I am a survivor of sexual assault. It is something I have gone through multiple times in my life, each instance leaving a new, indelible mark on my being. When I was a child, I couldn’t comprehend what had happened to me, or make sense of it in relation to the world around me, so I chose to forget; my small brain tucked away the bad memories for a time when I might be able to face their reality. As I got older and grew to really understand what sex was like, what it was meant to be, and what was right versus wrong, I realized that the things that were happening to me were wrong.
For a long time, I dealt with this by retreating into my own head. I went quiet. I made myself malleable so I could be whatever anyone desired, pretend that I wanted it, and pretend I was a willing and active participant. I could do this well with any form of unwanted sexual interaction—laugh along with the boys at school who wanted to shove their hands down my shirt and up my skirt, smile and nod at my long-time abuser when he asked if I was enjoying myself. But when it came to my own sexual desires, guilt had made its home inside my gut. It wasn’t okay for me to get any pleasure from sex, it seemed. That wasn’t allowed.
And yet, I found myself experiencing waves of my own desire as I grew up. This self-pleasure was guilt-riddled and shame-filled, though, as I stumbled onto corners of the internet I had never seen and fell down a rabbit hole that I wouldn’t come to terms with for years.
All teenagers stumble across porn at some point in their lives; it’s an inevitable, awkward rite of passage. I don’t fully recall how or when, but some of the first pornographic images I came across were dark depictions of women being hit, bruised, tied, and choked. These images sparked a feeling in my far-too-young brain that I couldn’t process, and I closed all the tabs immediately before folding myself up into a ball of shame and guilt.
For weeks after, I couldn’t get these images out of my head, nor the immediate waves of guilt that followed each recollection. Still, I felt a kind of thrill. I was curious—enticed, even—so I wandered further. I found videos of women being hurt during sex in a variety of ways, and at the end, when interviewed, they spoke about their scenes with fondness and noted how glad they were to have had that experience. Immediately, my brain filled in the blanks—women in sex work had no idea what was good for them. I tried to fit these women into the boxes I had absorbed from the patriarchal ideas I’d grown up with, simply so I wouldn't have to face my own uncomfortable truth: consensual non-consent (CNC) is a healthy kink, and one I wanted to explore.
Over the next few years, I tried to pay little mind to the labels of sexuality. Every time I had sex that danced the line of being “rough,” I’d smile and pretend the world was spinning the same as it always did, as if my body wasn't filled with an angry shame because I was deriving pleasure from actively participating in sexual encounters typically thought of as demeaning women. Guilt washed over me every time I’d reenter the outside world, where my rights as a woman meant so much to me. How could I demand respect when I wanted the exact opposite in my sex life?
To better understand myself and my paradoxical feelings, I met with Vancouver-based sex therapist Ailey Jolie over Zoom. Our discussion highlighted so many important aspects of sexuality—the dichotomy between hypersexuality and hyposexuality, sociocultural influences on our trauma responses, and how the human body holds trauma.
There are two responses to sexual trauma: hypersexuality and hyposexuality. Hypersexuality tends to happen when individuals feel a need to regain a sense of control through recreation or replacement of their traumatic experiences entirely (sometimes referred to as trauma reenactment). Hyposexual people, on the other hand, are often able to process their experiences in socially supported ways, such as talk therapy, which may not feel available to survivors who experience a more stigmatized hypersexuality. Expectations surrounding sexual desire are vitally linked to sociocultural influences, and it’s important to note that not all instances of hypersexuality are linked to trauma.
Jolie went on to explain that survivors of sexual trauma often have difficulty reconnecting with their bodies after these experiences. This can translate into struggling to allow themselves to pursue their own pleasure. Jolie noted, “There’s only one place in our whole capitalist, patriarchal culture where there’s an expectation for a woman to experience pleasure in her body and that [one place is] sex.” Orgasms aren’t only welcome, but enthusiastically encouraged in kink and CNC—fundamentally, it’s all about pursuing your own pleasure. In this way, Jolie explained, sexuality can have a huge place for healing trauma of any form because it provides an amazing barometer of how connected we are with our bodies “in a really honest, raw way.”
Feeling disconnected from the body is an extremely common sensation in survivors of sexual trauma. Speaking with other women who have been assaulted about CNC and trauma reenactment, I’ve often been met with agreement about the guilt responses I experienced. It felt like there was something wrong with us for wanting to be hurt. Rather than questioning why we felt this way, we wondered why it was us feeling the shame and not our partners who were turned on for inflicting the hurt. Enjoying CNC felt like a betrayal of not just myself, but everyone who had experienced these same traumas.
Part of this enjoyment stems from the fact that the brain’s neurochemical systems literally change in response to trauma. As a protective mechanism, it isn’t uncommon for trauma survivors to remain in a state of hyperarousal. In more severe cases of long-term abuse, an individual’s brain might not know how to exist outside of this hyperarousal—and so trauma survivors may seek out certain situations to recreate the stimulation and feelings associated with their assault. I found myself chasing the “high” of those I knew would hurt me. It’s seldom talked about, but this is an entirely normal response to having been assaulted, albeit a response which can lead to survivors of abuse finding themselves exploited.
Finding a compatible CNC partner requires an acute awareness of what it actually is that you’re hoping to achieve—a goal which is different for everyone. It may look like reclaiming your body through trauma reenactment with a safe and trusted partner, or relearning what you like sexually after you’ve had something taken from you. It’s important to know what that looks like for you before you go searching for it, because though I’ve ultimately found healthy partners, I endured several messy—and at times dangerous—relationships first.
For instance, I had a partner who ignored my safe word when I called it, and I told myself that it was my fault—that I couldn’t ask for consensual non-consent and expect a safe word. But I can, and more importantly, I should. The key word is “consensual.” Without consent, what’s happening is assault. Having someone violate trust in this way encouraged familiar shame in my body. Even after years of having a name for the term, doing research, and becoming vividly aware of the fallout of having been assaulted, I couldn’t understand, on an emotional level, that being turned on by the idea of CNC wasn’t a bad thing.
The act of reclaiming my past trauma with a partner that I love and trust, and with whom I’ve discussed my boundaries, has genuinely empowered me. It’s taken my shame and guilt and repositioned those feelings with a more positive frame of reference. No longer are my only memories of being whispered to in the early hours of morning the sound of my father while I lied still, frozen with fear. Instead, I can think of my partner, of the love and trust that we’ve built, and the space I have made to share my story.
Consensual non-consent is a heavy topic to broach with a partner. It should always be done with care and respect for individual boundaries. It’s an important, subtle topic of value to those in the trauma community. But CNC is not a thing of guilt or shame. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Sometimes, it’s just part of healing.