When you’re a sexual trauma survivor, like I am, sex becomes a really complicated thing. There are days, weeks, and even months when physical intimacy seems like something unattainable. There are times when even being in my own body doesn’t seem safe, and moments when even my partner feels threatening. And while navigating the complicated waters of a sexual relationship wherein one of us is a trauma survivor is difficult enough, we’re also trying to have a baby.
For most, trying to conceive feels like a no-brainer. What better excuse to have lots and lots of sex with your partner? You track your period, note when you’re fertile, and — bang! (literally) — you get to work. People have been doing it since the beginning of time; some conservative Christians (and Republicans) swear it’s the only reason we should even be having sex, and it’s one of the most natural things to happen between two people in love. But when you're a rape survivor, trying to get pregnant is nowhere near that simple.
But oh god, do I wish that were the case for me. I can’t even count the number of nights I’ve lain awake in bed wishing that sex were a no-brainer. I’ve spent hours trying to psych myself up to just turn over, make a move. “It’s OK,” I tell myself. “He’s so hot,” I think, looking at my husband. And it’s true, he is so hot. But it’s not necessarily true that it’s OK, or that I’m OK.
My body has been a battleground ever since I turned 18. The scars of my past are invisible, but I carry them inside. I’ve been raped more than once, assaulted more times than I can count. It’s not just the the sex that happened after I said “no” that haunts me, but the smaller violations, too. The sex that happened when I was too drunk to remember, the groping that took place in a crowded bar, the verbal assaults by way of street harassment that follow me on a regular basis. The many times I gave my body away just so I could feel like I had some agency or liberation, but it only served to make me feel even worse.
The shame of my violations is sticky, stuck somewhere under my chest, clinging to my ribcage. I don’t blame myself for what others have done to me, but I blame myself for the things I did in response, the overcompensation through painful promiscuity, the times I said yes because at least I could feel like I had some control, though I worried I’d never have any at all. Through therapy, writing, rehab, healing, I can’t really seem to shake that shame loose. No matter what I do, it persists. Though so do I. I am ceaseless in my desire to overcome my shame, and to overcome my trauma. I refuse to be the victim that my perpetrators took me for, the victim they made me become. I have been victimized, but I am not a victim.
And so I try again the next night. Turn over, make a move.
The problem with having sex as a trauma survivor is that, for me, it doesn’t look traumatic. My trauma manifests in numbness and dissociation. I am physically present, but mentally, I’ve left. I’ve gone somewhere inside myself, leaving a shell of a person who is both physically and emotionally numb. I cannot feel the penetration; I look wholly unenthusiastic. It is a thing that happens to me, but not a thing I participate in beyond allowing it to happen to my body.
If I can’t bring myself to do it soon, it means another month has gone by, and we’ll have to wait until the next. It makes me feel like I have to do the impossible, perform something that doesn’t feel real. But how many years have I spent performing sex and how much damage has that done to me emotionally? Some of the most traumatizing sex I’ve ever had has been consensual, sex I said yes to because I felt like I should.
I have to consider whether or not I want to get pregnant now. Another month is OK, but what if it doesn’t happen on the first try? How many months will it take? How much longer can we wait? There is a part of me that wants to get it over with, that hopes that we conceive on the first attempt, like we did with our first. But there’s another part of me that hopes we have to try longer, harder, because it forces the physical intimacy that my trauma makes so hard to have.
I’m angry that these men from my past are in my bed with us now. I’m angry at the things that they took from me, the intimacy I now struggle so hard to have. I’m angry at myself for not being able to get over it, angry I can’t just move on. I don’t hate them anymore, but on these nights, I hate myself.
I repeat. Turn over, make a move.
How do you have a baby when sex is such a struggle? Our therapist suggests using an oral syringe and a sterile cup in an attempt at an amateur insemination. We laugh, but she’s not joking. I briefly consider this, and feel a sense of relief, then sadness. Has it come to this? Neither of us wants that. Yes, we want to have a baby, but we also want to have each other. We talk about what it was like in the beginning, before I felt safe with him. At first, when he was just another guy, my guard had not yet come down. We could have sex — passionate, rough, constant sex — without the weight of my trauma coming between us. Like many trauma survivors, it’s the emotional intimacy that causes this difficulty to surface; when I feel safe to say no, I do, and then I don’t stop saying no because I can. Momentarily, we miss that, I miss that.
But I don’t, not really. Because I was still using sex as self-harm back then, convincing myself that I was liberated and strong and over what I’d been through. It was an effort to refuse to be what had happened to me, and to instead be who I wanted to be. But he wasn’t having sex with the real me, he was having sex with a performance of what I thought sex should be.
Now what we miss is the postcoital intimacy. I miss the bodies hot, sweaty, tangled together in the sheets. That’s what I want back — the feeling of closeness that comes after someone else has been inside you, as close as another person can physically be.
I remind myself. Turn over, make a move.
It’s thinking about those moments that allows me to finally pull his face in for a kiss. Yes, we want to have a baby. So in some ways, this is transactional, a means to an end. We cannot conceive without his sperm finding my egg. But it’s so much more than that. It’s about not letting anyone else steal this from us. It’s about two people who love each other and long to express that with our bodies. It is about creating another human, one we’ll love, one who stems from our own love.
We already have one beautiful child who makes our lives brighter. The family that we’ve created together brings us joy in ways we never thought possible. And now, we want to make that family bigger, to bring even more joy into our lives. It’s time, we know. And so, I make a move. And after we’re done, I assess how I feel. OK. Maybe good. Maybe sad. Maybe like I want to try again. And again. And again.