Content note: This column talks about substance use, sobriety, and sexual abuse.
I’m in a pickle about my sexual experience and identity. I’m curious what you know about the ways sex drive and desire may change for people in recovery and/or for people who are survivors of sexual/psychological abuse. I’ve been sober just over four years (fuck yeah!) and am thankful for the relative lucidity it’s brought as I unpack and heal things in the time they take.
Since my sobriety began, my sex drive and desire have faded. Many of the men that I’ve dated have been lovely, but the sex has been … sad … for various reasons. I feel like my body learned not to expect much from sexual encounters anymore, so why pursue or even bother thinking about sex as a fulfilling activity. Interest … poof. Gone.
Is it my nature to be less sexually charged when I’m not masking insecurity with alcohol? Now that I’ve been able to recognize red flags and not base my sex drive on the “high of the chase,” do I just need to re-wire my desire response to recognize a healthier way? Is the bisexuality I’ve always known in myself finally done with men? Is it that I finally found a therapist who’s right for me and we’re actually addressing the complex, post-traumatic stress? Am I just asexual? Is it just this spinning depression and anxiety?
Whatever it is, my interest is pretty nonexistent, and it makes me feel like something is missing and also makes me feel … nothing. Either way, I can rarely come. When I masturbate, I often get bored or distracted. If I stay in touch with myself long enough to get close to orgasm, physical or emotional sensations are “too much” and I get a sensory overload and orgasm just slips away. It suuuuuccckkkksss.
This is the worst murder-mystery party ever. I just want my sexual desire and responsiveness back. Or do I just think I do?
Thanks for the advice,
Don’t Drink & (Sex) Drive
Dear Don’t Drink,
There’s where we are and where we want to be. And then there’s also a sneaky little third place: the judgment about where we are. Here’s where you are: four years sober (congrats!), doing a lot of processing (and with a good therapist! hurray!), and wondering about what many of us wonder about: WHAT DOES IT ALL MEANNN??
In your first paragraph you talk about unpacking and healing things in the time they take and I recommend you apply this same approach to your sexual response and desire, while going as easy on yourself as possible.
When things change from our normal patterns, it’s only natural to wonder why or to have some anxiety about all of the “what ifs” concerning these changes. But in most people’s process of coping with change or with the unsettling unknown, it’s generally not helpful to add on an extra (theoretically optional) layer of self-judgment concerning “Why am I like this?” or “Why can’t I just [fill in the blank]??”
Here’s what I know about healing from trauma, sexual desire, and taking away the coping mechanism of substances: your body is an intelligent (although sometimes frustrating) machine. As animals that are wired for threat-detection and survival, we’re certainly not going to relax into the vulnerable luxury of having an orgasm if our system is still feeling sensitively wired to alert us to danger (such as any potential repeats of past traumatic experiences), especially if we’re not obstructing our system’s ability to do so (such as through substance use).
So basically, yes, you’re right. Your body has learned some things. And it can also learn new things.
You’ve taken away a familiar coping mechanism, you’re shedding light on unexamined parts of your history and desire, and your sexual mind and body are working towards catching up. Rather than looking backwards, hoping your sexuality goes “back to normal,” I would recommend sitting in the sexuality that you’re in now, with acceptance, curiosity, and sure, a little grief. Then, look forward to whatever new sexuality will emerge from this new sober, healed space you’re creating. Because it will.
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.