Late one evening I left a date’s apartment, shaking from head to toe. Minutes earlier we had been hooking up, but I had experienced a panic attack, and we had to stop — not uncommon for me, a rape survivor. He, unsure what to do, gave me space when I would have preferred he try to comfort me. While I had told this date about my past, I had not brought up what that might mean for me when it came to sex. I did not yet know how to work with a partner to prevent or handle the effect of my sexual assault on my sex life.
This is not a small-scale problem; millions of people struggle with figuring out how to enjoy a healthy sex life following sexual assault. Studies suggest up to 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men are survivors of attempted or completed rape, and 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced unwanted sexual contact. Among other challenges, sexual trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, trust issues and devalued self-worth. But there is one aspect of post-trauma life that we are not talking about nearly enough: How sexual trauma affects survivors’ sex lives.
Survivors’ partners will also likely encounter potential challenges related to trauma, too. How can survivors’ partners approach sex with support? In the wake of my own unsatisfactory responses, I came up with a new goal: Not just to tell sexual partners about my assault, but talk to them about sex, too.
While the following points are particularly important if you have been told about your partner’s history, they are good to keep in mind in all sexual scenarios. After all, a partner may choose not to disclose their history at all, for a variety of reasons. These guidelines worked for me, and they may help others, but approaching sex as a survivor or with a survivor is not one-size-fits-all.
Sex may be more or less triggering depending on a lot of factors — and they might not be what you think. For the past couple of weeks, sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh are all over the news, which can raise the baseline stress level of many survivors. This kind of ongoing story, coming at me everywhere I turn, has made many aspects of my life — work, relationships, sleep — more complicated and challenging, and sex is no exception. As I get a handle on bigger-picture triggers, it is even more important that my partner is patient, respectful and communicative.
Frame your partner’s needs as priorities for all parties. When it comes to sex with a survivor of sexual trauma, their needs have to be centered. Without cultivating an environment in which they can feel relaxed, nobody’s going to have a good time. While everyone is responsible for advocating for themselves in a sexual encounter, partners should work together to meet each other’s needs. One of the best things a previous partner has done for me is always use the term “we” while discussing sexual activity, as in “we can take our time,” “we can do whatever we want,” “we’ll take a break.” He never made me feel as if I was a burden to him.
Ask what a positive encounter will look like. It is not just about what to avoid, it is also about finding positive, pleasurable activities. You can ask questions such as “what will make you feel good?” Or “how will I know if you feel comfortable? What signs should I look for?” Sometimes survivors can slip into an attitude of appeasing, meaning they feel triggered or unsafe and pretend they are enjoying themselves in order to not anger or upset their partner. They may not feel comfortable speaking up in the moment, so rather than setting up a stop-sign system, try a green-light system instead.
Pay attention to your surroundings. While cultivating open communication and comfortable touch are paramount, some survivors have preferences about where or when they have sex. Nighttime or a dark room may be triggering for some, while others would rather not be up against a wall or in an unlocked room. Ask in advance, and do your best to help build this space with them.
Trust them to know what they want. You may assume certain sexual activities would be triggering for a survivor, but each person has their own background and boundaries. Sexual assault survivors have the same range of sexual interests as anybody else: I know survivors who like to be dominated and others who prefer to abstain from sex with their partners altogether. Your partner’s interests and limits may be different from what you would expect.
Ask them how you can help if they are triggered, dissociate or have a panic attack. Although not all survivors have these problems, these might be issues for your partner, and responding to them is important. Some survivors want soothing touch; some want to be alone; some want to be verbally or physically comforted. You will not know unless you ask.
Check in about comfort level and get “yeses” throughout. Consent is not a one-time checkbox, it is a constant conversation. Your partner may want to avoid certain activities that come up, or begin to feel uncomfortable and prefer to pause. It is hard to gauge these things without asking, though, so check in regularly. Sometimes a simple “is this okay?” or “how would you feel about ____?” can suffice.
Know that sex may get easier with time — or it may not (and that is okay, too). If sexual interactions prove difficult to start out, know that they are likely to improve with patience and openness. On the other hand, some survivors will face similar sexual challenges for a very long time, so try to be patient. Rather than worry about the challenges inherent to sex for survivors, reinforce that they are normal. These reactions make sense given survivors’ histories and the body’s natural trauma response.
Eventually I learned to be more intentional about building a healthy sex life as a rape survivor. I have gotten to the point where I am able to communicate my needs, in advance and in the moment, much more effectively than I used to. But my sex life has improved not just because of what I have said but also because I have had partners work with me so I can focus on all the fun parts of sex I was previously too preoccupied to enjoy.