How to Rebuild Intimacy After Sexual Assault
Writer Beth Ashley explores an aspect of recovery that too often remains undiscussed
Many survivors of sexual assault will experience changes to their sex life, or difficulties engaging in sexual activity after trauma. The way a person is changed after experiencing sexual violence is significant, often including notable alterations to their sexual self.
94% of people who have experienced sexual violence will display symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) such as flashbacks, disassociation and panic attacks. These symptoms can affect an individual’s sex drive generally, but also cause difficulties with trust, communication, and physical intimacy – because those situations in particular can trigger flashbacks and dissociative episodes.
There’s an unfair social stigma surrounding sexual assault, that survivors are non-sexual beings who end up reserved and un-wanting of sexual activity. Sexual assault survivors, through TV, films and news media, have a representation of being damaged, broken and unable to function sexually after trauma. Not only is this false, but it is a damaging representation survivors are forced to face when rebuilding their sex lives. In fact, most sexual assault survivors have a desire to rebuild intimacy, to develop a sex life that works for them.
Sexual assault can certainly change the way a person experiences sex; their desires, libido, preferences, and comfort levels can change in multitudes, but rebuilding physical intimacy is not only possible, but encouraged, and easier than you might have thought.
Many sexual assault survivors feel distressed and frustrated if sex has become traumatic for them – and some even experience discomfort around consensual sex. Lauren*, 26, says, “I get angry about feeling so anxious. Sex should be the most basic human interaction, as simple as taking a shower or falling asleep. I used to love casual sex but after I was raped at a house party, even a hug could take me back to that place. A couple of months after I was attacked, I met a man in a bar who I wanted to [have sex with]. I was completely up for it, but once we were in the bedroom and foreplay began, I felt scared.”
Dr Lexx Brown-James, LMFT, CSE, sex psychologist and founder of The Institute for Sexuality and Intimacy, LLC, consults with survivors experiencing trauma symptoms that prevent intimacy. She explains “Sometimes no matter how excited one may be for sexual play; the body always keeps score of traumas. So, a certain touch or word could easily trigger [a traumatic experience]. There can be fear surrounding the enjoyment of sex, or intrusive memories can be conjured during times of intimacy. [These experiences] are often the cause of discomfort or disgust during a wanted act of intimacy.”
Lauren is not the only survivor to experience difficulties with sex in the aftermath of assault. Since experiencing sexual violence, Jemma, 20*, has had enjoyable sexual activity and has built a loving relationship, but not without initial struggle. “I avoided emotional intimacy for a long time. I only ever focused on the physical aspect [of sex].” Jemma found it extremely challenging transitioning to her new sex life after trauma, as it was now made up of behaviours and limitations that hadn’t existed previously. “I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. I ended up sleeping around because I couldn’t emotionally connect with any man – I felt numb for a long time. I felt ashamed of myself and would be labelled a ‘slut’ because of it. I emotionally shut down for a long time. When I finally entered a loving relationship, I felt strangely ashamed of initiating sex, of being the one who wanted to be intimate. Even now, I can’t be completely naked in front of my partner if I’m sober.”
Though survivors can find new sexual limitations frustrating and unfair, listening to your body and understanding the boundaries you need to set in the bedroom, are an integral part of recovering sexual identity and rebuilding intimacy. “Go slow and have partners who will check in regularly during sexual activity,” says Dr Brown-James. “Understand that no means no, but it doesn’t have to mean no forever. You can always take breaks, come back, re-engage in various ways, or stop altogether. Make sure you have a partner you can trust who understands this and is willing to abide by these boundaries.” Sexual assault survivor Lauren has put this into practice; “When I first slept with my current boyfriend, I explained to him before foreplay began that a particular sex act was quite difficult for me. I told him I wanted to try it, but that I might need to suddenly stop. He was understanding and patient, and I went at my own pace that wasn’t too much for me.”
Along with boundary settings, there is another simple way to listen to your body and build a relationship with it. Masturbation is an important part of recovery that’s often unfortunately forgotten – likely due to the ‘taboo’ that still surrounds masturbating in modern society. Not only is masturbation great fun and a generous act of self-love, but it can be an effective method to discover boundaries and limitations independently, without needing to worry about another person. “Solo-sex is also a great way to try out sexy feelings, and a great way to get comfortable with pleasurable touch independently,” says Dr Brown-James.
Once you’ve rebuilt intimacy with yourself, challenges with partners can be overcome more easily. Open honesty paired with communication and a willingness to be vulnerable are key processes for sexual rediscovery with a partner. Jemma has been able to rebuild intimacy with her boyfriend more recently, through open communication and the clear setting of boundaries. “I think it’s important to be very honest and open about sex, to be more comfortable with it again. For me, being experimental and willing to try new things helped me establish where my comfort zone is, and where my boundaries lie. I’m now comfortable with sex and enjoy myself.” There are still some lasting effects from the trauma, which is to be expected, but with continued support and communication between her and her partner, she’s hopeful for improvement. “[Setting boundaries] gives you the opportunity to rebuild intimacy, not only with others but with yourself. Ensure you and your partner(s) respect one another, as it creates a free environment to be yourself in.”
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable can be frightening, as vulnerability is often misread as weakness, but vulnerability is the birthplace of love and intimacy. Dr Brown-James adds that it’s important to build intimacy and trust outside of the bedroom beforehand, making it clear what you enjoy, what you don’t enjoy, and anything you’re interested in experimenting with. “It is also important to have discussions about stopping and remember that intimacy does not have to be one way, one speed or just for the other person’s pleasure.” She also recommends a variety of therapies if problems persist.
Seeing a therapist can seem daunting, but the right kind of therapy can be incredibly helpful for supporting your recovery if it’s accessible to you, particularly if you can find a therapist who specialises in sexuality and trauma. Dr Brown-James also suggests; “There are sex educators who work with others to help them learn more about sexuality mechanics, negotiation skills and sexual ideas. I also recommend a type of therapy called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing, which helps process trauma and reduce the reactivity.” Dr-Brown James recommends another, more ‘DIY’ therapy, known as Bibliotherapy! Immersing yourself in a book is generally cathartic but reading about experiences that feel familiar to you can provide you with relatability and clear-cut solutions to try. She has a couple of recommendations; Come as You Are by Emily Nagoski and She Comes First by Ian Kerner are great reads for understanding female sexuality and building confidence in the bedroom.”
The most important advice for survivors rebuilding intimacy is to treat yourself kindly. Understand that trauma is not linear, and everyone’s experience is individual. Treat yourself with patience, care and understanding. The sexual element of your recovery should be treated with as much care, attention and importance as the physical and emotional aspects. You deserve to embark on this journey.
*Names of survivors have been changed to protect their identity.