Sexual Trauma and Queer Rights

Sexual Trauma and Queer Rights

How sexual trauma can affect sexual attraction and orientation, and the implications for queer fights and queer rights.

A lot of times when someone comes out of the closet as queer, ignorant people assume that it’s because they’ve experienced sexual trauma. They figure, someone must have hurt this person to make them no longer want to be a straight cis person.

This is hugely problematic, for so, so many reasons.

The first one is that it’s always masculine-centered. When a woman comes out as a lesbian, people think a man hurt her, to turn her away from men. When a man comes out as gay, people think a man sexually abused him in childhood, to make him turn sexually towards men. When a trans man comes out as a man, people think he is just striving for masculine power, because a man had taken his power in the past, when he was still presenting as a woman. When a trans woman comes out as a woman, people think that it’s because she was sexually abused by a man, which caused her to want to move away from her masculinity. It’s similar to how bisexual woman are told that they’re just straight but looking for masculine attention, and how bisexual men are told that they’re gay, but in denial. Our society has such a powerful narrative around men being the only sexual influencers, and that every sex and gender experience revolves around men.

Another reason that this is problematic is that it refuses the narrative of people who say “I’ve always been this way,” or “I was born like this.” It tells those people that they *must* have some kind of hidden trauma that they don’t even know about. It says “your memories are wrong – something did this to you.”

Thirdly, it invalidates the attraction and gender journeys of people who *have* experienced sexual assault, by telling them that their queerness is a problem that needs to be corrected, and is linked to their trauma.

Plus, it enables conversion therapy and interventions, where well-meaning loved ones and abusive parents alike feel like therapy can “fix” someone being gay or trans by getting to the root of their presumed sexual trauma experiences.

So LGBTQ advocates fight against that narrative, correct misconceptions, and help to spread correct and accurate information about queer existence.

There is one tiny problem, though.

There are some people who feel as if sexual trauma *has* affected how they experience sexual attraction. And their experiences often get invalidated by the LGBTQ community who are so desperate to control the narrative about queerness, that they forget that individual people have individual experiences.

How might trauma inform sexual attraction or orientation?

If someone has experienced sexual trauma from one particular kind of person, they can become uninterested in sexually interacting with that kind of person in the future. That usually looks like someone getting assaulted by a man, and no longer experiencing sexual desire for or attraction to men in the future (though I’ve seen it happen with a number of different gender combinations).

Ah, that looks like problematic case number one that I outlined above, doesn’t it? Centering male sexuality as an influencer of all existent sexuality?

Yes, it does, but that doesn’t make it never true. It’s a problem when *all* sexual experiences are presumed to revolve around maleness, but that doesn’t mean that *no* sexual experiences are affected by maleness.

This orientation change is an occurrence that we usually see from the polysexual community. A person feels sexual attraction to people of multiple genders and then experiences a traumatic sexual experience with someone of one of those genders. Due to the unique ways that trauma and PTSD shape the brain, signifiers of attraction (like dopamine spikes) no longer occur when interacting with someone of that gender*. That person may then identify as monosexual, or a sexual orientation that excludes the gender that they have a traumatic response to.

Some people that have that happen to them are distressed by the way that it feels like their body and brain are betraying them. “I still have the possibility for a healthy relationship with someone of that gender!” they think. Those people may have success in therapy – many therapeutic techniques work extremely well on trauma and the ways that it physically and chemically alters the brain. They may change the way their thinking patterns affect their attraction, and successfully get over some or all of the effects of that trauma.

Some people, though, feel fine about that change.

I know some people – women and non-binary folks – who used to identify as bisexual or queer, and who were sexually assaulted by men. Those people now identify as lesbians, and they are happy in that identity. I’ve known women who had traumatic experiences with other women, and now identify as straight, and say that their bisexuality was “just a phase.” Sure, these might have the capacity to experience attraction like they used to, but it’s not something they have any desire to engage with. And it’s not our job – as friends, queer people, or therapists/human service professionals – to try and get them to change how they self-identify.

It’s probably worthwhile to get our friends and clients help for sexual trauma – yes. But therapy should generally be self-directed; if someone wants to work on their trauma, but not necessarily address the way that sexual trauma has affected how they experience attraction, it’s not up to us to make that decision for them.

This is a really tough one for LGBTQ activists to swallow. We fight so hard against the narrative of queer identities all stemming from trauma, that to see it happening feels like taking steps backwards. What it actually does, though, is open queerness up to personal journeys.

Some of the reasons that (gay people in particular, but) a lot of LGBTQ activists fight so hard for the “born that way” narrative is because it allows them to demand rights from conservatives on that basis. “I’ve always been a lesbian, there’s no way to change that, so I demand my rights!” They feel like they’re owed rights because their queerness is innate (not just a choice) so because there’s no way for them to change to align with social expectations, social expectations should change to align with them.

But while that’s an argument and a plea that is effective in some (usually religious) situations, what it also does is ignore the concrete fact that queer people deserve rights because those rights should be implicit in our existence as people, and not just because we were created queer from the womb. Even *if* someone did decide to become lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or any other queer identity, they *still*deserve equal rights to straight/cis people.

That’s something that a lot of LGBTQ activists are scared to accept, because they feel like it will make their fight harder. But the matter stands that humans rights are for all humans, not just for the ones that have a good excuse for their identities.

It’s difficult to swallow, that trauma can affect sexual orientation and attraction. It may not be a kind truth to think about, that something so beautiful as queerness can be molded by negative experiences. But in order to support all queer people, we even need to accept the ones whose truths feel uncomfortable to us.


*sexual trauma and the ethics of “genital preferences” to come at a later date (oh jeeze, I’m really piling on the topics to come!)

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