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Sex After Sexual Assault

Assault can mess with how you experience sex and pleasure. Here's a starter guide to feeling like your sexual self again.

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A common refrain among victim services professionals and sex educators alike is “sexual assault isn’t sex.” That’s true — sexual violence is actually about gaining power and control over someone. But no matter how many times someone tells you “sexual assault isn’t sex” it doesn’t change the fact that experiencing sexual violence can affect desire, comfort, and how you feel about yourself as a sexual being more broadly.

Sexual violence may not be sex, but it can certainly affect your sex life.

And just as a quick note, “sexual violence” is an umbrella term. Your experience with sexual violence may not have felt or seemed physically violent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid or traumatic. “Sexual violence” includes a range of experiences from street harassment to child sexual abuse and partner rape.

People who experience sexual trauma may struggle with self-confidence, eating disorders, sexual pain, changes in desire, and other post-traumatic symptoms like flashbacks, hypervigilance, and dissociation. As a society, we talk about PTSD and other mental health symptoms when they aren’t sexual in nature, but when sexuality and trauma overlap we turn silent. Most people aren’t comfortable talking about sex and aren’t comfortable talking about sexual trauma, so when the two overlap, many people opt to ignore it, rather than address it.

Not talking about it doesn’t help anyone, though. If you’ve experienced sexual violence, here are five simple ways that you can start rebuilding your relationship with sex, all on your own time.

Be patient with yourself

Okay, this one is a good baseline for anyone who is struggling with sex in one way or another. When it comes to rebuilding a positive relationship with our sexuality, patience is key.

In society, we rarely talk openly about the aftereffects of trauma, which makes us end up relying on media to try to understand what is “normal”. But media depictions of people who have experienced sexual violence may not feel reflective of what you’re actually experiencing.

You might experience sexual aversion (a disinterest or fear around sex) or you might experience sexual fixation (a deep interest in having or learning about sex as a way to regain control over your own sexuality). You might experience both of those things in alternation or in cycles. You might also experience triggers or flashbacks.

You may feel inclined to quickly “get past” what you’re experiencing, but pushing yourself too quickly through a recovery cycle can actually make recovery a bit more difficult (like going for a run too soon after you pulled a muscle).

There’s no one way to know what reactions you might have or what your timeline will look like, so be patient with yourself as you navigate this new space. If you uncover a new trigger, write it down and contextualize what you think may have activated it. If you have a flashback, use grounding techniques to remind yourself that you’re safe and in control of your current situation.

Practice non-sexual touch

Whether it’s on your own or with a trusted friend or partner, non-sexual touch can be an important step for people recovering from sexual trauma.

After sexual violence, some people struggle to mentally separate safe physical contact from violent physical contact — our brains might tell us “that’s not safe!” even if it’s something as simple as a touch of the hand. The good news is that those reactions don’t last forever. Ease your way back into being able to recognize safe physical contact for what it is.

Start on your own with simple activities like brushing your hair and describing to yourself how it feels while affirming that you are safe and in control. As you begin to feel more comfortable, you can try moving toward different types of touch (like self-massage) and later toward partnered, non-sexual touch.

The key is to reassociate touch with safety, intimacy, and affection. If you start to feel triggered or overwhelmed, take a pause. You get to do this on your own time, so don’t push yourself (remember the patience from #1?). Celebrate your accomplishments, even if they feel small.

Masturbate

Once you feel comfortable with non-sexual touch, try moving to masturbation, if you haven’t already. Remember, you don’t need to be seeking orgasm; simply explore what feels good to you and what you enjoy. You may find that you enjoy the same things that you did before the assault, or you might learn that your desires have shifted. Both are okay and normal.
Using the skills you practiced with non-sexual touch (describing sensations, affirming that you are safe, and stopping when you feel overwhelmed), try masturbating with either your hands or a toy.

After sexual violence, some people experience pelvic pain — if you notice that you’re experiencing pain, take note of what it feels like, where you feel it, and what you’re doing when it happens. If it’s persistent, it’s a good idea to talk with a doctor or see a pelvic floor physical therapist.

Masturbation can help you reconnect with your body and sexuality while helping remind your brain that you are safe and in control of what happens to you.

Guide your physical health

After someone experiences sexual violence, it’s common to feel out of control of your body. Navigating that environment can be confusing at best and paralyzing at worst, but luckily, there are people and organizations who can help you.

You may decide that you want to get a forensic exam done to collect physical evidence (forensic exams are most effective when done soon after an assault has taken place, but you can get them done any time). Or, you may want to get tested for sexually transmitted infections. If you’re experiencing post-traumatic pelvic pain, you may want to seek out a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic pain.

You may not be certain what specifically you want to talk about, other than you want to talk with a doctor about what happened to you. No matter which path you opt for, your local rape crisis center can help you navigate trauma-related medical decisions and can connect you to victim compensation resources to help cover any costs.

Regardless of which medical decisions you decide to make, know that the decisions are yours. No one — not a doctor, advocate, or friend — should pressure you one way or another. Write down what you want to talk about and bring that list with you so that if you get overwhelmed, you have something to refocus the conversation.

You may also find it helpful to bring a trusted loved one with you to your appointment. If you think you may ask them to help advocate for you, make sure they are familiar with your list of talking points in advance — and maybe come up with a “safeword” for when you need their support.

Use “safe” words and gestures

You might be thinking that safewords are just for people engaging in BDSM, but really, I recommend that anyone who has sex should use one. Safewords are a way to quickly communicate a “stop” or “slow down” in a way that makes it abundantly clear what you’re asking for. Safe gestures do the same thing, and they’re especially helpful for times when you may find yourself unable to speak.

You and your partners agree on your safewords and gestures before you ever start engaging in sex. Together, you define what they mean and what you’re asking that person to do if you use them.

For people who have perhaps not had their “no” respected in the past, safewords are a simple, unique way to communicate that you need a break. Setting them can help reduce stress or anxiety that you might experience around “no” or “stop” and they can help reassure you that your communication bases are covered.

As you begin reconnecting with your sexuality after sexual trauma, remember this: You are in control of your body. You are in control of the pace that you set, the things that you do, and where you lay your boundaries. Moving through this process, remember that you don’t need to conform to anyone else’s ideas about your recovery timeline.

You can have a fulfilling sex life after sexual trauma. You deserve to rebuild your sense of autonomy and control. And you deserve to have pleasure in your life (sexual or otherwise).

I’m rooting for you. You’ve got this.

 

About the Author

Cassandra Corrado is an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.

This blog pro­vides infor­ma­tion about telemed­i­cine, health and related sub­jects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be con­strued as a substitute for, med­ical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or per­son with a med­ical con­cern should con­sult with an appropriately-licensed physi­cian or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.

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