Being intimate after a sexual assault can be difficult. Whilst some survivors may become more promiscuous following an assault, especially survivors of child sexual abuse. Others may become withdrawn and avoid engaging in consensual sexual activity because the emotions and physical sensations may trigger unwanted memories, distressing thoughts, or certain emotions to be brought to the surface. Both approaches can cause further distress and are unlikely to lead to constructive healing following trauma. However, it is important to note that this change in attitude towards sex doesn’t have to be permanent and will typically pass after healing from the trauma itself.
Something that doesn’t get talked about very often is how a survivor’s relationship with sex changes as a result of sexual assault. It is often seen as being a personal or private issue, which it is, however it should be noted that it is common for a person’s attitude towards sex following an assault to change. Although the presumption is that the survivor will typically avoid or have an aversion to all things relating to sex. It is actually very common for some survivors to hyper-sexualise themselves and become increasingly promiscuous following an assault. It can be a way for survivors to re-affirm control over their body. There are many reasons why a survivor may become hyper-sexualised following an assault. One reason is that they may try to reduce the importance of sex in order to lessen the impact of their assault, another reason may be that they see their self-worth as being conditional or determined by sexual desire, this is especially true for survivors who have experienced abuse at a young age. Other reasons may be that a survivor wants to ignore negative feelings towards sex and force themselves to move past what they see as ‘unnatural’ feelings towards sex, although they may disassociate during sexual activity.
Sexual assault itself is extremely violating, it takes away a person’s right to choose and have autonomy over their body. The impact this has on a person’s sense of self is immense. It may be hard to be intimate again with a partner due to how vulnerable survivors come to feel in these moments. After an assault it can be incredibly difficult to trust another person to respect your boundaries as those boundaries have previously been breached in an awful, sometimes violent way. If the abuse was at the hands of a previous sexual partner or friend it may make it that much harder to trust a sexual partner to respect your boundaries. Sexual abuse is an attack on a person’s trust, safety, and sexuality. Therefore, it is extremely common for a survivor to experience sexual symptoms after an assault. These symptoms may present themselves immediately following the assault or may not appear until much later. These symptoms may change a person’s attitude towards sex, as well as their sex drive and sexual desires.
Avoidance is also a very common response to sexual assault. This is where a survivor withdraws from engaging in sex, relationships, or even talking about sex in order to avoid experiencing potential flashbacks. A survivor may no longer find pleasure in sex, they may fear it, or come to associate sex with their assault and experience negative emotions when touched. A survivor may lose their sex drive, have an inability to orgasm, be unable to relax during sex, or may disassociate during sexual activity. It may be difficult to maintain sexual relationships or establish new ones as a result of this.
Sometimes it feels hard to exist in a body after being assaulted, and sometimes it feels even harder to experience physical pleasure. Survivors find themselves wondering if they deserve to feel pleasure, if it’s safe to feel pleasure, or if they will be able to be physical intimate with another person. Even just being naked can make a survivor feel incredibly vulnerable. This can be a difficult thing to overcome and will take time, patience, and effort to change the minds thought process especially if particular sounds, sights, smells, or emotions are triggering for a survivor. If the use of physical restraint or anything that make the survivor feel as if they are not in control of the situation comes into play it may awaken feelings of distress associated with the previous assault. Other things like certain positions, places, particular sexual acts, darkness or anything that reminds the survivor of the assault may be especially uncomfortable.
Many survivors may think they need to decide whether to tell a new sexual partner about their previous assault. This can be a difficult thing to decide. No one should have to feel pressure to disclose details of traumatic experiences and a survivor doesn’t owe anyone their story. However, if it may impact a relationship then it can be beneficial for a survivor to disclose their experience and establish boundaries. In an early relationship it may seem too soon to talk about trauma as that level of emotional intimacy hasn’t yet been established. However, if you become upset during a sexual experience it may be useful for them to know what has happened to you, so they can understand why. You may need a sexual partner to be especially aware of certain physical responses and understand your boundaries. If it is your first sexual experience after assault, then you may need them to be extra patient with you and gradually explore sex again in a comfortable and safe environment.
Healing is primarily based in relearning touch. To move forward a survivor will need to learn how to feel safe when touched in order to enjoy sex again. This can take a long time as the negative response to sex is a learned automatic reaction as a result of trauma. Mindfulness and breathing exercises can be useful to practice to bring the survivor back to the present moment if they begin to experience flashbacks during sex and this will help to slow down a stress response. This can be done alone or with a partner. It is important that a survivor feels comfortable, safe, and trusts their partner so that an ongoing dialogue can be established to be able to communicate emotions and needs. The survivor should take the lead in this process. If a partner behaves in ways which may mimic assault such as touching without consent, or ignoring how you feel, a person’s healing will be much harder or prevented entirely.
We all deserve a healthy sex life. Your boundaries deserve to be respected and you deserve to enjoy being with someone without feeling unsafe and without reliving your trauma every time. Sex is meant to be enjoyable; and if both parties are consenting, happy, communicative, and aware of each other’s needs then this should be possible.