sex-positivity and dealing with triggers

One of the things that I’ve noticed as a student of sexuality is how often our triggers get in the way of sex-positivity.

We all have triggers, by which I mean that we all have emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the situation that we are currently in. It’s quite common for us to have these responses because of events that happened to us in the past that the current circumstances resonate with. One of the functions of our emotions is to let us know when those resonances happen so that we can learn from our experiences. But sometimes, those emotions are difficult or painful. Sometimes, they may have little to do with the present. And when that happens, we can have a reaction that’s out of proportion to whatever is going on in the moment.

As far as I can tell, there are three ways we can deal with this. First, we can avoid situations that trigger those reactions. I see this a lot when it comes to sex- we may avoid certain activities, or people, or such. This can sometimes be an effective way to get some space and let the reaction settle down, which can help us come to some sort of resolution. Second, we can explore our reactions, discover what messages they have to offer, and work to meet whatever needs they have. Sometimes that’s fairly easy to do and sometimes, that’s the work of a lifetime. When neither of those options is available, the only thing left is to try to control whatever it is that pushes those buttons in order to protect ourselves.

In our current society, it’s getting harder and harder to avoid triggering situations. The newspapers, magazines, TV shows, websites, blogs and articles are full of stories about sex. It might be the latest scandal, or information about your health, or an article about a porn star, or gay marriage, or a pro-domme, or any other topic. Then there’s all the blogs by people who share incredibly detailed information about their sexual practices, relationships, philosophies, and experiences. That’s a lot of directions that a trigger might come from. And don’t forget the people in your life, who may be doing or talking about sex that you find triggering. For that matter, sometimes we get triggered by someone being out of the closet, even when they’re not actually having sex.

So where does this connect with sex-positivity? I think that one of the characteristics of sex-positivity is expanding one’s ability to manage those triggers without trying to control people who aren’t actually causing any harm. See, there’s a loop that I see and it goes something like this (in an incredibly oversimplified way):

we all have triggers around sex –> if we can’t resolve them and we can’t get away from the trigger, we try to control sex to create a sense of safety –> this creates more triggers in other people, as well as in ourselves

And round and round we go. Each time, we reinforce the loop and make it that much harder to stop. these self-reinforcing loops exist within individuals, among pairs and families, in communities, and in the larger culture.

So how do we get out of this pattern? Well, for one thing, we need to stop trying to break the loop at its strongest point. I had a therapist once who pointed out that when people get trapped in these sorts of loops, we often try to break them at the strongest point. Instead, it’s much more effective to break the loop at the weakest point because that stops the cycle.

In this case, the weakest part of the loop is how we deal with our triggers. We can’t change the fact that some things trigger us. And we can’t change the fact that trying to control sex just sets up more triggers. The only place we can bring any change to this is in how we respond to our triggers.

That’s where I see the connection between sex-positivity and triggers. Being able to evaluate the situation and determine whether someone is actually causing harm (to themselves or others) can only happen if I can avoid spinning out into my triggers. Being able to respond to the person, rather than what I project onto them can only happen if I’m not stuck in the loop. And true equality will only exist when we can stop trying to control people. Yes, we can set boundaries. Yes, we can create limits that serve us. But that’s really only going to work when we can set aside our triggers and deal with what actually is, rather than what we think or feel is happening.

If you’re interested in exploring some tools for that, I highly recommend Pema Chödrön’s books and audio cd’s. “Getting Unstuck” is especially helpful. A good therapist is another option. So is meditation, journaling, critical self-reflection, and anything else that helps you stay present and grounded. But that’s a topic for another post.

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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