SETH MENACHEM, LMFT, Clinical psychotherapist
Before I address your question, I want to address a few other things first. I’m guessing that you and your girlfriend have had conversations about her abuse history, and she felt safe in sharing it with you. When someone has been sexually, physically, or emotionally abused in childhood, that violation of their trust and safety can have negative effects on their mental health and interpersonal relationships for the rest of their lives.
Hopefully, she is doing the work or has done the work to help her maintain a healthy relationship and to be able to openly communicate her wants to you. But I want to focus this answer on you and what work you need to do in order to help your girlfriend feel safe and protected in your relationship, in and out of the bedroom.
I assume you’re already having sex, and your question is about how to experiment with something new in a way that doesn’t trigger your girlfriend. But I think it’s important that you first look at how you’re currently having sex. Was there a lot of communication before you began your sex life together? Is there communication while having sex? Sometimes a partner will make the mistake of assuming the other person is enjoying a certain sexual act because they are, or because their last partner did.
I had a client tell me about a man she was dating who would grab her neck and choke her during sex. She was intimidated to tell him she didn’t like it because he seemed to enjoy it. Meanwhile, she was not only turned off sexually, she was also scared and struggling to breathe. When she explored it with me, she realized the biggest issue with it wasn’t the choking; it was the lack of discussion, and rules. She said she might have even enjoyed it if she felt safe, and knew at any moment she could stop it like a safety key that detaches from a treadmill if it’s released.
This client grew up in a house with an emotionally abusive father, who taught her to be scared to stand up for herself. Her needs were always secondary. And in adult relationships, she would continually shut down whenever there was conflict. Because of her history, she didn’t yet know how to navigate a healthy relationship.
But what if the man she was dating had spent the time to discuss sex beforehand? What if he had told her that he enjoyed choking his partner and asked her how she felt about it? If they discussed her fears or curiosity, how to experiment with it, and created rules around the act of choking in a way to have her feel safe and make sure she is safe? They might both find ways to enjoy new sexual exploration, as well as create a healthy pattern of checking in with each other about their wants.
We falsely assume when there are no rules, we feel freer, but science doesn’t support it. In fact, in many different studies on playgrounds with children, when there is a boundary—in this case, a fence—the kids felt safe to run to the edges of the playground. When the fence wasn’t there, the kids would stay in close proximity to the playground structure or the teacher. When we understand the boundaries, we are safe to play within them.
These conversations need to happen before sexual activity. It should happen when outside of the proverbial bedroom, where you can each discuss things you like and don’t like, and things you’re curious about. You should discuss the rules in how to engage in a particular act, and rules on how to immediately stop the act without hurting anyone’s feelings. This might feel unsexy in the moment, but paradoxically it is these conversations that allow for a sexier experience when it’s time to be sexual.
As for your question, there is no special phrasing that feels safe for anyone who has a history of abuse. It is as personal and individualistic as any other preference. If you’d like to talk dirty to your girlfriend, tell her about it. Ask her if there are any words, or any tone, that make her uncomfortable. Your hope is to have her as sexually excited as you are feeling, so work towards that goal.
This communication style also has benefits outside of sex. It is a foundation for how to discuss feelings with your partner, and teach each other about how you operate, think, feel, and behave without judgment.