Lynda Britchford Trauma Therapist Blog


Intimacy & Sexual Trauma

By Lynda Britchford

Intimacy and Sexual Trauma 

Let’s take some time to explore this.  Im wondering how many of you, experience conflict – both internally, and with others, around intimacy, boundaries, and feeling safe?

If you have experienced childhood sexual abuse, or sexual trauma as an adult, physical intimacy can feel scary and unsafe.  Boundaries can feel uncertain, unenforceable or feel transgressed.   Please know, that this is common, and completely understandable. This can create internal experiences of conflict and frustration, as you may ‘know’ cognitively that you are safe, but your body responds to experiences of intimacy with a fear response, leading to a felt sense of being unsafe. 

For example, you may experience an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, racing thoughts, being unable to move, being ‘jumpy’, or a need to escape.  This is a normal response to trauma which is unprocessed.  At the same time, you may want to be intimate and close with your partner, and it’s not uncommon for people to experience guilt or shame that they feel unable to do so.  It can lead to conflict between partners, and if your partner doesn’t know why this his happening they may feel confused and rejected.

As humans, we are very used to giving affection and sharing intimacy, without checking if this is okay for the other person.  If it’s someone we care about, we tend to assume that they will be fine with being hugged/touched affectionately, because they also care about us.  In many ways we are brought up culturally to do this as young children; ‘give your (relative) a kiss/hug’ etc.  However this doesn’t teach us that its okay to have ownership of our body, and for others to have ownership of their body.

It’s considerate to ask, and it’s okay to say no.

There are lots of ways in which people are physically intimate.  It may be that you feel okay with some kinds of intimacy and not with others.  For example you may feel okay sitting close to your partner on the sofa whilst watching TV, but feel anxious about the sides of your bodies touching whilst doing so, or holding hands.  Some of this will also depend on context, and how you are feeling in the moment.  It’s common for people who have experienced sexual trauma, to become extremely anxious at the smallest moment of intimacy, because they fear that it will lead to an expectation of a more intimate physical connection or sex.  This can lead to a complete avoidance of any physical intimacy altogether.

Have a moment to think about different ways you can be intimate; what feels okay for you, and what doesn’t?  Notice how you feel in your body when you think about it, what does this mean for you?

There are important parts to feeling able to connect intimately with someone.  Let’s look at them in turn, and consider how you can take care of yourselves in establishing safe intimacy….

  • Asking Permission.

Okay, so if you’re not accustomed to doing this, its probably going to feel a bit odd to start with!  But, this is where its helpful if you both are willing to engage with this, and experience it together.  Im inviting you to ask permission, for any form of physical closeness or intimacy.  You can do this seriously, in lighthearted, or fun ways, but be clear that you are making a request and are receptive to your partners response.  So, you might say, “I really fancy a hug, can we share a hug please?”,  or, “Can I hold your hand?”, or “Do you fancy a cuddle?”.  It can be helpful to avoid “I want…” but instead ask “Would you like to…..”.

It’s important to remember that if you are checking out whether your partner would like a hug, then this is what they are agreeing to if they agree.  So, if you’ve agreed on a hug, don’t assume they then are okay to have a kiss.  This is where boundaries come in.  By asking permission for specific intimacy, both people know what to expect.  This reduces anxiety about intimacy moving into something else, or that there will be an expectation of sex.

  • Hearing Their Response

In asking permission for intimacy, I’m inviting you to hear the response that the other person gives, and to respect it.  They may agree to your request, or they may not.  You may get a response which is something like “I don’t feel like it”, or “not right now thanks”.  This might feel very difficult and rejecting because it’s a new experience for you.  Part of this exercise is learning to feel okay with the response from the other person.  Depending on your own personal circumstances, it may feel hard to not experience this as rejection, or it may feel triggering.  It’s important to remember that by asking permission, you are also giving a permission for the other person to have control over their body and intimacy, and to make a choice.

  • Take a moment to think about your invitation for intimacy being turned down.  
  • What would this feel like for you?  
  • Do those feelings belong in the here and now, or do they remind you of some other situation which is triggering those feelings?

By respecting the response from the other person, you are hearing them and respecting their boundaries around their body and touch.  This can over time increase feelings of trust and safety between you both.

  • Being Able To Respond Honestly.

This may feel incredibly difficult for you, if you have not had your boundaries respected previously, or have been unable to keep yourself safe from harm.  Many people feel unable to say no to requests for intimacy, and the request might trigger feelings of anxiety.  This is a common experience for people who have experienced sexual trauma.  Your nervous system is on alert, and is trying to keep you safe.

It might feel difficult, or impossible for you to say no.  This is common for people who have experienced sexual trauma, and can feel like a big hurdle.  If the thought of saying no to a request for physical intimacy makes you anxious or overwhelmed, its okay.  There are lots of different ways in which you can turn down physical intimacy.  It might be that you start with the less difficult ones, and work towards saying a verbal ‘no thanks’.  

Consent to physical intimacy is only if it is given clearly and unambiguously, eg ‘yes please’ or ‘yes, I would love to’.  An absence of a clear permission, means consent is not given.

It may be worth thinking about different ways in which you can decline, which feel safe for you, and manageable.  Here are some suggestions – have a think about them, maybe add your own, and rank them in terms of how able you feel to use them:

  • Shaking your head
  • Not responding at all (this can happen in a freeze response)
  • Holding your arms up in front of you, palms facing forwards
  • Crossing your arms around your body
  • Moving away
  • Using another agreed non verbal way of declining
  • Saying ‘thanks but not at the moment’
  • Saying ‘thanks, but I don’t feel like it right now’
  • Saying ‘no’ 

Once you are clearer about what feels manageable for you, I encourage you to share your feelings, particularly if a verbal decline feels not possible right now.  You could do this by writing it down if talking about it feels difficult.  By sharing this, the other person will be aware of your difficulties and how you might decline in a way which feels okay for you.

Remember that to begin with this might feel difficult, contrived or a bit odd or awkward – that’s okay!    It’s okay to acknowledge that, and share how you feel about it.  Over time, it tends to get easier, as you realise that you can make choices about your body and intimacy, and you can both choose to say no.  It can also enable the other person to feel more confident that when you say yes, that you really do mean yes.  Being able to know and verbalise your boundaries is empowering, and increases your felt sense of safety and wellbeing.

Is this helpful for you? Let me know how you feel, in the comments below. Please take care of yourself when posting. Lynda


Boundaries, connection, feeling safe, intimacy, physical intimacy, rape, safety, sexual assault, sexual trauma, sexual violence, trust

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