*Content Warning: This piece contains references to violence, which may be triggering some.
Let’s start at the beginning. Three years ago a man came into the place that I worked and tried to murder myself and several other people with a machete. That’s a lot to take in, I know, because it was more than a lot to experience. I don’t share about the actual attack much because, more often than not, it can be too emotionally daunting for me to relive and too emotionally taxing for those who are listening. What I do talk about a lot, though, is the ways in which it altered my life, all the ways in which it changed my perspective of the world and how I interact with it and with those who live within it.
I was diagnosed with PTSD in 2016. The attacked occurred that February and by March I was incapable of functioning in any normal capacity. I no longer felt safe living in my apartment by myself, I had friends escort me outside at night to let my dog go to the bathroom. I couldn’t go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, any place that I hadn’t been before, and I certainly couldn’t set foot in any restaurant. I was waitressing at the time and found myself incapable of going back to work. I lived behind closed doors, my friends and family constantly checking in on me, and the only place I felt any form of safety was at the local park with my dog. I was afraid of all men I didn’t know to the point where I would cross the street when they would walk towards me on the sidewalk. I started carrying a knife with me everywhere I went.
This is what PTSD can look like. No two cases are the same and, in the years that have passed since the attack, I’ve connected with other people with the same diagnosis and have found both similarities and differences in how our symptoms manifest. My strongest manifestation quickly became my fear of all men: men I didn’t know in particular, but also men that I loved and trusted, should they show any form of anger or frustration. I was paralyzed by this fear, I ran (literally) from this fear, it became a part of every waking and sleeping thought.
Obviously dating and any sort of sexual relationship were an impossibility. When you have experienced a trauma that alters the neuro-pathways of your brain to signal to you that all men, any man, is out to kill you, you take a hard pass on interacting with the opposite sex altogether. I tried dating a handful of times, points in my recovery when I thought I was ready but quickly found out I was not. I started to believe that sex was simply off the table for me, permanently, and that I would have to find a life worth living that didn’t involve physical or emotional intimacy with a partner.
It’s been just over three years since that night. Three years of intensive therapy, reconnecting with my body, reading everything I could find on the science of PTSD and the ways it changes your brain, and developing a devoted and intentional yoga practice. I’ve put in the work, the hard, painful, scary work to get to where I am now. I’m proud of myself. I’m a better person for it. But one of the things I’ve learned over the course of the past three years is that there is never healed, only healing. And so this journey, this constant frustrating and joyous struggle to turn scabbed old wounds into scarred but healed skin, is never ending.
Here’s where we get to the now. I’m a copywriter for a fairly well known online retailer. I genuinely enjoy my job because it’s given me a chance to get back to writing, a career I gave up a year before the attack in order to care for my mother. It brought me back to one of my true loves, it reminded me that I can still be parts of who I was before the trauma and, on top of all of that, it’s fun.
I mostly write your typical online copy: furniture, home goods, clothing, kitchen appliances and electronics. It gives me an accessible scope in which to be creative, it keeps my brain constantly thinking about word choice, sentence structure, how to best communicate what people want to know. It’s challenging in all the right ways and for that I’m grateful.
This past fall our company decided to start selling sex toys, a revolutionary step for a family-oriented website. We started out small: condoms, personal lubricant, vibrators. Our department assembled a specific team to construct the guidelines and write the copy for these items and, for reasons I couldn’t identify at the time, I was drawn to volunteer. We spent months formulating the appropriate language, titling, and copy standards for these ‘more sensitive’ products, months of researching how other companies approach the marketing of such things. We’ve laughed a lot, giggled like children at the more expressive copy that sexual wellness companies have the liberty to write, some of it bordering on erotica.
I’ve written copy now for hundreds of vibrators, dildos, wands, c-rings, anal plugs, personal lubricants, condoms and edible body dust. It’s been a whirlwind seven months.
Let’s backtrack a bit, to 2018. I was managing a yoga studio at the time, a job I loved so fully because I could offer something to people that had been so rewarding and helpful to me. I had made a lot of huge steps in my recovery, too. I was able to eat in restaurants, could grocery shop on my own, had made new friends of the opposite sex, and had even attempted to have sex a couple of times. I needed someone I could trust fully and I had that, a good friend, but even still I would find myself spiralling into a breakdown any time we tried.
It’s hard to have sex with someone when the image in your mind is of them taking your life. Even if you do care for them deeply. Because this trigger isn’t about them at all. It’s about you, it’s about me and my inability to trust myself. I hadn’t trusted my instincts about the man who came into my work and tried to kill us all. I had known he didn’t seem right, that something about him seemed broken, but I had shrugged it off. You get weird customers all the time in food service, afterall, and I chalked him up to being another weirdo. Less than an hour later he came back with a machete and hurt a lot of people.
And so sex was still this inaccessible thing. Sex was still something I thought I would never experience again. I felt crippled by my inability to be intimate with another person and I shut myself off from any opportunity for intimacy that presented itself.
And then, in the summer of 2018, something clicked and the right situation presented itself and I found that I was capable of and (big important thing) did want to have sex with someone. There’s a lot I don’t remember about that encounter. He was an acquaintance at best, someone I knew well enough to not fear but not well enough to fear what the sex would have to mean. I felt empowered after, like I had conquered something that was insurmountable, and I diagnosed myself as healed.
This was a laughable mistake. I spent the next few months stumbling through what I mistakenly identified as my ability to have any and all kinds of sex only to realize that I was only capable of having meaningless sex. Sex without intimacy. And so I had progressed only half as far as I had thought, I was still not healed.
Writing copy for sexual wellness devices opened up a whole new world to me. My sexual identity has always been complicated but, post-trauma, I had no idea who my sexual self was. Even recently a partner asked me what I like and what I don’t like, healthy and supportive questions, and I found myself at a loss to answer. I have no idea what I like and don’t like now, post-trauma. There’s a few things that are definitely off the table due to my PTSD but, for the most part, I am completely adrift when having sex and am simply focusing on staying connected to my body during the experience, not leaving myself, not flashing back to things I spend a large portion of my time trying not to see.
I dove so fully into writing copy for sex toys. I wanted to know all their functions, their features, why someone would choose one over the other, what made them desirable, what language worked best to communicate their benefits. I researched sex-positive manufacturers and retailers, I paid attention to their languaging, the ways in which they affirmed exploration and imperfection, and I was able to identify things about myself and my own sexual life within all of this.
There’s still a lot of taboo around sex toys, even with the progressive shift toward a more sex-positive mindset. Writing copy for these things is my favorite part about my job but it’s also the piece of my job that I don’t discuss with my father or more conservative friends. The discussing of sex is still uncomfortable for a lot of people. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me, too, but what I’m finding is that the more that I write about it, talk about it, explore it, the more I’m finding a healthy connection to my sexual identity and desires.
Sex toys give people a safe and controlled space in which to explore what they are into and what turns them off. Toys can be a way to expand your current relationship so that you can connect on a deeper level. And, from the perspective of a trauma survivor, sex toys can allow you to experience sensual moments without the pressure and fear that can come with a partner, so that you can practice focusing on the feelings, on your own empowerment, in the hopes that someday you can go out into the world as the sexual being that you are and experience healthy and supportive intimacy.
My sexual identity and overall sex life are still predominantly a mystery to me. But writing about these things has given me the understanding and courage to step outside of what I know, of what I fear, and to allow myself to experience all the fun, awkward, caring and wild moments that come with physical intimacy. I’m still working on how to incorporate emotional intimacy into these moments. Sometimes I feel like I’ve nailed it and other times I show myself grace for the lack of connection, remind myself that sex without intimacy is also okay and supportive to my recovery. All of those times I’ve declared myself healed I laugh at now because I know that I’m always healing, that each moment in my life, sexual or otherwise, is a chance to learn more about who I am now and want I want from life.
I have found empowerment through writing copy for erotic toys, something I never thought I’d say, but I’m grateful for the opportunity and for everything I’ve learned in the process. There’s no shame in the sex toy game, and a lot of empowerment can be found through exploring your own sexuality. As we say on our team at work, good vibes only, from here on out.