Reconfiguring Your Sex Life After Sexual Violence
Sex has the power to heal and harm, but in the aftermath of sexual violence, the potential for further damage is higher than at any other time.
Rebuilding your connection with sex after violence is a dangerous path that, if approached without caution, can result in further traumatization for survivors. Although there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for everyone, there are plenty of options for starting your reignition.
What are the facts on sexual violence?
In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, amounting to an average of 463,634 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN).
The scope of people facing the traumatic aftermath of sexual violence is daunting. However, as much as we all wish these numbers were at zero, no survivor faces this alone.
Traumatic responses are unique to each victim because trauma affects the brain differently in each person. Some develop hypersexual tendencies, others are unable to engage in sex at all and many spend time lost in self-blame before the effects on sex are recognized.
What is the potential impact on your life in the aftermath of sexual assault?
The first time I experienced sexual violence, I could not acknowledge it as assault.
This reaction is common among victims of sexual violence for a multitude of reasons, such as getting trapped in a cycle of self-blame, shame and a fear of being doubted.
In the immediate aftermath, survivors' behavior might be characterized by freezing, ignoring what has happened or attempts to reframe the event as consensual to erase its impact. Your reaction to sexual assault could include panic attacks or insomnia.
The effects are as varied as the spectrum of sexual violence. There is no "correct" or "normal" reaction to sexual violence. But they don't need to be completely debilitating long term. There is help available.
"Processing through unwanted or non-consensual sexual events can be daunting, and many people assume time will heal all wounds; it doesn't," said Sarah E. Wright, Psy.D., CST/S, a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist based in South Carolina.
"Having a place to talk through the story of what happened can be deeply healing and allows the brain to organize what, for many, feels chaotic and emotionally overwhelming. Being able to process the event is the first step to helping it live in the past and not in the bedroom," Wright said.
Rebuilding your sex life is not the first priority in the aftermath of sexual violence. It's crucial to avoid having sex too quickly, especially as a means to reclaim our bodies. It's a wildly unpredictable way to attempt healing and may worsen the impact of the trauma, not ease it.
"It's going to take layer after layer and going over knots, and having threads fray," said Charlotte Fox Weber, a psychotherapist in London and author of "What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires."
"It's never going to be a straight line, and I'm not in favor of the pressure to resolve or get past something. I'm in favor of embracing that you're holding onto something and making space for that without trying to expedite release," Weber said.
How can you begin to process the effects of sexual assault?
For the longest time, I believed sexual violence had no impact on my sex life. Then, I realized that I was incapable of feeling during an intimate encounter.
I dissociated instead, only capable of enjoying the physical stimulation without connecting my brain and finally recognizing that behavior was the first step to unwinding the tight grip it held on my sexuality.
Before actively re-engaging in sex after sexual assault, figure out where your challenges lie through some introspection. Identify vulnerabilities, recognize potential triggers and address latent fears.
"These things are so nuanced and come at different moments and in different ways," Weber said. "Take the pressure of finding an absolute resolution of something, start by asking yourself whatever it is that's going on for you in this moment: 'Where do I want to begin?'"
Do not hold yourself to ransom or to an impossible standard of healing during this period. There is no ideal timeline for healing from sexual violence, and there is no deadline for re-engaging in sex.
How can you feel comfortable with your body again?
"Boundaries are a wonderful way to communicate needs and enhance feelings of safety," Wright said. "Being able to assert boundaries can be incredibly healing, and having them respected even more so. It can be helpful to practice with boundaries when the stakes are lower and definitely before intense sexual activity."
Following sexual violence, you may develop specific triggers and boundaries that must be reckoned with. A sexual partner should adhere to these boundaries regardless of their understanding.
"Setting boundaries doesn't have to mean giving all the details about why they exist," Wright said. "Many survivors feel they are 'damaged goods,' and that boundary explanations are disclaimers owed. Your boundaries are your business."
Before venturing into partnered sex, get to know your body and its signals again. Some activities may need benching, and others could require adjustments. Figuring this out solo is the safest approach to reclaiming your healthy sex life.
Do you need to share your sexual assault story with your partner?
No one is obligated to share their experience with sexual abuse or violence but equally, no one should hide in shame. If sharing makes partnered sex feel less risky, honesty may serve you better than silence.
And do not worry about mastering a perfect script for explaining, as Weber said.
"There's huge pressure, not just because of the court cases we see, that we have to perform our experience in some masterful, accurate way," she said. "Acknowledge that it's not going to be some finessed, perfect delivery or performance. It's messy because it's shards of experiences that are still being processed."
How can people who have experienced sexual assault heal?
Healing from sexual violence is rarely a linear journey because it digs cracks into the core of our being. Yours will likely be roundabout and chaotic, but salving the sting of trauma takes time and demands patience.
"There are moments when you might feel resolved and over something, and then you have an emotional relapse," Weber said. "There's often this anxiety about it: 'I thought I was over this, I thought I'd gotten past this and I'm right back there.' You can be over something, and then you can have a moment of not being over it."
Do not rush your foundation. It does not need to look like anyone else's, and you are not required to finish it according to someone's arbitrary timeline for healing. Take as long as you need to figure out how the blocks fit, whatever they look like.
Make your needs the priority, especially when healing while in a partnership. Their desire for pleasure is irrelevant here, only your needs matter right now, and that is not selfishness; it's self-preservation and creating boundaries within your relationships for your healing is self care.
"Avoid anything that is being done out of obligation," Wright said. "If someone is trying to force their way back into sex, it may have disastrous consequences. If things don't feel safe or good, stop."
The bottom line
For survivors of sexual assault, your healing process is your unique healing process. It takes time. Speak with a trusted healthcare professional, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit your local rape crisis center for help.