I met my partner shortly after leaving an abusive relationship, which ended with an aggressive sexual assault, followed by months of harassment. My partner has been wonderfully supportive throughout my healing, including with our very intermittent and difficult sex life. Prior to the abusive relationship, I was very confident sexually and enjoyed sex with men who were fairly dominant and rough. My concern is that I don’t think my partner can separate the fragile, traumatised me that I was at the start of our relationship from the confident version to which I am trying to return. As such, he is (understandably) very gentle and reserved in bed, which leaves me unsatisfied. We are in agreement that this is the one part of our relationship that needs work, but I am not sure how to proceed.

You may need to help your new partner understand the difference between being abusive and “taking charge” in an erotic situation. But first you must be very clear about the distinction yourself – and make sure he knows that. The term “rough sex” can imply varying degrees of consent and even a lack of it. As a survivor of abuse, you will feel safer if you maintain control in any kind of sexual situation. Your new partner understands that, but he may think that means he must be passive. In fact, passivity is a kind of control and that is why you are uncomfortable with it. Give him permission to experiment with taking the initiative more. In turn, you should practise letting him know frequently exactly how you feel. “Safe words” (codes for comfort levels) could be useful. If you and your partner agree to mutually and consensually experiment with different degrees of erotic power balance, he will be less afraid of hurting you. First, though, you must have a fundamental conversation about what exactly constitutes consensual sex.

  • Pamela Stephenson Connolly is a US-based psychotherapist who specialises in treating sexual disorders.

  • If you would like advice from Pamela on sexual matters, send us a brief description of your concerns to private.lives@theguardian.com (please don’t send attachments). Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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