. He loves me for me, and I can be my complete self around him. So why can I be sexy & carefree with past horrible lovers and not the person I trust the most? My sex drive was okay for the first month, and I knew very quickly he was someone I thought I could spend my life with. As time went on my libido plummeted, I started to get anxious when I knew he wanted sex, and I felt grossed out about myself and being touched. Now I can’t even get on top because I feel like I’m being stared at and feel ridiculous. I love my boyfriend unconditionally and we have talked about getting married someday, but there is one thing holding us back and that is my lack of wanting sexual intimacy. Half the time when we have sex, it isn’t good and I just want to stop because it’s either painful or I feel awkward. And the other half it’s amazing! For so long I have felt angry, anxious, and guilty every single time he goes to touch me in a sexual way. Even when he comes in for a kiss no matter how bad I want to kiss him I can’t let myself just relax and enjoy it. I have this awful wall up. If I have sex after drinking alcohol it definitely helps me feel less nervous and take the edge off too. I have been struggling with this for so long now, and have just held on because I love him so much and I thought it would get better with time, but it hasn’t and it’s affecting my mental health tremendously and it’s affecting my relationship from moving forward onto the next step. My main worry is that it’s our relationship, could I be in the wrong one? Maybe it’s not meant to be? Or is this just something I’m going through mentally or physically that I can fix? I want nothing more than to be able to fix this and put it in the past so I can be with the love of my life. I can’t picture being with anyone. 

I think what you’re experiencing are normal responses to trauma.

You mentioned past verbal abuse and the fact that this is the first relationship you’ve been in with someone you “don’t have to chase.” In other words, this is the first relationship that seems healthy.

I’ve been in emotionally abusive relationships and have used sex in desperate attempts to stay connected. I’ll be honest that the sex in these situations could be pretty wonderful. Sometimes it was the only time I felt completely cared for and free with these men, so it would be easy to let myself go. But it wasn’t ever worth the consistent self-doubt, shame, and loss of physical and mental health that came along with the emotional abuse.

You’re feeling emotionally safe with this current partner, and I wonder if that’s allowing your body to explore trauma it wasn’t able to process before with past lovers. 

But there’s something else that’s new here too: you mentioned finally being able to be your complete self … but being our complete selves can be really scary! It requires vulnerability, which can release new levels of fear and anxiety that can manifest both physically and emotionally.

The good news is that all of these problems you’re facing can be worked on. It’s possible with the right conversations about trauma and vulnerability with your partner (and maybe a therapist), some of your issues with pain and anxiety may start to naturally dissipate. 

Talking things out is a way of creating a sense of control around them. And your partner needs to know this is not about him and that he can actually be a beautiful part of your emotional healing.

But trauma specialists also warn folks that healing isn’t something that happens overnight. So let’s look at some starting points, but I’d also recommend finding someone you can consistently talk to: a trained and neutral third party.

Clinical therapist Sarah Hemphill defines trauma as something that messes with your sense of control over your own life. Part of the healing process is learning what you actually have control over.

(Read more about Sarah’s advice on dating after sexual assault.)

Re-Establishing Control Through Conversation

In healthy relationships, you have the ability and the right to stop sexual intimacy at any time and still trust you’re going to be loved and accepted. You have the ability and the right to express what types of physical and sexual intimacy feels good to you and to turn down actions that do not. But along with this, you have the responsibility to listen to your partner express his own needs and to do your best to articulate what you are capable of. I believe that, in healthy relationships, there can be a lot of negotiating to find forms and amounts of intimacy that feel good to both people.

Re-Establishing Control Through Action

In my interviews with therapists, a common recommendation was to take penetrative sex off the table for a certain period of time to allow you to explore physical intimacy more freely. The key is to use this time to work on building physical familiarity and intimacy without feeling pressured. You can get creative with this: massages, masturbating next to each other, kinky things.

I’d also recommend practicing stopping to help teach yourself that you can stop at any time and that everything will still be okay. In the middle of a good make-out session, tell him you’d like to take a break. Let your body and mind get used to having control about when you can stop. Tell your partner upfront you’re going to do this and have a saying you repeat to each other when this happens. Something like, “I love you; I’m attracted to you; thank you for making me feel safe.”

These things allow you to build trust with each other while you also learn to read what your mind and body want. Do you want to continue? What feels good in the moment?

The Relationship Between Pain and Control 

In an interview, somatic psychotherapist Kayna Cassard explained that pelvic pain is often tied to feelings of powerlessness:

“The pelvic floor muscles are expressing that. And then it’s the only way that some [people with vulvas] can feel like they have control over a situation is by clenching their muscles. So if we start to help them identify these patterns in other areas of their lives that are more accessible for them to make change, they start to feel empowered — seeing that they can make changes and that they have power in their work, with their family, and their partnership.”

(Check out the full article on a holistic approach to pain during sex.)

As you work on your emotional relationship with control, it will likely impact your body’s physical responses, as well. Mindfulness practices can be really useful here to learn what relaxes your body and to sense when you begin to hold tension and how. 

The Relationship Between Control and Trust

One last thing. There’s a curious relationship between control and trust. While much of the work in healing from trauma has to do with finding out what you have control over, the flip side of this is learning what you should trust in. And trust is something we have to practice.

You mentioned feeling grossed out about yourself when your partner initiates sex. It would be helpful to work on self-trust and trust in him. Trust in your partner has to do with believing what he says about you, believing his affection and desire, etc. Self-trust is trickier. In this case, it might have to do with finding yourself as lovable and desirable as he seems to think you are. Or perhaps it’s learning to trust that you can heal and enjoy yourself. Whatever it is, cultivating self-trust and self-worth is a journey that takes time, but reaps immeasurable results. Your partner can certainly help and should build up your confidence in yourself. But in the end, and at the risk of sounding cliché, the most important relationship here is the one you have with yourself.

Disclaimer: As always, there’s no perfect solution to any relationship issue and you may benefit from the help of a neutral, trained professional. Jera is not a licensed mental health professional, just a writer living as authentically as they can.

Photo by Justin Follis on Unsplash

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...