Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Quite a few of you have asked me to discuss trauma as it pertains to kinks/preferences. This is a huge topic so I’ll do my best to condense and simplify everything I’ve come to understand around this topic.
Let’s start generally, with development of attraction/preferences, and go from there.
As soon as we are able to start receiving and processing messages, meanings, images, etc. we begin to create our preferences (this begins in infancy). The beginning of our lives are shaped by who were are around – these people and early experiences typically shape how we come to understand our preferences, needs, sense of self, etc. And while these things are most often used to examine our (romantic/sexual) relationship patterns, they can also help you make sense of how you understand intimacy, friendships, commitment, etc.
Think back to your caretakers. Who were they? How did they relate to each other? How did they look? What values were important to them? How did they make you feel? How did they make each other feel? Perhaps themes you recognize in your early life, are similar to themes in your current relationships or things you desire from them (or perhaps, the exact opposite in the case of avoidance).
Our early experiences tend to define how we relate to ourselves and others which undoubtedly influences our sexual identities.
All of us have a sexual identity of some sort – even those of us whose sexual identities are being completely uninterested in sex (mainly because sexual identity encompasses more than just the activities we do or don’t participate in). How we come to learn about our bodies, sex, etc. and how we make sense of all of those things impact the development of our sexual selves (and our whole selves).
Sometimes what we desire sexually comes from early childhood experiences – these experiences can be sexual or non-sexual. Healthy or not (i.e. abuse). Often the process looks like: experiencing something non-sexual (this doesn’t mean void of emotion/intimacy) during childhood, beginning to associate it with sexuality when we hit puberty, deciding how we make sense of it (is it stigmatized? Celebrated?), and then navigating how we will explore it. Sometimes things don’t come into our awareness until later in life and it’s difficult to think of where it draws from since we are far removed from childhood at that point.
It is important to note how we make sense of these things, how we are socialized and how WE are engaged (meaning, how people engage US) – all of these things inform how we develop our attitudes, thoughts and beliefs around sexuality.
And there are so many variables.
For instance, this could look like watching a tv show, when you are a child, where there is action/danger and becoming engrossed by the feeling that it gives you. At this point, you may not have the language to identify what is happening and there is no sexual arousal, just the fascination with the feeling the show creates within you. Keep in mind autonomic arousal (increased heart rate, for instance) may be occurring which gives you a physical sensation to associate with the feeling.
Then during puberty, you explore this feeling/sensation and how it may (or may not) influence or complement sexual arousal. Maybe you fantasize. Maybe you masturbate. All while experiencing the same feelings and sensations the dangerous tv show gave you. During this time you may be, unconsciously, teaching yourself to make an association between that feeling/sensation of danger and sexual arousal. Additionally, throughout this whole process you are becoming more aware of how you make sense of this, what the general values are around this and whether or not it is something you can feel proud of or ashamed of.
Which influences your motivation, ability, etc. to find community or isolation. If you are in a household/have a support system that encourages your autonomy, exploration of sex, etc. perhaps this develops in a healthy way that moves you to realize there are others who share your same arousal via the feeling/sensation of danger. The knowledge that there are others, further allows you to feel pride around this and explore it in a healthy way.
You can imagine how some of those variables changing, even slightly, can shift your relationship to sex, pleasure, etc. An early traumatic experience. An unsupportive family/support system. A negative experience while exploring with others. All of these things can affect (or create) our sexual preferences/kinks.
Ok so, boom. Trauma.
Pretty much all of us have trauma. Whether that’s living as a minority and navigating oppression or like, a specific traumatic event: we all have some shit. How each of us make sense of, process and integrate our traumas varies. For some of us, trauma shows up in our sexual behaviors. This can be a way we (re)gain control, create some sense of power and perhaps, create a new narrative about our trauma(s).
For example, there are sexual assault survivors whose sex play (intentionally or otherwise) includes pieces of their assault. Why? During an assault, someone may feel completely powerless, terrified and violated. Re-creating that (again, intentionally or otherwise) in a safe environment that includes consent, negotiating limits, etc. allows the survivor to master their trauma – processing it in real time, creating a new narrative around the trauma, learning/practicing that sex/pleasure can be safe, that their boundaries can be acknowledged and that they are in charge. All things that did not exist during their assault.
While this can be empowering and a form of healing, I want to also name that there are many of us re-creating our traumas and re-traumatizing ourselves in the process. And worse, harming others. Be mindful of this.
While I will tell you there is no reason to hold shame around your preferences/kinks, particularly if they are tied to a trauma, this doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reflecting on or that they aren’t problematic. Society stigmatizes sex, period. There is even more stigma around kinky sex and/or sex that is considered deviant. Reflecting and interrogating your choices around sex, pleasure, etc. can raise your insights – about why you do what you do, enjoy what you enjoy, and cum how you cum (or perhaps, why you are terrified of something). Reflecting doesn’t mean that those preferences/kinks will automatically disappear (or even that they need to) because some things are hard-wired (particularly things created in childhood), however it will give you a place to work from if you want to address unresolved traumas.
Certainly, there are instances where reflecting does affect your preferences. For example, many cishet women engage in sex that centers men – cishet women are taught to be sexy, not to be sexual beings. To perform sex, not to enjoy sex. To prioritize cishet men’s pleasure and deprioritize their own. Born of this are preferences that reflect societal expectations rather than one own’s preferences. Many cishet women “enjoy” swallowing because they understand it is something they are “supposed” to do and that it is enjoyable/sexy for their partners. Many have convinced themselves it is an activity they really like – reflecting on how social scripts around sex informs sexual behaviors may spark internal dialogue about what you do for yourself versus what you do for others and how you make sense of sex, autonomy, pleasure, etc. resulting in a shift in desire. But let me be clear: it is okay to do things solely for your partner. It is okay to reflect, recognize the activities you participate in are based in misogyny (or other isms) and still do them. This is a no shame zone. However, we can be honest about what informs our behaviors and/or that they can be harmful.
The same goes for preferences/kinks that are ubiquitously seen as problematic. Race play, for instance, is being sexually aroused by an oppression that you navigate on a daily basis but we now can recognize it is in a specific environment that includes consent, boundaries, safe words, etc. allowing someone to hold power in a context they are otherwise powerless in. Can we critique this? Absolutely. That doesn’t negate its existence or the fact that people will continue to engage in it. We can only hope that people are doing their best to create ethical scenes, acknowledge there is a huge responsibility to navigate these things carefully and remind ourselves to create space for people to do what they need to do sexually especially if it allows them to process trauma.