My partner wants us to have kinky sex, but I find it traumatic

It’s your body and your choice, and you are totally within your rights to say no to anything, says Annalisa Barbieri

Illustration of eye with label
‘It’s not up to you to change yourself according to what another person wants.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Hlcarpenter.com
‘It’s not up to you to change yourself according to what another person wants.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Hlcarpenter.com
Annalisa Barbieri
Fri 29 Jan 2021 10.00 EST

I am in my late 20s, and have been with my boyfriend for almost 10 years. I love him dearly and don’t want to lose him. However, we are having trouble sexually. He is interested in S&M and kinky things, and I am unwilling to explore that with him. It frightens me and I don’t always feel safe when we do try. I feel pressured and fear that I won’t be lovable if I don’t force myself to please him. He thinks I am being selfish and conventional. We are each unable to understand the other’s point of view.

It brings back childhood memories: my brother and my cousin both sexually assaulted me when we were children. I felt so ashamed and rarely spoke of it. Also, in my teens, I had some disturbing experiences, including losing my virginity without my consent. I feel, in these experiences, the men did not want to cause harm, but they never realised the consequences of their actions.

My family are quite conservative and I have internalised that, as a girl, I need to please men. I would like to let go of this conditioning and to have agency. When it comes to unconventional sex, I close down and feel that I need to protect myself. I am not sure if I need to resolve this on my own, if I need to confront the men who have hurt me, or if I need to heal alongside my partner.

I’m so sorry for what happened to you. What your brother and your cousin did to you was a crime. Losing your virginity (or having penetrative sex at any time) without consent is rape. That, too, is a crime. I’m sorry you feel shame but the shame is all theirs.

I consulted Katie Russell of Rape Crisis. We weren’t sure if you had discussed with your partner what had happened to you. Either way, we both wanted to assure you that not being comfortable with anything sexual – conventional, unconventional, kinky, however it’s labelled – is entirely your choice. It doesn’t make you weird or boring or wrong. If you are coerced into doing anything you don’t want to, then that is not consensual sex.

Furthermore, it’s not up to you to change yourself according to what another person wants – not now, not ever. It’s your body and your choice, and you are totally within your rights to say no to anything at any time. In a healthy relationship, both partners’ choices should be valued, respected and listened to. But ultimately, not wanting to do something sexual is not an offence; forcing someone to do something sexual is.

As Russell said, “You are the survivor of more than one incident of formative, violent sexual abuse.” She also wanted to reassure you that “there’s nothing irrational about your fear. You’re having a trauma response triggered, quite understandably, by what happened to you. The way you respond, by ‘closing down and feeling you need to protect yourself’, is normal given the circumstances. It’s not something to feel ashamed of or apologise for. These are coping mechanisms you’ve developed to protect yourself.”

You asked how to resolve this and whether you should confront any of the men involved. I want to reassure you that what you do, or don’t do, is up to you. Survivors of sexual violence or abuse have had control taken away from them, and they do not need others dictating their actions.

“If you get to the point where you want to do something about any of what happened to you,” Russell said, “then you are legally entitled to report it and there’s support. But you don’t have to. You’re under no pressure to do anything at all.” And if anyone tells you that you should report these men to stop them hurting others, remember: it’s not your responsibility to stop their behaviour. That is theirs alone.

We both felt it was paramount you get help and support as soon as you feel able. Rape Crisis supports those who have suffered any form of sexual violence or abuse, however long ago, at whatever age. I think you will find it incredibly helpful to talk to someone who understands what you’ve been through, and who will offer impartial listening and support. There is lots of useful information on the website but there is also a helpline, 0808 802 9999, or you can live web-chat.

When you’ve been conditioned, as you have, to feel you need to please men, it can be very hard to believe you are right to stand up for yourself, or that what you think or want matters. But it really does.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@hlcarpenter.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure the discussion remains on the topics raised by the article. Please be aware that there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.