By Ajolique Jude. Photography by Eric Michael Ward.
Naturally at the close of a relationship, if we’re journeying honestly, we reflect to determine where we stumbled along the desired path to relational bliss and why. Self-awareness is often hardest here as we are licking our wounds and nestling into a protective mode.
When I found myself at the end of a recent relationship, I took a pause and retreated into my safe space to reflect on what had transpired. My ex and I had a major disagreement about the weight of sex on the health of a relationship. In a moment of admitted frustration, I declared, “if there is no sex, then there is no relationship!” Although I do not recall my exact wording, this particular phrasing is how my ex interpreted what was said. I respect his interpretation while also acknowledging my intention was to communicate the importance of sex as an expression of intimacy, particularly if it has already been introduced into the relationship. I concede this message was completely lost in the company of my irritation.
In the aftermath of our quarrel I had to honestly ask myself, well, why do I think sex holds so much weight in maintaining a fulfilling relationship? I started thinking about my past experiences with sex in committed relationships and its impact. I’ve considered two main factors in my reaction: over-sexualization of women and past sexual trauma.
As a Black woman, I feel like aspects of our culture—music, art, conversation—inundates us with messaging that link our bodies and how we use our bodies, in relation to men, with our worth.
This includes pressures to adapt to the popular look as well as being open to this culture of overt sexual advances. We forgive men for leading sexually because we’ve come to expect that as the opening to any expressed interest. We minimize ourselves to objects because we have been minimized. And how often do we scroll our timelines comparing our shapes to other women? Or feel the pressure to look a certain way because the man who is currently holding our interest has expressed attraction to a particular shape? I have. I’m sure many of us have.
In my late teens and early 20’s, I was in an undoubtedly dysfunctional relationship that produced many unhealthy patterns I have since had to unlearn and do the work to process and heal. Like many youthful relationships, infidelity was a frequent occurrence. I was so broken and ill-equipped to leave situations that did not serve my true self. I subscribed to the naiveté of trying to change and convince someone incapable of reciprocity. I placed worlds of pressure on myself to remain sexually available for him without respect to my needs and my body. I thought that in order to keep this man I loved, I needed to overcompensate sexually. I know this is a pressure many women can identify with in their relationships, even in a healthy, committed space. We can still feel like offering our bodies is a heavily weighted expectation in the relationship.
I’ve had to think about my experiences with past sexual hurt and how it infiltrated into my relationships. While violent sexual assault is most often associated with sexual trauma, not all sexual trauma involves a violent act or lack of consent. For the purpose of this discussion, sexual hurt or trauma is the presence of emotional distress resulting from a negative sexual experience or encounter. This can range from sexual assault, judgment/chastisement of sexuality, infidelities, sexually transmitted infections, terminated pregnancies, etc.
Many of us have encountered unpleasant experiences that generated an unhealthy interaction with sex. Within that relationship in my late teens, one of the infidelities resulted in my partner contracting a curable STI and bringing it back to our relationship. While the infection may have been curable, I battled feelings of shame and guilt for years. I questioned my worth and began to associate sex with fear-- fear of betrayal and fear of loss.
The disagreement with my last partner, made me mindful of the residual hurt that pervades my relationships. This amazing journey continues to offer me moments to do the honest work of mending and restoring. With gratitude and humility, I acknowledge the fragments I thought were healed.
Consider your past hurts and approach them with lovingkindness. Healing is an indispensable component of building healthy, fulfilling connections. With intention, you can ease off autopilot and tap into the curative power of self-awareness.
Here are a few ways I have been practicing intention and tuning into my inner voice as I navigate healing past sexual hurt:
Am I initiating or giving into sex because I feel pressured or because this is what I desire? Do I view sex as a means to maintain my partner’s interest or do I view it as a means to experience pleasure and intimacy? What unhealthy internal dialogue have I developed due to sexual hurt or trauma?
Honor your body and check-in
What emotions do I feel after intimacy? Is there pleasure and joy or shame and sadness? How does my body feel? Your body often knows what is not serving you before you consciously realize it. Tune in and make sure you are honoring your temple.
Know your triggers and communicate them to your partner
Certain types of touch
Judgment or ridicule of your sexual expression
Disclaimer: This discussion provides suggestions to initiate the deep self-work of healing, not a cure or substitute for professional therapy.
Ajolique is a poet and writer who contributes to BGIO because I value spaces where women of color can share their truths to enrich our collective journey. The writer is a DC-native and part of her self-love practice is going for walks in the city and finding a welcoming spot to enjoy a book. Ajolique also practices self-care with meditation, writing and “solo” Sundays. Hangout with her on both Instagram and Twitter @ajolique.