My new reciprocated crush is terrified of and obsessed with sex. He hasn’t had many good experiences, and I’m excited to potentially be a part of his new, positive experiences. But I’m also nervous and feel a lot of pressure to navigate his sexual trauma.
I’m a slut and love sex and am not afraid of it. It’s difficult for me to understand the nervousness, no matter how much I care about him. I want to always heal and work together to better ourselves, but I don’t want the responsibility of being his healer.
I know we have a lot of communication ahead of us. Can you help me with some ways that I can talk to him about this? I want to make sure he is comfortable and feels safe with me but I also want to make sure my boundaries are heard and understood.
A Slut for Emotional Safety
Dear Slut for Safety,
There’s empathizing and supporting and then there’s taking on everyone else’s stuff as our own and “fixing.” There are important differences between these two modes of relating to someone, especially when it comes to romantic/sexual partners. The first mode will help you accomplish your goal of helping your partner feel safe and comfortable while the latter will not. Similarly, the first will keep your boundaries intact while the latter will likely bulldoze them over.
First, let’s talk “fixing.” By its very nature, this mode has little respect for boundaries — yours or theirs. This mode says, “We are one. Your problems are my problems. Your reality should be a carbon copy of my reality. My perspective is superior. Here, let me show you how to adopt it as your own.” When we take on someone else’s stuff as our own, not only are we failing to hold our own boundaries in place, but we are disempowering our partners by unintentionally sending messages such as “Your way is bad/broken,” “I hold the key to your health,” and “You cannot manage your own discomfort.” This is not a sustainable model for either of you.
To avoid taking on everyone else’s stuff and fixing, it can be helpful to look at why we feel such an urge to do so. The urge to fix others usually ultimately comes down to blurry boundaries within ourselves (in therapy, we call this a lack of differentiation) and/or it can be connected to our attempts to alleviate our own discomfort that we feel when witnessing someone else’s discomfort (this can be related to attachment styles).
Then, we have empathizing and supporting. For someone like yourself who self-identifies as a proud slut, it can be easy to put your enthusiasm for the erotic onto someone else in an unwelcome way (read: not helping your partner feel safe and comfortable). While it’s perfectly fine for you to be pumped on pleasure, it’s similarly perfectly fine that your partner simply doesn’t feel the same easy love for lust.
To practice empathizing and supporting, it’s important to hold both of your individual realities as valid at the same time (even if/when they conflict with one another). That means that though you don’t feel his nervousness about sex yourself, you can practice empathetic listening about his nervousness to help you better understand it and therefore him.
In a couples therapy setting, we might practice this by 1.) Recapping what we hear our partner saying, 2.) Checking with them to see if we have an accurate understanding of their perspective of the issue at hand (“Did I get that right?”), and 3.) Accepting their edits to our understanding. (Remember: our partner’s reality is valid, but that doesn’t mean it’s the capital “T” universal Truth nor does practicing empathy mean we have to agree with our partner’s perspective. We can empathize and disagree, simultaneously).
Finally, keep an eye on what you’ve mentioned as your partner’s “obsession with sex.” There are a couple of ways to act out our sexual trauma in relation to others. One can look like avoiding and being afraid of sex and the other can certainly look like finding a partner who’s really into sex and utilizing sexual connection to blur or circumvent deeper processing that still needs doing. Essentially, don’t confuse having lots of sex for having lots of healthy/present sex.
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.