DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I have a question regarding the appropriate time of disclosure pf past sexual trauma in a new relationship. I was molested as a very young girl: the appropriate timing of sharing my story with new friends and more-than-casual acquaintances is apparent to me in the moment, but I have struggled over when to disclose this information to a potential partner.
Since I do still have lingering issues with being touched and certain sexual acts. I feel very strongly that I need have this discussion before I become physically intimate with a new partner. I would as soon disclose it immediately-but the tendency to see survivors of sexual violence as “damaged beyond repair” still runs strong in this culture. I want a boyfriend who sees me as a whole person, not pitiable broken thing. Previously I would time the “I am a survivor of incest” bomb to around the time I have a discussion about using condoms. In other words before anyone is undressed & before I have consented to any sexual activity. It isn’t exactly a first date sort of topic :(…or second..? I don’t feel any lingering shame over my history, it’s mine, I own it, and nobody can hurt me with the bare facts of what was done to me as a child.
I am fairly certain the last thing any man wants to be dealing with on bed is a terrified, hysterical woman who was just triggered in to a fight or flight response. In the past I had a partner who knew my history go past a hard limit I set for him-even knowing that what he was trying to do was one of the types of abuse I suffered, and knowing that I wasn’t OK with that act. That individual was an extremely selfish person. I believe anyone who truly cares for me would not attempt to force me to engage in sexual activities which violate my personal boundaries. Yes, this was a big reason I dumped him shortly thereafter. I thought I had made my experiences and boundaries very clear-but any suggestions about exactly what to say to make “that sex act is a trigger for me and I will not do it” irrefutable knowledge to a new partner would be appreciated.
Wild Wolf Girl
DEAR WILD WOLF GIRL: First and foremost WWG: I want to let you know that I admire your strength. What you went through is incredibly shattering. The fact that you’ve come through it, that you own it and that you have been able to heal is incredible and it’s a testament to how amazing you are.
Understanding when to bring up certain issues can be tricky, especially when it involves sex and sexual abuse. On the one hand, you want to get it out there as quickly as possible – all the better to avoid having them roll over that particular emotional landmine by accident. On the other hand, bringing it up too early can sometimes scare people off. Unfortunately, it’s a cold and hard truth that some people will hear words like “abuse” or “assault” or “incest” and then the person they were talking to isn’t a person any more; now they’re a label. A stereotype. A walking human-shaped void marked “victim” or “survivor” and carrying all of the (imagined) baggage that comes with it. It doesn’t matter that this isn’t who you really are; it’s just how they see you now and no amount of explaining or reasoning can shift their image. It’s not fair and it’s not pleasant for the person who was willing to open up and make themselves vulnerable to someone that he or she hopes may grow to care about them.
So it becomes this delicate balancing act of trying to figure out when is too soon and when it’s too late and it can get incredibly frustrating as there’s no way of knowing in advance who’s going to process the information and move on and who’s going to get hung up and end up seeing a label instead of a person.
But nobody says that it has to be an all-or-nothing proposition – tell them everything all at once or tell them nothing. Sometimes dropping a huge emotional download on someone – in this case, that you were abused by a family member – can be hard to handle right off the bat, and doubly so if you do so when sex is seeming imminent. I mean, yes, it’s kind of a mood killer but more to the point, thats a heavy topic to bring up at an emotionally charged time and a lot of people are going to strip some mental gears trying to shift their brains to process this new information.
You are well within your rights to parcel things out on a need-to-know basis as you get to know the other person and as they get to know you. The better we know someone, the less likely we are to only see them as a label. Of course, by that same token, the more you get to know them, the better you are able to determine whether they’re someone you want to share the whole story with.
So let’s talk about a phased disclosure.
As a general rule of thumb, the more likely someone is going to run into a particular issue or step on a particular emotional land mine by accident, the sooner it should be brought up. These tend to be “incredibly important to know” issues. If being touched in certain ways – or at all – is going to trigger you, then that’s something to bring up early on, just so that the other person doesn’t end up traumatizing you without realizing that it was even a possibility. If it’s an issue having to do with sex – things that are very definitive “no, nope, no way in Hell”, then as you said, that should be brought up before sex – and preferably before making out or the clothes come off.
But you don’t have to go into the full explanation right off the bat. Just as you’re allowed to progress physically in a relationship at a rate that is comfortable to you, you’re allowed to do the same emotionally and informationally. You don’t have to share all your secrets with someone right off the bat; you’re allowed to say “hey, listen, just so you know I have a thing about being touched in Y way” to someone in the early stages of dating without having to explain the reasons behind it. You’re establishing a particular boundary and you don’t need an “acceptable” reason for it – you have one, here it is, please don’t cross it. At the same time, don’t lay it out like something that you’re ashamed of or that it’s a big dark secret; here’s a thing, yes I know it can seem a little strange, but it’s no big deal.
When it comes to sex and your limits, you want to bring up the topic before actual naked time is imminent. The immediate need to know information is that there are certain things that are off-limits forever, period, the end. This is when you may want to disclose a little more: that you were abused or assaulted (depending on how you see it or want to refer to it) and these acts will trigger very bad things for you.
When you’re ready to give them the full download, then it’s best to do it at a time when you’re able to sit and talk about it. Most people are going to want a little bit of time to process it; even when they know the vague outlines of what happened, hearing the full details can hit people pretty hard. This is when you want them to understand: you’ve survived it, you own it and while it’s left some scars, you’re not damaged, you’re not broken. You’ve been through the fires of Hell, but you’ve come out the other side.
One of the reasons why disclosing in phases can be a benefit is that not only does it give the other person a chance to get to know you as an individual rather than a label, but it also helps you find out more about what kind of person they are. How do they handle these limits that you’ve set? Do they demand explanations? Do they continually forget (or “forget”) that they’re there? Do they only respect your boundaries if the reason for their existence is “good enough” (for suitably selfish values of “good”)? Or do they accept that this is how you are and simply respect your boundaries because… well, they’re your boundaries and that’s all the reason they need.
All of this is valuable information to have about the person you’re interested in dating. As you said: someone who cares about you is going to respect your boundaries and not try to wheedle or push his way past them. But some people tend to be… sloppy, for lack of a better term, around boundaries; they see them less as a hard “no” and more “point of potential negotiation”. They may assume that these are boundaries that you’ll drop once you get to know them better. Or they may want you to give them the special exception boundary pass because it’s them and clearly they’re more special than the other people you’ve dated. Or they just may not realize (or care) that these boundaries are there for a reason and be careless or thoughtless around them. And then there are people who are utter s
tbags who treat your boundaries less like hard limits and more as though they’re optional because they just really don’t care.
That guy you dated who tried to push you into a sex act he knew you wouldn’t do? There was no way of phrasing things that would’ve made him not push you into things you didn’t want to do. He knew exactly where your boundaries were, he just didn’t care. He was a sh
bag of the first order. The best way to enforce your boundaries with someone like that is to kick them to the curb, immediately and with great force. Anyone who won’t respect your limits has voluntarily self-selected out of the pool of people you want to date.
Unfortunately, it’s a truism of dating that there’re going to be false-positives. There’s going to be entitled assh
*s and selfish sh
bags and users. But there’re also awesome, caring, gentle and patient people as well. It’s worth taking time to get to know them while establishing your boundaries. Those boundaries are your filter; the good guys will respect them. They’ll be the ones who understand that you’ve got your history and will let you tell it in your own time. The assholes won’t… and you’ll be well rid of them.
There’re some amazing people out there who can appreciate how incredible you are, WWG. And you’ve got the tools to find them.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, email@example.com)