Editor’s Note: This column addresses rape, childhood sexual abuse, PTSD, and sexual orientation as a symptom of trauma.
I’m in my late teens and have identified as gay/queer for the last few years. I have dated/hooked up with a few non-binary folks and trans guys, but they’ve all had vaginas.
Recently I’ve been questioning my orientation. It’s more complicated than simply saying, “Oh hey, I like this (cis) guy, cool.” I was sexually abused as a child. Because of that I have PTSD and an anxiety disorder that makes the idea of being intimate with someone with a penis terrifying — even if I have romantic feelings for them.
I hate the idea that I’m gay because I was raped, but I don’t know if my identifying as gay instead of bisexual or pansexual is because of that. I also sometimes wonder if it’s just my own internalized homophobia (from growing up in a pretty conservative family) and secretly wishing that I was straight.
Do you think it’s worth trying to explore my sexuality further and trying to overcome this fear of intimacy with someone who has a penis? Do you think that’s even possible?
— Hoping to Heal
I’m so sorry that you were forced to endure those experiences and that you’ve been left to foot the bill for someone else’s inexcusable behavior. I strongly suggest you work with a good therapist who can help you navigate the symptoms of your PTSD and anxiety disorder and create a safe environment for you to continue to untangle these questions about your sexuality.
It’s natural to have your connection to penises be a negative one given that, that was a part of your abuser’s anatomy. The things that trigger traumatic reactions are often environmental and can be as simple as a sound, a smell, or a time of year. A significant body part used to inflict harm on you certainly can trigger a negative response in you, and understandably so.
On the other hand, the notion that your sexual identity is a symptom of your abuse is stickier to me. And here’s why: We are often not socially prompted to wonder why we might be heterosexual. When it comes to sexual trauma, however, often we are socially prompted to wonder if gayness has been caused by the abuse. Meaning, if I, a woman, was abused by a woman I might be prompted to wonder if I am now gay because of that experience. And also, if I, a woman, was abused by a man, I might STILL be prompted to wonder if I am now gay because of that experience.
So, no matter my abuser, sexual trauma has been linked to “causing gayness.” Why? Because gayness is positioned as an “other,” “damaged” identity rather than one that is naturally occurring just like straightness is naturally occurring. No one has ever asked me “Hmm, do you think you’re straight now because of your abuse history?”
Why are these two things important for you to know as you move forward? Because your triggers (like penises) are something that you can learn to manage with strong therapeutic help. Your sexuality, however, is a fluid entity that is part of who you are, not a symptom of what someone did to you. These big questions you pose are important and absolutely worthwhile to continue to explore outside of what this wee sex column can offer, and I hope you do so keeping this important difference between triggers and sexuality in mind. All are welcome to reach out to me for local therapist recommendations.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.