Resolving sexual trauma with the rewind technique

Man relaxing with his eyes shut, letting clouds of thought pass.

Difficulty in the bedroom is often caused by past trauma. Scary, hurtful or regrettable intimate experiences linger in our emotional recall.

We might struggle with intimacy and sharing sexual pleasure with our partners, or avoid it completely.

For men, trauma might show up as arousal and erection problems. Sometimes premature ejaculation or finding it difficult to reach orgasm is a legacy of painful past experience.

When we try to address these struggles, we tend to focus on the mechanics of sex – what am I doing wrong? That makes complete sense, but sometimes we underestimate the impact of past sexual trauma.

The bad thing might have happened years ago. We might not be thinking of it at all during sex. But at the emotional level, our self-preservation system is activated and alert.

John’s story

Let me give you an example, and it’s a true story about a client that I worked with. Thanks to him for giving me permission to share.

John was in his late 40s, married and enjoying a successful career. He presented as happy with his life. But he’d always found it difficult to make sexual intercourse last.

He’d tried plenty of things: numbing sprays, trying to stay relaxed, different positions. His wife was supportive and they’d made the best of their situation, but both felt their sexual intimacy could be better.

On reflection, John had incompatible feelings around intimacy. He experienced the paradoxical mix of excitement, arousal and severe discomfort all at the same time.

John said he “automatically went into a mode” before and during sex. He felt on edge and anxious. He loved his wife and found her attractive. He guilt-tripped himself for feeling this way.

We talked about his previous relationships and sexual experience. This mix of feelings, and the premature ejaculation problem, had always troubled him.

And then, almost as an aside, John mentioned a story from when he was 12 years old. He had a friend who lived a few doors down, and this other boy was a bit older, around 14 or 15.

They were at the older boy’s house one afternoon, and the parents were out, and the older boy had a video he wanted to show John.

We’re talking 1980s, the days of pornographic VHS videos. This particular video was pretty hardcore by the sound of it, and John hadn’t seen porn before. He was healthily innocent about such things.

But John wanted to play it cool and keep up with the older boy, so they drew the curtains, sat on the sofa and pushed the video into the player.

John recalled his friend eating ice cream while he watched, such was his familiarity with this particular video. The pressure was on.

What followed was an uncomfortable, squirming-yet-kind-of-fascinating 90 minutes for John. He stuck it out. They watched the whole thing and he remembers squinting at the most vivid scenes through his fingers.

He felt hot and clammy. He didn’t want to be there but was transfixed at the same time. He wished it would end but felt a rush of excitement too.

Without going into detail, this video was beyond vanilla. That’s a heavy introduction to sex. John remembered going home afterwards and his mum making him dinner. Low on appetite, he felt too confused and ashamed to mention anything.

Pattern-matching to the present

Talking about this experience, all these years later, had John experiencing the squirming and shame once more. He could feel that rush, that excitement at seeing things he was never going to unsee. He was right back there on that sofa.

John doesn’t have flashbacks or nightmares – at least not now. But he was clearly still affected by the experience. He had an emotional response to the memory, and to erotic situations that pattern-match to that experience today. Loving, consensual intimacy with his wife included.

John doesn’t have PTSD but he has a negative emotional affect. That’s still trauma at work. It wasn’t a life or death thing, but it was intense, scary, conflicted and totally unexpected. One minute he’s playing with his friend’s dog, next he’s taking in extremely graphic images and sounds in a darkened room.

His natural instinct to run home was overridden by another natural instinct to hold on to his status, to keep his end up. And his natural curiosity about sex, of course. He had more questions than answers afterwards, but was too ashamed to ask anyone.

As with all traumatic experiences, big and small, John had a freeze response. On that sofa, an emotional message was implanted. Sex is exhilerating, terrifying and taboo.

Fast-forward to John coming to see me, and this programming was fully intact and impacting his sexual response. He said “It’s difficult to feel like a sexual person. Other men have all kinds of sex, enjoy all kinds of porn, and take it all in their stride“.

No wonder John was finding it impossible to find a relaxed, creative and connected groove during sex with his wife.

So I worked with John on dealing with this trauma. And it didn’t take much therapy to shift it.

Rewinding traumatic memories

We have various different ways of working with trauma: talking it through, EMDR therapy and the technique I tend to use, which is called the rewind technique.

The rewind is a modern, brief intervention that reprocesses the memory – the bad parts of the experience – in an emotionally-neutral way.

This approach doesn’t try to change what happened. It doesn’t remove the memory or anything like that, but it gives us the opportunity to file it away as a normal memory.

The rewind technique can take just one session, and is used for all kinds of trauma: PTSD, near-death experiences, accidents, childhood bullying, abuse, bad relationships and bad sexual experiences too.

Sometimes called the Dr Muss Rewind Technique, there are lots of videos and resources if you’re curious to find out more.

So John and I rewound the trauma. Then John let all of this percolate for a few days. He slept on it. He noticed that he felt different. If he thought about that afternoon, watching that video, it felt more distant, less clammy.

Did he immediately last longer in bed and feel more confident? No, that’s not how this works in my experience. But along with feeling different, he was able to feel more relaxed and resourceful.

Along with his wife, John continued to experiment with different positions, communicating during sex and taking things more slowly. He was able to let himself be sexual.

In the space of a few weeks, there was a noticeable difference in John’s ability to take the initiative and feel more deserving. He didn’t feel himself going into that old mode at the prospect of sex.

Identifying and tackling the trauma had a positive domino effect. It freed up John to actually do the things he’d struggled with before.

The problem with porn

Now in John’s story, porn was the traumatising thing. Simply add his young and impressionable mind. But it could have been something else he’d seen, or a negative interaction with a girl, or sex-shaming from a parent or some other humiliation.

I’m not making the case here that porn is all bad and terrible.

But porn – especially the stronger stuff – can have a deeply unhelpful impact. Grown men tell me that they’ve seen something more extreme on a tube site and felt that freeze response. I wish I hadn’t seen that. And they are probably just fine.

But what if they watch porn every day? What if their fascination tips over into compulsion? What if they were 12 years old?

There’s an argument that porn is everywhere now, and maybe 12 year-old John would already be desensitised. Or the ‘hey check this video out’ scenario is less likely to happen now. Kids have laptops in their bedrooms from a much younger age.

Or maybe this means there’s more potential for young people to be traumatised by the things they see online, and they are even less likely to talk about it because porn is everywhere now.

Sharing without shame

Either way, a takeaway from all this: let’s talk with our kids about sex. Help them to know that yes, porn is real sex but it’s not real-world sex. And our kids can always talk with us about anything they’ve witnessed or worried about.

And if you’ve seen stuff that made you feel uncomfortable, no harm in talking to someone about it. If you relate to John’s story in any way, it can be quite easily addressed and the experience set properly in the past for you.

Could John have overcome his premature ejaculation without this rewind work? Without ever talking about what happened that day?

Yes potentially, given a bit more time. Past trauma does let go and emotions do settle, all by themselves. But sometimes it’s a slow process – 30-odd years in John’s case. So we’re able to give that process a nudge in therapy.

Was this clammy, confusing afternoon the sole cause of John’s sexual difficulties?

Maybe, maybe not – I couldn’t say. But it wasn’t helping. And a treatment of his trauma, plus some sexual skill-building, was all it really took in the end.