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A trauma-informed sex educator explains how sex can be a trigger for the nervous system

“I know we love our science—and I do too—but it’s really important to remember that scientific method and the dualistic medical model are a big reason, why it’s taken us so long to gain an accurate understanding of trauma and mental health,” is the first sentence trauma-informed sex educator, researcher, and founder of SomaBody Pleasure Work, Nischa Phair delivered when I asked her to explain what happens scientifically when the nervous system gets triggered during sex.

“Where today we don’t question somatics and bio-psycho-social models, 30 years ago they were seen as woo-woo pseudoscience because the white male establishment was still very much in charge,” she continued. Fast forward to today, as vital as science is, “we want to keep in mind that it’s also the knowledge of the coloniser, of a (typically) white male observer (gazer), so it must be balanced by other research methods and approaches in order to gain a full picture of any given situation.”

In other words, even to this day, there are aspects of trauma that simply can’t be tested and are presumed to not exist or be relevant because they can’t be replicated under laboratory conditions. It’s safe to say that this is extremely invalidating for anyone who experiences them, and it highlights the long way we still need to go in order to further understand specific aspects of trauma-related behaviours.

But let’s focus on what we know about nervous system activation so far. There are various processes co-occurring between the nervous and endocrine systems and the way those processes unfold can be complex. “There isn’t a one size fits all or a ‘this always happens’,” Phair precised.

“In a traumatic or stressful event, there are actually seven potential stress responses (freeze, fight, flight, fawn, fright, flop, faint) that may be carried out across two separate branches of the autonomic nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems). If one particular stress response has worked many times in the past, we’re more likely to use it going forward because it’s proven its effectiveness at keeping us alive,” she continued.

Because so much of our social (and patriarchal) conditioning is wrapped up in how our bodies act, perform and respond in the moment, nervous system functions during sex is even more complex than non-sexual trauma. When it comes to sex between people who know each other (casually or long term), fight/flight isn’t typical “because the existing relationship and familiarity make fighting back or running away either impossible or unreliable. This can be because the partners live together or because there isn’t enough proof that a person’s ‘no’ will be heeded.”

As a result, fawn (which may look like performing, people-pleasing, ‘grin and bear it’, oral/handjob just to get the person to leave) is a more common stress response during sex when we’re talking about something their partner said or did in the present. “Shutting down or dissociating is also a possibility,” Phair added.

When a person fawns or shuts down, the stress response represses any emotions of anger or outrage and as a result, their awareness of what happened—along with their perception and feelings about what happened—may not resurface for hours, days or even weeks later. “In regards to fawn, the person may seem like they’re participating but once activated, connection to their language centre is disrupted. So, even if they knew they wanted to say no or stop, they likely wouldn’t be able to vocalise it.”

So what does it look like from the outside when someone gets triggered during a sexual encounter? Here, Phair explained that trauma can be triggered in many different ways, putting emphasis on how “a penis-haver’s own arousal can skew his perception of an ‘enthusiastic yes’ and lead him to ignore the signals.”

If a person’s past trauma is being triggered by something innocuous, “they might become emotional and not know why, feel panicky or have trouble breathing, they might dissociate, shut down or not be very physically responsive or interactive.” Again there’s no set rule but unlike fawn, which can be a bit more difficult to identify, there is often a discernible shift.

If we’re talking about something your partner has said or done however, or a boundary that’s been crossed in the moment, “the person will likely freeze first—so wide eyes, a stiff body. If a person fawns, they’ll avoid eye contact, they might have a fake smile or a vacant look in their face, they may be contracted in the chest with shoulders drawing inwards, they may be just ‘letting it happen’ or ‘going along with it’. Whatever it is, they won’t be very communicative—if asked a question they may not be able to answer or use full sentences,” Phair told me.

As important as it is to become familiar with what a fawn response looks and feels like, Phair highlighted how crucial it is to understand what might or might not count as sexual consent. “Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of men (and some women)—both in person and in the media—criticising women for being like ‘a dead fish’ in bed. It’s astounding to me that this isn’t more obvious to people but the fact is, when we truly want to be having sex with someone, we don’t just lie there and do nothing. There’s this tendency to pass judgement on a woman’s performance and say she was bad in bed instead of actually seeing the writing on the wall for what it is.”

She continued by precising how most of her clients are cis females who are hetero, bi or pan and looking to recover from these types of experiences with men. “That I’m aware of, fawning and performing tends to happen most frequently in Penis-Vagina (PV) pairs. I’m sure it happens in other pairings too seeing as we’re all humans and our nervous systems all have the same basic functionality, but because of the social conditioning of the male gaze around sex and the female form, it seems to be more prevalent in PV arrangements,” Phair added.

Following up on the topic of sexual consent, I asked the researcher if she could share five main things she thinks it’s important for people to know about it and the many different ‘lines’ it contains. Here are the points she mentioned:

–  Checking in is the new black
–  Consent is complex and an ‘enthusiastic yes’ isn’t always reliable
–  Your arousal can colour your perception of your partner’s interest
–  If you aren’t comfortable talking about consent, you shouldn’t be having sex
–  Especially in new relationships, take a minute to tell your partner ‘if anything doesn’t feel good or you want to stop, just say the word’

As a survivor herself, Phair was already a trauma-informed practitioner before entering the sexual wellbeing space almost ten years ago. “Initially, it was just to do my own recovery work but what happened to me and what I learned in the process took me down a very different road,” she shared.

She explained that, at the time, there were no trauma-informed options and how all the methods and approaches—many of which are still being used today—were very triggering. There were no disclaimers, no transparency and no accountability. “I was very badly retraumatised, ended up chronically dysregulated for two years and much worse off than when I started. But the experience gave me an education I couldn’t have got anywhere else.” 

“For someone with my background to get a first-hand look at the complexities of pleasure and sexuality for people with sensitive and injured nervous systems was really quite a gift because I knew that there was a safer and more grounded way of offering this kind of work that could help build agency and autonomy instead of endangering it. So, that’s what I did. It hasn’t been a straight or easy road but I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

It’s time to ditch the ‘daddy issues’ label, therapist Kati Morton explains

Boris Johnson once said that the children of single mothers are “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive, and illegitimate.” Lovely, I know. Whether you grew up without a father or with one who fulfilled his parental duties rather poorly, chances are you’ve been diagnosed with ‘daddy issues’ at least once in your life—especially if you identify as a woman.

I know I’ve been, along with non-requested yet thorough examinations of my dating life as well as my overall relationship with men. The term ‘daddy issues’ is generally used to refer to the trouble some people—women in most cases—have with forming secure relationships in adulthood, based on an early unhealthy connection or lack thereof with their father. Although anyone can have a complicated relationship with their father, in our patriarchal society, the term has ‘naturally’ evolved into yet another way to belittle women’s struggles and needs.

In order to truly understand where those attachment issues—which is the correct term to use—come from, how to deal with them and smash misogynistic taboos along the way, we spoke to licensed therapist and YouTube sensation Kati Morton following her ‘What Causes Daddy Issues & HOW TO FIX THEM’ video, which currently has over 30,000 views.

What are attachment issues?

‘Daddy issues’ is not a diagnosable mental illness. In fact, it’s not even a term that was ever used in any of Morton’s psychology classes, or continuing education courses. Any ‘issues’ we may have with our caregivers (like our mother, father, aunt, grandparent or even nanny) is boiled down to attachment. “People use the term ‘daddy issues’ in a stigmatising way, unfortunately, it’s usually given to women who are dating somebody they deem ‘inappropriate’—someone who’s older, or maybe they’ve had a slew of what others see as ‘unhealthy’ relationships,” Morton first explained.

“But when it comes to the psychology behind it and what ‘daddy issues’ really are, or even ‘mommy issues’, they’re actually just attachment issues. The first year of our life is pivotal when it comes to healthy attachment. Our body and brain are wired to attach. When you feed a newborn, they try to make eye contact, even though they can’t see very far or clearly, because they’re innately wired to help that person who’s feeding us feel connected to us and vice versa. We need to be fed to stay alive—it’s a bare-bone survival technique,” she added.

During that same first year, we learn to know that when we cry, someone comes and feeds us, takes care of us, comforts us. All of this helps us build what we call an attachment style—we know that we are safe and have this healthy foundation from which we can then push out into the world as we get older. But not all of us have wonderful parents or parental figures. Some of us grow up without parts of that healthy foundation, resulting in attachment issues.

For example, Morton mentioned, “One can think, ‘oh, if I’m upset, someone doesn’t come to my help so I just won’t cry anymore’. We can have that hopeless situation, or we can have someone who’s more anxious and thinks ‘I can’t really trust people so I’ll just do everything myself and be super independent’. There can be a ton of issues that come out of those unhealthy foundations.” To be more precise, in her video on the same topic, Morton listed four different styles of attachment: secure attachment, insecure avoidant, insecure ambivalent, and disorganised.

“If we had a caregiver who came when we cried, and supported us emotionally as we needed, we would grow up to have a secure attachment,” precised Morton. If you didn’t, however, and ended up having a caregiver who was completely absent, not consistently there, or even abusive, that’s when the three other styles of attachment come into play.

“Unfortunately, when it comes to attachment and parental research, a lot of it tends to focus on our mothers and their role in our development. But fathers play an important role as well.” As outdated as it may sound, having a male figure in our life is key to our development. Men are the ones who tend to have ‘rougher play’ with children—they might throw them in the air while mothers are expected to be more nurturing and ‘safe’. Of course, this is based on the more socially accepted gender binary that is the nuclear family model, and does not mean that a mother can’t play around with her kid or that a father can’t look after them. A few generalisations need to be made in order to paint a clear picture of where most attachment issues come from.

Fathers teach us how to push the boundaries of what’s okay and what isn’t, as well as in the long run, how to take risks, make friends better, and how to meet challenges. On top of that, Morton explained how they also teach us how men are supposed to be. Whatever your gender, during your childhood, the male figures that surround you are the ones you’ll base your expectations on—be that for future romantic relationships or as a role model if you identify as male.

In simpler terms, your childhood’s male figure will end up being the blueprint for what you expect of men throughout your life. In most cases, if that male individual was often absent, you’ll expect most men to do the same. In order to cope with this unhealthy foundation, one might try to do everything they can to please the men they have relationships with, while someone else might, on the contrary, expect them to always leave them.

And the same can be applied to a man who, for example, saw their father be abusive throughout their childhood. The father figure will teach them how to be and how to interact with other people. More often than not, although unknowingly, as we grow up, we try to mimic what we witnessed first hand as a child—good or bad behaviour.

“Our relationship with our fathers also plays a huge role in our self-esteem and confidence, because mothers tend to be—but not always—the more nurturing, consistent, and home-sustaining caregiver. They tend to be around more and give positive reinforcement more easily than father figures can. I know a lot of this sounds super traditional, and not everyone’s family is like this, but for many of us it still rings true,” Morton told me.

As a result, many kids grow up believing that if they manage to please their father, then he’ll stay around more often, or that his approval means more than their mother’s. It is also widely known that our relationship with our father can affect our sexuality, as Morton specified too. “It’s a little bit creepy, but anyway you look at it, it’s there. Our fathers are our first example and experience of being around an adult male. This can obviously lead to a lot of issues,” she added.

How to overcome your attachment issues

Just like with many other things in life, it’s important to understand exactly how the adult figures of our childhood affect us to this day before we try to overcome any issues that we might have as a result. “Don’t worry, just because we think we may have ‘daddy issues’ doesn’t mean we have to live with them forever,” shares Morton in her YouTube video. In fact, she advises viewers to start doing so by first getting to know themselves better, as well as the thoughts they may have about men. “We can’t change what we don’t understand,” she explains.

“Start paying attention to people you like, and don’t like. Be curious about that and why that is,” Morton adds in her video. By doing so, you’ll also get to learn more about yourself and why you tend to have certain relationships with men. Morton even advises journaling if it helps you clear your mind on the matter. “Just start focusing a bit more on your past and present relationships with men, and the thoughts and beliefs you have about that.”

From there, you’ll be able to identify the patterns that emerged from these relationships. “Sure, you can have that one relationship that didn’t go well, but what type of relationships do you continue to have with men?” Do you put in all the effort, or do you tend to go for people who don’t treat you well and constantly put you down? What if you keep being around men who aren’t emotionally available for you? “Dig into this, and see what you find.” This will also help you identify more quickly when you might be acting out of an unhealthy pattern.

Morton’s third tip is to try and spend more time with your father, or your childhood’s male predominant figure. She further explained that it may mean that people will have to ask their family members about them, as not everyone can simply reach out to them and have an amicable chat. Diggin into who they are—or were—“and even what their dad was like” can help us better understand where they’re coming from and realise even more why we were affected by them.

Finally, Morton shared a fourth tip: to “re-father yourself,” also known as reparenting yourself, which basically means to give yourself what your parents didn’t during your childhood. Social-emotional skills are learned behaviours—if no one taught them to you when you were younger, you’ll need to do it yourself. You’ve already identified those specific gaps, now it’s time to fill them in!

In other words, you’ll need to become your own cheerleader. “I know, it sucks to have to give this to ourselves because our parents were terrible at their jobs, but the good news is that we can do it,” Morton shares on YouTube. And it does help us heal. This whole experience is about finding out what it was you needed from your caregiver and never received. If this person in question was your father, then it’s important that you understand and accept that he is to blame, not you.

Let’s stop using ‘daddy issues’ as an insult to shame women when it was their fathers who failed in the role they committed to. Sure, as we’ve seen with the help of Morton, attachment issues can absolutely get in the way of having healthy relationships, but nobody should be ridiculed for something that’s out of their control. In order to deal with those, people affected need to be encouraged and motivated to do so, not humiliated.

You can pre-order Kati Morton’s new book Traumatized here.