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

By Nischa Phair

Aug 1, 2021

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“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.”