Having Healthy Sex after Sexual Assault

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The following is intended for readers 18+

The summer I was nineteen, I researched and wrote a travel guide to Italy, journeying from Venice to the Cinque Terre armed only with a sundress and my handy dandy Macbook.

It sounds pretty ideal, and it was—except for the constant, terrifying, enraging sexual harassment. From being groped on the train to being kissed non-consensually by hostel owners and bartenders, the summer left me tan, skinny, with killer calf muscles — and with a feeling of total disconnect from my sexuality. After months of constant, unwanted attention and physical violation, I felt that my sexuality had become a weapon used against me rather than something for my own pleasure.

My experience is not rare. From street harassment to rape, many of us, and particularly women and LGBTQ people, are affected by sexual violence. And because sexual violence is a violation of our right to make choices about our bodies, it can change our relationship to our own sexuality in complex and difficult ways.

Experiencing sexual intimacy after violence may take time and the process of healing comes with lots of bumps in the road. But healing is possible, and you have a right to feel that your body is your home. In this post, I’ll offer some ways to start.

It’s often difficult for survivors to engage sexually after trauma.

Trauma is a complex beast, so it affects our sexualities in diverse and individual ways. These effects may show up right away, or years down the line. Some trauma-related symptoms you might experience include:

  • Avoiding sex or feeling a lack of physical desire even when you’d like to
    Feeling out of control of your sexuality, which may include doing sexual things you don’t feel good about
  • Feeling distant or alienated during sex
  • Feeling uncomfortable, fearful, angry or disgusted by touch
  • Experiencing physical/genital pain related to psychological distress
  • Being triggered or experiencing flashbacks in response to particular kinds of touch, words, or scenarios.

Survivors of sexual trauma are at an increased risk of a number of psychological conditions, like depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These can all affect your sex life. This is why it’s so important to find the support you deserve, from family and friends you trust and from a therapist sensitive to issues of gender and sexual violence.

The key? Listen to your body.

Whether and how you have sex should always be your choice. After experiencing sexual violence, you may want to have sex like you did before, only in certain ways, or not at all. All of this is okay. If, when, and how you have sex, it should be because you choose it, not because you feel you should or someone else pressures you.

And remember that if you don’t want to have sex, this doesn’t mean missing out on intimacy. There are many different ways to be physically and emotionally intimate with people you care about and to experience pleasure (cuddling, massage, or sumptuous romantic dinners, for example) whatever your desire for genital sexual intimacy.

Here are some ways you can begin connecting to your body again on your own terms, and engaging sexually if (and only if!) you so desire.

  1. Notice sensations, needs, desires — in your body.
    I know it’s hard to do that when that voice inside you feels lost and when the body has become a place of pain rather than of pleasure, but begin to listen to what your body wants. Start small. Pay attention to when you’re hungry and eat foods that you love. Pay attention to when your body wants to move and do kinds of physical activity that give you pleasure. Get enough sleep. Wear clothes that make you feel good.
  2. Think about what kinds of touch feel good, bad, or triggering.
    Begin experiencing touch in different ways: Feel what shower or bath water is like on your skin. Enjoy holding hands or hugging, if that feels good. You don’t have to think of touch as sexual at first or ever — the aim here is to begin to connect to what feels good to you.
  3. If you feel able, you can begin to explore erotic materials that you enjoy.
    For example, reading erotica about scenarios that you feel turned on by. Pay attention to what scenarios, words, or kinds of touch make you feel good, bad, or trigger you. If you’re ready to explore sexual touch, masturbate.
  4. If you’re with a partner, now would be the time to have a conversation about your experiences of violence and what that might mean for intimacy.
    This could mean simply mentioning that you’ve experienced violence and need to go slow, or could be a precise detailing of your experiences and needs. Using a checklist or guide could help. A good partner will listen to and respect your boundaries, desires, and discomforts every time—and you deserve a good partner.
  5. Find a great therapist.
    Trauma is complex, highly individual, and it can take a long time and lots of effort to heal. A great therapist who is trained to treat trauma, and especially sexual trauma, will help you process what you’re experiencing and offer vital support as you heal.

    Remember: healing is a process.

    I get it: When you’ve experienced something as difficult as sexual violence, it may feel impossible to imagine a future when you feel better. And it’s true that for many of us, healing from sexual violence is a lifelong process.

    It’s not easy and it’s not fair, but it is possible. And as you heal, you’ll discover the possibility for new and different kinds of intimacy, honesty, and pleasure. At the end of the day, your body is yours, it is amazing, and you deserve to feel comfort, power, and pleasure in every inch of it. We’re rooting for you.

Published by

Reina Gattuso

Contributor