It all started when I sent him a photo of myself in a pair of blue suede chaps and nothing else. The photo was cropped so that much was left to the imagination, and his imagination certainly rolled from there. Soon he was texting me scenarios in which I was the wild cowgirl who needed taming (though not too much taming), and he was the one to do it through rigorous, intimate training routines. I delighted in taking on the role of the fantasy, a skill which I believed I honed through a diverse collection of lingerie, a love for flexibility training, and the ability to completely divorce my mind from my body. I was good at being a vessel, and just as I was settling into that habit with him, he asked, What do you fantasize about?
I typed back, Nothing.
Grief swarmed in me—I had revealed my damage.
I have probably had lovers ask before:What do you like? Do you like this? What are you into? However, it had felt cursory; I knew they had no real investment in my pleasure, whereas I was expected to balance and perform for theirs. Since I was 13, I had been buffeted through a string of abusive relationships—with some exceptions—and before that, I had a long and consistent history of childhood sexual abuse since I was 4. I have been raped, beaten, strangled, and tortured, and none of it seemed extraordinary to me at the time. My sense of my body, consent, and desires was warped by abuse, and I had grown accustomed to being used without permission. This partner, Vik, knew my history, and when he asked what I fantasized about, I understood that he was asking because he really wanted to know, because my pleasure mattered.
When I first saw him, I was fresh off a plane, unshowered, and sleep-deprived. I shook his hand, finding a firm New England handshake to match my own, and thought, Oh no. I wasn’t prepared for him to be this attractive. It wasn’t long speaking him before I discovered his even, tranquil demeanor; perceptive intelligence; and a genuine empathy. After a time, we came together with a magnetism that woke up my entire body. It’s not fair to compare lovers, but my God, he was the best.
And though I felt safe and I felt desire, I still wanted to please rather than to know pleasure myself. His question sent me inward, through darkness. I revisited a book I picked up before my divorce for some guidance, Staci Haines’s Healing Sex: a Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma, which explores post-trauma sexuality through a workbook-style manual. There are many reasons why sexual trauma survivors may feel detached from their own pleasure, while others may be plagued by fantasies that feel disturbing or rooted in trauma. Haines validates each response without judgment, theorizing that periods of anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure; hypersexuality; fantasy; and no-fantasy are all stages that may return or dissipate, but are there for a purpose. They call for the survivor to pay attention to their individual body’s needs.
In Haines’ book, there’s a chapter entitled “S/M, Role-Playing, and Fantasy,” which initially scared me off to the next chapter before I circled back around and decided to at least read it and learn something. That’s when I discovered that my previous experiences of what I believed to be power play were actually just abuse, and relieved to discover that real power play is predicated on communication, consent, safewords, awareness, and respect. Haines writes that many people, including survivors of abuse, celebrate “the safety… the power of negotiating sexual play, and the potential for sexual healing and self-empowerment through S/M” and power play. This thought floated back to me while I was texting Vik, and I realized that his fantasy was a power play scene, and that I liked it.
Seeing as how my initial response of “Nothing” was a bit of a show-stopper, and I wanted to keep exploring this, I texted back something along the lines of, “No one has really asked me that question before, and I don’t think I have fantasies of my own yet, but I’m enjoying this one of yours and I want to keep going with it.”
I wish I could say that the sexy muse struck me and I came out with a slew of scenes in response to his “cowgirl who needs taming” scenario, but really, I made him do most of the work that day. It was new enough for me to ask questions like, “What would you do if I wouldn’t stay still? How would you tame me then?” These questions, however, were how I discovered that I got off on the idea of being rewarded for being “good,” which first requires me to be “bad” for contrast. For me, this was huge. I could go into a psychological analysis of why I found it so gratifying to surrender, with consent, guidelines, and respect, to a lover’s scene, but I’m going to chalk it up to a deep and sensual expression of trust.
The more we outlined these scenes before we met, the more anticipation we created, and the clearer we were about each other’s desires. When we were together, we were already comfortable talking about sex, and so when changes or ideas came up in the moment, we knew how to communicate them and check in with each other. This allowed me to go deeper into the experience, and suddenly the word surrender meant something decadent and empowering.
But there was a slight hitch. For years, I had successfully hid the fact that for me, sex can be extraordinarily painful. I was with partners who simply didn’t care, or just as bad, who enjoyed hurting me. Not so with Vik. He noticed the small flinches, the expression in my eyes, and even internal changes when I was in pain. I explained to him that sex had always been painful no matter the position or speed, and I had no idea why, but I still wanted sex. “OK,” he said. “But you need to go to a doctor. We need to know if you’re OK.” Another first.
I went to the doctor, and after many exams, ultrasounds, and discussions, I learned that the marks of my past abuse were not only emotional. There were the health issues I already knew about—the endometriosis and cystic ovaries. But then the doctor revealed the masses of scar tissue, the damaged cervix, and the peculiar fact that my vaginal muscles were in a constant state of contraction. It is this latter issue that I can do something about. “It happens sometimes when a person is under a consistent threat of sexual trauma that the muscles lock in an effort to protect the body, and as a reaction to stress,” the doctor told me, and she kindly congratulated me on my bravery for coming in and telling her my trauma history. “It’s because of your openness and self-preservation that I can help you. Countless women suffer in silence.” Vik had prompted me, and that mattered a great deal; I may not have ever gone had he not suggested it. But ultimately, I valued my own pleasure enough that I decided to care for my body.
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I began physical therapy for pelvic pain, as well as an experimental treatment that involves administering valium internally. Or as I said to my best friend on the phone, “Turns out my pussy is like Fort Knox and now I gotta teach it to relax.” Luckily, I’m a yoga teacher, and my physical therapy adventures in pelvic contractions and releases paired with stretches and exercise seemed like a lot of fun new tricks for me.
I asked my physical therapist what I should be doing during and before sex to ease the pain, and she said, “Ideally, you need to stretch for at least 20 minutes before you have sex, especially hip-openers. You need foreplay, and excellent lube, and if possible, an orgasm before penetration. Do you think your partner would be open to that?” I smiled from the table, heels together, knees apart, trying to relax my muscles around her gloved finger (as you do), and said, “Oh, I think that could be a lot of fun.”
My next mission was for the best lube available to humanity, and for that, I went to Please in Brooklyn, NY. Work with my therapist at Safe Horizon and the podcast Speaking of Sex With the Pleasure Mechanics inspired me to sashay in and simply ask for what I needed. Speaking of Sex, if you aren’t familiar with it, is a fantastic show by the sex-therapist couple Chris Rose and Charlotte, and it’s geared toward all gender and sexual identities for creating a safe, informed, and ecstatically pleasurable sex life for everyone. I highly recommend it.
I was nervous when I walked into Please, but when I explained that I was looking for the best lube for vaginismus and pelvic injury, the shop assistant said, “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad you just came out and asked for what you need. I know exactly what to suggest.” That recommendation was Sliquid Satin, a glycerin- and paraben-free lube that I can now say I’m all about.
When I returned from my mission, I was electric with the optimism that maybe, after some work and pleasure, sex might not be painful, that I might have my own fantasies, and that I could actually do something to claim my body and my sexuality as my own. I was used to fear; flashbacks; dissociation; and sharp, gutting pain. Now, through creativity, communication, trust, therapy, and great lube, I could make my experience my own. While I still have memories surface, I still feel afraid, and I still feel pain on occasion, my recovery time is faster, and I’m better at grounding myself through exercises I’ve learned in therapy and the trust I’ve established with Vik.
A while ago, I texted him, “I have a very specific regimen for our next training session planned…” and spread my ideas out before him. When I was with him next, I told him how touched I was that he cared this much about my pleasure and safety, and he looked at me gravely.
“This is the absolute bare minimum you should expect from anyone,” he said. And that’s true. Perhaps what I meant to express was gratitude to heal and revel in my sex life with a lover who also believes that sex should make our connections with others and ourselves better, more artful, more ecstatic. Now, with practice, I know when I want to slip on a lace bodysuit and roll out the yoga mat… and I can step into my heels, look him straight in the eye, and say so.