The resource explains what trauma triggers are, how someone might be affected by one, and how you can explore discussing this with partners. It is designed for transgender adults, and may not be suitable for younger viewers
You can scroll down to read the first edition (2021), or download the second edition PDF (2022), which was developed for our online course The transgender guide to sex and relationships.
Triggers: Past Trauma Memories and How to Discuss Them (first edition, 2021)
What is a trigger?
If a person has experienced trauma in the past, such as being the victim/survivor of sexual violence, they may have very strong emotions such as anger or fear which are associated with an element present when the initial trauma happened. This element – or trigger – can be anything from a smell to a certain word or phrase, it could be a particular sexual activity or position, or any number of other elements. After the initial trauma – it could be days, weeks, or years later – when the person experiences the trigger, they may emotionally or psychologically re-live the trauma of the initial incident. We call this ‘being triggered’.
It is not always possible to avoid being triggered, for example if the smell of beer was present when the initial traumatic incident occurred, then in the future the smell of beer might make the person have a ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response. Whether the current situation is safe or not, the person who has been ‘triggered’ might experience an elevated heart rate and physical symptoms of fear, anger, humiliation, sadness, or a number of other things. This may also mean that their reaction to another person drinking a beer is to feel distrustful, or angry, and they may not know why.
Some people find it very helpful to work out, over time, the things that trigger past trauma for them. It can be a long process of recognising when they feel disproportionately upset, and working out why that might be. Not everything that upsets someone is a trigger – we can be upset for many reasons, including being upset because the thing which is happening right now is harming us. Or because we just don’t like something. It can be helpful to separate things out and reflect on what feelings we were having when we were upset, and whether there is a current problem happening and we are being harmed, or if we were triggered.
Although the trauma we have experienced might not be our fault (and in the case of sexual violence is never the victim’s fault), it is still our responsibility to manage our triggers and behaviours. Some people find it useful to discuss triggers with partners or potential partners. It can also be useful to talk about how a person might guess that you are being triggered when it happens, what they might say to you in that situation, or how you might communicate with them.
Sarah has trauma that involves sexual violence. She doesn’t like to have sex in certain positions, or when she’s very tired, or after an argument.
Sometimes she doesn’t realise how tired she is, or something else can trigger her. When she’s triggered, she feels humiliated and worthless, and her response is to ‘freeze’, which for her means she thinks about other things, and tries to ‘just get through’ the sex that is happening right now. She struggles to let partners know she wants to stop having sex. Usually during sex she makes a lot of eye contact and talks or makes sounds. When she is triggered, she avoids eye contact and usually goes quiet and sometimes cries.
She tells this to her partners, so that if she behaves in those ways, they know to stop and check in. She tells them that when they think she’s triggered, she doesn’t want to be asked ‘are you ok?’ because it’s hard to say ‘no’ when she feels like that. She wants her partners to ask ‘do you want to stop?’, because saying yes is easier. If she does want to stop, a good next question is ‘shall I make you some tea?’, because it gives her the chance to have space alone for a few minutes. After that, she sometimes feels fine. Other times, she wants to do something that isn’t sexual, like watch a film and cuddle.
She also lets them know that her being triggered doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong.
Learn more about healthy relationships and safer sex for trans people
Gender Minorities Aotearoa is holding some absolutely amazing creative workshops will at Out in the City; Micheal Fowler Centre, 111 Wakefield street Wellington, Saturday March 27th. These include a Zine making workshop at 11.30am and Pause Blur Grass Witch at 1.30pm. It’s free to attend these workshops but you are welcome to give a donation. We’re looking forward to seeing you!
Come make zines with Randy that celebrate you and your identity!
A zine is a super easy to make paper booklet that is easily replicated through photocopying. Swap them, sell them, gift them to friends and family! Materials provided, feel free to bring photos and other craft supplies!
Randy is a non-binary transmasculine artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington. They teach tweens how to draw cartoon characters and are studying to be a design teacher. In their spare time they make zines and jewellery.
A two part workshop with Connor Fitzgerald and Louie Zalk-Neale
This workshop will focus on queer experience, and everyone is welcome to join in and spend time focusing on the crossovers of our connections to nature, gender and expression. The first part run by Connor will be dedicated to listening, reading, discussing and responding to texts by queer and trans artists and writers. Then after a short break Louie will teach rope making techniques using plant fibres and some surrounding tikanga.
Connor Fitzgerald is a nonbinary transfeminine artist based in Te Whanganui-A-Tara, with a multi-disciplinary practice in video, writing and installation. Connor has recently been in the group show 2+2+2 at Precinct 35, 2020. Solo show What is Faith Without Doubt? at Clearview Gallery 2020.
Louie Zalk-Neale (Ngāi Te Rangi, Pākehā) is a queer artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, originally from Hokitika. Louie’s work has recently featured at Artspace Aotearoa’s New Artists Show (Tāmaki Makaurau 2020); Critical Costume Conference (Norway 2020); and Shared Lines Collective at Birdo Flugas Gallery Sendai (Japan) and Kaikōura (2019).
The much awaited Out in the City is coming up as part of the Pride Festival and we can’t wait! We’re looking for volunteers to help out at the Binders fundraising stall – we’ll be selling our gorgeous transgender diversity mugs, giving out info leaflets, writing down the items sold during the day, and accepting donations; and all while having a great time! GMA staff will be there at all times, and we can show you how to do sales on the day so don’t be shy if you haven’t done this before! We will have stall shifts of 2 hours, so if you’d like to donate a couple of hours to a great cause we would love to have you.
All money raised will go towards our national free binder programme; providing free binders for trans folks who need one and can’t afford to purchase one. These are absolutely life-saving medical devices that aren’t funded by any DHBs, so you will be directly supporting trans people in need.
Simply click the rainbow button below to fill in the contact form, and Sophie will get in touch with you before the day to confirm the shift roster and let you know what time to rock up. Day: Saturday March 27th. Place: Michael Fowler Centre, 111 Wakefield Street, Te Aro, Wellington.
One of the most important things in a relationship is having your own autonomy – or getting to make decisions for yourself. If both or all partners get to be in charge of their own lives, then you have a great foundation for making room for each other and growing together. When one person controls another person, it’s easy for the relationship to become abusive. In a healthy relationship each partner should have control over themself.
Some of the decisions you should be free to make include decisions about
Sleeping and eating – what, where, when, and how much.
Medications, hormones, surgical decisions, self care, and time alone.
Declining to be a partner’s sole source of support, or having boundaries to the support you can personally provide.
Where to go and who to spend time with.
Social reputation, which information is shared with whom.
Ability to say no: to sexual activities and physical intimacy, alcohol and other drug use, unsafe situations like drinking and driving or transphobic social situations.
Diary, journal, passwords.
Important documents eg. tenancy, immigration, work, school, WINZ, identification, passport.
Private communication and support networks, such as social media, email, phone, personal messages.
Personal expression: clothing, hairstyle, language and mannerisms.
Income: how it’s made, how it’s used, and who can access it.
Culture, cultural knowledge, values, language, history, beliefs, spiritual or religious practice.
If you are controlling your partner
If you are controlling your partners decisions, there are steps you can take to relinquish control over them and let them make their own decisions. The same is true for anyone who is controlling your decisions.
For the person in control, the first steps are often the hardest: recognising that controlling a partner is a problem, accepting that they have been participating in an unhealthy dynamic, and taking personal responsibility for making changes.
Anxieties, fears, insecurities, and beliefs or values can all play roles in how comfortable we are accepting that others can change, and allowing them the freedom to do so. Some people find it helpful to talk with a counselor or another adult they trust, or look for resources about healthy relationships.
Respect your partners gender and sex characteristics
Always use the name and pronouns they choose, and never say they’re not a ”real” woman, man, or trans person for any reason – including the way they dress, the name they use, their hobbies, their attractions or sexual orientation, the ways that they like to have sex or not have sex, or what you imagine life was like for them growing up. Even if you’re really angry at them; criticise the behavior you’re upset about, never invalidate their gender.
Respect your partners body
Respect their body, including the words they use to talk about it, and their choice to take or not take hormones and have surgeries or other medical treatments. Respect their right to make contraceptive and reproductive choices, and to use protection against STIs and HIV. Respect their ‘no’ if they don’t want to use alcohol and other drugs, or be around drug use if they struggle with it. Respect their mobility, hearing, seeing, and sensory or other accessibility needs.
Respect your partners sexual boundaries
Respect their boundaries, including the ways they are comfortable with being touched or not being touched, and sexual activities they don’t want to do or times they don’t want to do them. Sometimes you might feel rejected if they say no to cuddles, sharing a bed, or hooking up, but pressuring them will only make them feel that you don’t care what they want. Show them how much you love them by never manipulating them into sex or other kinds of affection.
Respect your partners autonomy
Respect their ability to make decisions for themself about the daily things they need in their life. This includes decisions about when and where they sleep, what and how much they eat, needing time to be alone, and not always being the person to take care of your emotional or other needs. Respect them as a whole person; accept responsibility for your share of the child care or house work and do not treat them as an extension of yourself. Don’t expect them to fulfill your ideals or fantasies of what someone of their gender, or someone with their sex characteristics, should do.
Respect your partners other relationships
Respect their other relationships, including with whānau, friends, kids, other partners, and ex-partners who they are friends or family with. It’s healthy for your partner to spend time with other people they care about, and sometimes they need to spend time alone too. It can be scary learning to trust, but controlling them just means pushing them to make a choice between you, and everyone else they care about. Even if they choose you in the moment, no one can can choose that in the long run. Don’t push them away by isolating them from others.
Respect your partners safety
Don’t put them in dangerous situations such as drinking and driving, or going places they will be exposed to transphobia or other harm.
Respect your partners emotions, mental health, neurodiversity, and wairua or life force
Be honest with them, make time to talk with them about things that are important to them, have patience to work through difficult emotions without blaming them, putting them down, or becoming abusive, accept responsibility for your own emotions and actions, and only expect them to take responsibility for theirs.
Respect your partners economic situation
Respect their economic situation, including their choice to do sex work or to not do sex work, do not prevent them from working or take their money or expect them to pay for your expenses. If they have work or study the next day they can’t stay up all night, so letting them sleep is part of supporting their economic situation.
Respect their privacy
Don’t tell other people personal information about their sex characteristics and/or gender, their body, their HIV status, or the ways they have sex or don’t have sex. Don’t share their private photos, videos, or messages. Do not insist that they share with you the intimate details of their past sexual experiences. Don’t insist on knowing their passwords, reading their email, or having access to their social media.
Respect their culture
Respect their whakapapa, their people, their language, their values, their spiritual or religious practice, and the land they’re from. Respect the histories of their people, and the ways in which gender and sex characteristics might be thought about differently than in your own culture. A healthy relationship has room for difference and can celebrate each others diversity.