Sex, Trauma, and the Endless Quest for Validation

Sex. It’s great, except when it’s not. I love it and hate it, crave and despise it, hide from and run towards it. It’s complicated. It sucks. I’m working on it.

Let’s talk.

I’m not into monogamy. Never have been. But, at the request of my two most recent partners, I sacrificed my freaky tendencies for two separate year-long periods. As someone with Borderline symptoms, this generally means that I go from one extreme (only having sex with one person for a year) to the other (compulsive sex with lots of people).

I put myself in another degrading situation last weekend. I had an “I feel empty and want to be held” moment and went home with a man I wasn’t particularly attracted to, physically or otherwise. We fell asleep in a blanket nest on his floor, woke up a few hours later, and fooled around. But we never kissed. We didn’t even look at each other. It was lonelier than sleeping unprotected in a parking lot.

I walked home the next morning feeling like an unpaid prostitute, but it was consensual and I did it to myself.


I’m still figuring it out, but I have some thoughts. Maybe you can relate to some of them. I’ll break it down.

Pt. 1: Validation

When I feel shitty about myself, I start thinking about crushes, act on one of them, feel good for maybe a few hours, and then go back to feeling empty. I’ve said this in the past, but this kind of behavior amounts to the literal act of filling holes to feel whole — and it doesn’t work. It’s like any other addiction. You drink to forget, you wake up and remember, you feel worse than the night before, then you do it again.

But sex goes even deeper than that. It’s not just about forgetting — it’s about the reassurance that I’m a loveable, fuckable, beautiful, worthwhile, funny, enjoyable person. It’s about satisfying a need that I can’t (or refuse to) provide for myself. It stems from a lack of self-love. Unfortunately, sex with strangers can’t provide any of the above-mentioned things. It feels real for one night, maybe, but the next day, I’m back to wondering whether I’m a valuable human being.

I’ve been down this road many times. Generally, the only thing that stops the validation-seeking behavior has been for me to settle down with one of the men I’ve hooked up with. They’ve been truly lovely people, but, for me, those long-term relationships are like slapping Spongebob bandaids on gaping wounds. The self-loathing still exists. The desire to sleep around still exists. The need for validation outside of a single man still exists. Relationships repress it for a while, but then it explodes and I return to the other extreme.

Pt. 2: Trauma

I will not go into details about my history with sexual violence in these posts because I want them to be approachable and not triggering for my friends.

Plus, the details aren’t the issue. It doesn’t matter how big or seemingly small it is/was — the fact is that physical, sexual, and emotional violence fucks us up. There are certain vulnerabilities that make one person’s trauma run deeper than another’s and all post-traumatic experiences are different, but there are definite parallels in our stories.

Sexual violence does not end when the initial trauma ends. Some are “lucky” and are able to process and move on from the trauma to the best of their abilities with immediacy. For others, it becomes inextricably tied to the core of their being.

The voice of sexual violence tells me that I am an object. It tells me that I don’t have a say in the people I want to sleep with or be close to. It tells me that it’s easier to say yes and spread my legs, because “no” never worked in the past. I’m often not even aware of this voice. I operate on autopilot, seeking out and caving in to men who won’t treat me with respect.

And that’s another thing. One hypothesis around why trauma reenactment occurs is that the victim is attempting to gain control over a situation they were powerless in by putting themselves in similar situations and trying to obtain different results.

Another hypothesis is that we form irrational and harmful affinities with our abusers. It sounds crazy, right? Well, think about it. Let’s say, for example, that your grandfather molested you as a child. He’s a family member. Family bonds are supposed to be unbreakable. Family members are supposed to love and care for you. As a child, you can’t make sense of this. Maybe you don’t even know what sex is. You know it feels wrong and dirty, but maybe that’s just how people act. Maybe it’s okay. In these situations, many children will cling onto their abusers even more tightly because they don’t know what else to do. They don’t understand what’s happening or why. And they need love. They need their families. They don’t know that families aren’t supposed to act this way.

The same can be true for adults, teens, and preteens, especially if there’s biological sensitivity or if the trauma happened at a particularly vulnerable time. The earliest trauma I remember happened when I was 13. It was my first sexual experience with another human being. It taught me that “no” wasn’t enough and that myth continues to plague me.

To this day, I actively seek out people who treat me like the people who abused me, whether consciously or not. In college, I fell in love with a self-admitted fascist. In my late teens, I dated an emotionally abusive alcoholic and, despite people’s warnings, went back to him again and again. Last year, I was addicted to an emotionally and otherwise unavailable addict.

From my loved ones’ perspectives, this looks like insanity. But in my mind, these are the only people who make sense. They’re the manifestations of the darkness I repress. They’re the people I think I deserve. Figuratively speaking, they’re all the same person — the same story played out on repeat.

This is an exhausting way to live. I could go back and blame my abusers from years ago, but the fact is that I’m the only person who can break the cycle. I need to learn how to say “no” and mean it. The first step is recognizing the pattern. And right now, it’s staring me straight in the face.

Pt. 3: Innate vs. learned sexuality

Since my breakup, I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between healthy casual sex and harmful hypersexuality. It’s a thin line. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to engage in casual sex without toeing said line.

But I also know that sexuality isn’t a switch I can turn on and off. In a perfect world, I might dedicate myself to a year of abstinence, but I know I won’t. I don’t want to. Sex can be beautiful, eye-opening, life-changing, euphoric…. ah, whatever, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this.

And then there’s the sex that’s none of those things. The sex that leaves me feeling dirty and used and broken and unloved. The sex with men who have no interest in knowing anything beyond my name (if even that). The sex that comes about in moments of weakness, loneliness, and self-loathing.

I’ve put myself in degrading situations. I’ve slept with men I shouldn’t have slept with. I know this. But if I cave into the belief that my sexuality is dangerous and in need of repression, I will fall back into the shame cycle — the same cycle that my abusers initiated.

So what’s a bruised but sensual girl to do?

! ! ! Boundaries ! ! !

Oh, hey, boundaries! What’s up? It’s been a while. Feel free to stick around this time. I’ll bring you some tea. Seriously, sit your ass down.

Boundaries are our friends. People with extensive trauma and/or Borderline diagnoses tend to not have them — like, at all. When people cross your boundaries, especially at an early age, it’s hard to figure out how to put them back in place.

But boundaries are so cool! And they love you! And they want to help you!

My DBT therapist was a proponent of “relationship circles.” The outer circle contains strangers, the next contains acquaintances, the third contains close friends, and the inner circle contains intimate friends. For Borderline and traumatized folks, these lines are often COMPLETELY blurred. A stranger becomes an acquaintance in a day, a friend in three, and an intimate friend in a week. We tend to spill our secrets to untrustworthy people with reckless abandon (and yeah, I’m doing that right now, but writing is a bit different). Some of those people take advantage of us. Some of those people are also Borderline/traumatized (seriously, we’re like magnets), and our relationships intensify and explode within a few weeks.

We are vulnerable people.

Also, danger and chaos are addicting. They create distance between our external selves and our internal truths. When we’re constantly in danger, we don’t have time to think, let alone feel sadness, anger, or fear. (This is a much larger topic that I will return to.)

So, priority number one is to reassess where people fall in the relationship circles. My therapist believes it takes a solid six months before someone can be considered a friend. I’m starting to believe her. Strangers are not our friends. They may be friendly, but they should not yet be considered trustworthy. They don’t need to know our whole truths.

One-night stands are strangers. That girl you’ve been dating for the past week is a stranger. The dude you met at that one concert who’s, like, super hot is a stranger. I’m probably a stranger, too. This isn’t to say that casual sex should be avoided — it’s more a matter of knowing when to say no. If the concert dude is giving you bad vibes, stop texting him. Don’t meet up with him. Just because he wants to have sex with you doesn’t mean you have to want to have sex with him. The fleeting feelings of validation, comfort, and safety aren’t worth it and probably aren’t even real.

Practice Saying “No”


Say “no” in front of the mirror. Say it to your friend when she asks if you want another beer. Say it to your co-worker when he asks you to pick up a shift. Say it to your neighbors when they ask you to housesit. Say it to the waiter at the Italian restaurant when he asks if you want parmesan on your pasta. Say it to telemarketers. Say it to the probably-pretty-nice Greenpeace people who won’t leave you the fuck alone. Say it to mailpeople and lawyers and siblings and doctors and parakeets and spiders.

The more you say “no” now, the easier it will be to say “no” when you really fucking need to.

Just because people took our power away in the past, doesn’t mean we can’t get it back. It’s still in there. Find it. Hold it. Love it.

The Dialectical Approach

My brother hates that DBT uses the word “dialectic” because something something Hegel, but I don’t really care. DBT’s definition of the dialectic is more closely related to this: “the dialectical tension or opposition between two interacting forces or elements.”

And a dialectical DBT sentence goes something like this: “Sex can be harmful AND sex can be healthy.”

Borderlines are generally black and white thinkers. Because we live with extreme internal chaos, we tend to crave immediate truths. This causes problems. If you tell yourself that all sex is wrong/dirty/shameful and shun all sexual activity, the pendulum will eventually swing the other way and repression may give way to compulsive sex.

We have to stop clinging so tightly to the idea of “truth.” Our truths are ever-changing, ever-growing, ever-expanding. Sexuality, especially, is not an easy thing to define. It’s fluid and confusing and beautiful and weird. It’s okay.

Applying the dialectic saves us from labeling people as good or bad based on externalities. It saves us from falling into extremes. Ultimately, it saves us from hating ourselves based on a few stupid choices. Nothing and no one is all good or all bad. This ain’t the Bible.


If the sex you’re having isn’t making you feel awesome, it may be time to rethink your approach. Did that one-night stand make you feel empty? Did that dude refuse to kiss or make eye contact with you? (Ugh.) You deserve better. You do. I do, too. Figure out what went wrong and what you want to avoid next time, then FORGIVE YOURSELF and keep pushin’ on.


7 thoughts on “Sex, Trauma, and the Endless Quest for Validation

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