Recognizing sex as a coping mechanism

Sex on Tuesday

Content warning: Violence and domestic abuse

I down three shots of Patrón to get rid of my inhibitions so I can approach the guy at the bar — one more shot, and I’ll go home with him. After another shot, I slip out of my clothing. I turn the lights off to hide his face and picture my ex in his place. I mask my lack of real pleasure with fake moans so at least he’ll enjoy it. I talk dirty to him so he’ll thrust harder and want to see me again. After he climaxes, I leave hoping he’ll call me back, and maybe next time I’ll feel present.

In the morning, I’ll feel dissatisfied, but every weekend I’ll continue this habit as an effort to cope with my trauma, hoping the next time will satisfy me.

As a freshman at UC Berkeley, drowning my trauma through partying and having unfulfilling sex became my weekend routine. I was afraid to face the emptiness that followed years of physical and emotional abuse from my dad. My dad’s abuse left me feeling paralyzed, and I desperately tried to regain feelings by sleeping with men.

This reckless streak happened two years after my dad last laid a hand on me and one year after I had gone to therapy. I thought suppressing the memories would free me of the trauma associated with them, but I was angrier than I had ever been. I took solace in drowning my pain in the Patrón — it was far easier to drink about it than to talk about my pain. Without truly addressing my pain, I looked for fulfillment in all the wrong places — sex and binge drinking.

Despite my attempts to avoid dealing with the pain, my night terrors forced me to relive my trauma. In these nightmares, my mom and I barricaded ourselves in my room as my dad broke down the door. My mom would try to escape his grasp, but he would trap her by her ankle. He would pull her body to the floor and suffocate her with his 180-pound body. The worst part was that all I would do was watch her helplessly be attacked.

The nightmares and random mental breakdowns only furthered my need to feel alive. I was in denial of how detrimental my trauma was to my mental health and well-being. I thought having sex with men would give me agency over my life.

A month into my second semester, I decided a change of scenery could be helpful and went to a fraternity party instead. After a few shots and a game of beer pong, I met another boy. I was enticed by his uncanny charm. He felt so familiar — his arrogant demeanor and pungent cologne reminded me of my dad. I slept with him because he felt safe, and I thought the experience with someone who shared such an undeniable likeness would be more rewarding.

There was no physical resemblance, but there was an undeniable likeness to the essence of my father. Despite my hopes of pleasure and satisfaction, sleeping with him felt like falling into an emotional abyss of nothingness. At least this time, I was not disgusted, nor was I displeased by my actions. I was hurt because I realized I could not obtain my father’s love through another man who was not him.

It wasn’t until I started journaling and addressing the root of my pain that I realized how my trauma had impacted my sex life. Being a survivor of violence has meant unlearning my dangerous coping mechanisms and unpacking my unhealthy relationship to sex. With each journal entry, I saw how each sexual experience was motivated by a desire for validation that my dad stripped from me. I was afraid to address the pain of his abuse, using any form of instant gratification to drown out my sorrows.

Unpacking my trauma has been a process of trial and error, but understanding that I used sex as a coping mechanism for my internal suffering has served as a step toward my recovery. I am still unlearning my unhealthy behaviors with the hope that one day, I will no longer be defined by the impact of my father. I hope I can have sex to express intimacy and shared love with my partner instead of using sex to cope.

Elizabeth Arutyunyan writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].