Today’s guest post comes from a new-to-C&K writer, Kara Bringewatt (they/them.) Regular readers will know that shining a light on the intersection of sexuality and mental health is super important to me, so I am thrilled to be running this story on dissociation during sex. Grab a coffee, settle in, and enjoy!
Navigating Dissociation and Sex by Kara Bringewatt
What is dissociation exactly? In short, it’s a way of coping by detaching from the body and from sensory experiences. This can feel like extreme numbness or a lack of connection to yourself, your body, your senses. It can feel like you’re watching a movie of your life or that everything’s being interacted with through a film or barrier. It may feel like you’re floating somewhere above your own head. Your voice might sound odd and distant and in extreme cases you might actually lose your bearings of where and who you are.
This is a natural reaction to experiences that turn on our fight-or-flight response. When we are in danger, not having to feel the panic can help us to manage our reality more easily. But when this is happening due to smaller, more mundane triggers, it can make life more difficult, particularly as it can make it difficult to communicate.
Dissociation can happen due to sexual triggers that bring up past sexual trauma (which many of us have) or due to ongoing experiences of mental illness that includes symptoms of dissociation. These experiences are incredibly common. My belief is that we’ve normalized having really dissociated sex. Which isn’t just not as much fun (hello, diminished sense of touch when you’re trying to get off!) but can be really dangerous and become a retraumatizing scenario in and of itself.
So what do we do exactly? Firstly, if you are dealing with dissociation, or think you may be experiencing dissociation, trying out professional mental health services of some sort is a really great first step. There are some really amazing therapists, psychologists, coaches, and sex therapists out there, and it can be really worth it if you can find someone who’s a great fit for you.
Having a professional who is knowledgeable around mental health and who can serve as a neutral party to speak honestly with and get validation from can be a game changer for many people. So can medication. Don’t skimp on getting the professional help that works for you. This is of course your choice, and there really are barriers out there. But I would be lying if I said that the therapy I’ve had and the medication I’m on haven’t helped significantly.
So the next big piece of navigating dissociation and sex is being able to recognize when it’s happening. This can be really fucking hard if you’ve not practiced it. Paying attention to what’s going on for us emotionally and somatically in the moment can be tricky no matter what the situation, but dissociation poses a double challenge since part of the experience is extreme disconnection from our self and our environment.
On the plus side, we can use this to our advantage. Take time to notice what it feels like to be detached from your experiences. Next time you’re dissociated (or think you might be), intentionally “save” that sensation in your memory so you can start to notice when similar physical sensations occur. I know I’m dissociating when my vision gets a little blurry. I also notice myself staring off into space a lot, my breath gets really shallow, and I have trouble speaking. You might notice entirely different signs, but start learning them! Bonus points: if your partner suffers from dissociation, learn their “tells,” too!
Of course, the critical piece that almost all sex advice comes down to is this: communicate with your partners, including hookups and casual encounters. Speak to your partner about dissociation when you’re not having sex. Explain what it looks and feels like to you. Ask your partner what it looks and feels like to them. Check in regularly during sex. Pause and take two minutes to both just share what’s going on emotionally and physically in your bodies. This practice can build a LOT of awareness if you take the time to make yourself slow down and take those breaks.
Establish verbal and nonverbal safe words and commit to using them if you are beyond a threshold of dissociation that you feel comfortable with. This may be any dissociation particularly if it’s related to a trigger or flashback. But you may also experience dissociation regularly and feel like it’s not gonna stop you from having sex. Great!
It can be useful to calibrate your current dissociation level using a 1-10 scale and then decide on what level of intensity requires stopping or pausing sex to reregulate a bit. For me, I check in with partners and let them know if I am at a 6, pause and regulate at a 7-8, and stop altogether if I’m at a 9. Your tolerance and dynamic with your partners may look different. And these numbers might skew lower for casual interactions.
Find ways of regulating during, before, and after sex. Dissociation is just dysregulation at the end of the day. It is your body shifting into flight or fight mode rather than staying in a relaxed space. We must find ways to get ourselves back to that resting place and to grow our confidence in our ability to regulate for ourselves.
Some useful regulation practices might include sensory bathing, grounding exercises, and paced breathing. Also, definitely try using a dry brush and taking a shower (with some good smelling soap or essential oils!) This is a bit of a trial and error process, but learning the things that work for you is key to navigating these situations with more ease. Enlist partners in this exploration and make sure to communicate things that you do know to be helpful so that they can remind you if your dissociation is making your thinking a bit sluggish.
This takes practice and dedication so be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Self-care after the fact, too. Oftentimes I don’t even notice how dissociative I was until later when I “pop out of it”. It is very easy for me to ruminate on the issues this symptom is causing, and sometimes this leads into panic attacks or intense self-criticism manifesting in self-harming behaviors or urges. Be kind and understanding with yourself and with sexual partners when you don’t realize until after the fact that you’re dissociating. Self-care can help stabilize you and keep you from spiralling right back into dissociation or other intense emotional experiences.
This all takes practice and time, and there’s many more discussions to have on these topics, but starting to have open conversations with yourself and your partners is a crucial step to handling dissociation and increasing our pleasure and communication in relationships.
About the Author
Kara (they/them) works in the interstitial spaces of identity, composition, spirituality, mental health, and somatic/sexual healing work. They are particularly fascinated and critically engaged in the desires and needs of trans* and disabled bodies, the impact of internalized shame around queer sexualities, and kink as a practice of liberation.They enjoy reading and writing endlessly, lingerie and tea on rainy nights, sharing exceptional food, and warming conversations.