Editor’s Note: This column refers to sexual trauma responses.
My girlfriend and I have been together for four months, but lately I’ve been noticing we’ve only been having sex when we’re drinking. Nothing to put consent into question for either of us, of course, just a couple beers.
I asked her about it over dinner, and she said, “It’s nothing you’re doing wrong, I’ve just hated myself lately.” I know she struggles with depression and anxiety and has some trauma in her past, so I’m unsure how to proceed.
I know I can’t “solve” her problems or make her have a more positive body image, but I care about her and don’t want our sex life to be dependent on how many IPAs are available. I try to be supportive and complimentary because she’s gorgeous and has a great body, but I also get that my opinion isn’t enough to alter what she sees in herself.
— Seeking Happiness, Not Hoppiness
Dear Seeking Happiness,
It’s so great that you noticed this trend in your sex life and had the bravery to bring it up to your girlfriend in the way that you did. That your partner feels comfortable telling you what’s going on for her, even if it’s something painful like “I hate myself lately” makes me think that you all have a solid communication foundation which is invaluable.
When people have experienced sexual/relational trauma, a person’s body and brain can register all sexual touch as potentially dangerous as it attempts to protect them from a repeat experience. The body and mind can start responding to sexual touch in ways that either triggers flashbacks or shuts the body down in some way to avoid danger.
It’s possible that your girlfriend’s drinks requirements help her get past this discomfort in order to engage in sex and/or helps her numb out whatever unpleasant responses are happening for her mentally, emotionally, or physically. If she’s willing or able to work with a therapist around this trauma, the therapist might help her identify and explore her trauma and how else she might be able to cope with it besides drinking before sex.
You’re absolutely right that you can’t “fix” her and in fact it can be harmful to her, you, and your relationship if you should make that your mission. However, you’re an equal part of this sexual relationship and it can be painful to witness your sexual partner essentially taking steps to numb herself out or block herself from you when you’re having sex. Even when our partners have traumatic histories, it’s still okay to desire a connected and engaged sex life, even if it’s not immediately possible.
Show and tell her that you’re here to be supportive and that her mental health is important to you as it’s part of your shared relational space. Offer support but don’t push, blame, or take too much charge.
How? Find a list of therapists she can pick from. Have a discussion outside of a sexual context about which specific parts of sex (Oral Sex? Cuddling? Making out? Only certain positions?) she feels like she can enjoy without alcohol (if any) and let her know you’re open to playing in that safe zone while y’all take time to find new ways to make the scarier parts of sex feel safer.
Ask her how the drinking helps her, what it’s helping with, and see if you can either adjust or temporarily eliminate those aspects of your sex life. For example, many folks with sexual trauma find that specific cues (the smell of alcohol, being on their back, lack of eye contact) remind them of their traumatizing event/s and that eliminating those parts can be helpful in allowing them to remain sexually engaged while they heal.
You might make this part a joint project and fill out Emily Nagoski’s great sexual brakes and sexual gas pedal worksheets together, which can be found on her website thedirtynormal.com/worksheets.
When in doubt, ask her how you can be helpful. And then follow through.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.