CW: Discussions of rape, sexual assault, and self-harm
I have been raped twice: once when I had just graduated high school, and again in my first semester of college.
Many people assume that someone who has survived sexual violence is too damaged or broken to ever want or have sex again, but I can attest to the fact that this is false. It’s true that my past traumas have made sex extremely challenging for me. It’s been three years, and there are still days where the thought of engaging in any sexual activity makes my body tense and my heart hurt.
While there’s no denying the power that trauma holds over us survivors, we are still people. We’ve had lives both before and after it happened, and we deserve to have wonderful life-affirming sex.
Like many others, I am still in the midst of learning how to be okay even existing in a body that has been raped. It’s an extremely difficult journey, but frequent introspection, patience, and trauma-based therapy have helped me immensely. Here are five things I have learned so far about living life (and having sex) after assault:
1. Although the effects of assault can be devastating, it’s also not abnormal to continue your life as if nothing has happened. After I was raped in my first semester of college, I spent almost a year afterward continuing to have casual sex like I did before the incident occurred. I didn’t fear sex. Instead, I actively allowed myself into toxic situations where men could use my body however they wanted to. I didn’t feel pleasure — in fact, I didn’t feel anything.
On the outside, it seemed I was living like I usually would; in reality, I had detached from my own body and was now trading it for guys’ company, so I wouldn’t have to spend a drunk night alone confronting what had happened to me. I no longer had compassion and love for myself and my body.
It is completely normal to feel this kind of numbness. This doesn’t mean that your assault didn’t happen or is somehow less legitimate. Sometimes, disassociation is the only coping mechanism we have.
2. It’s not a bad idea to talk about it. Rape is such a stigmatized topic that it can feel wrong to discuss it with your partner, especially if it’s someone you just met and are about to have sex with for the first time. You might worry that your “emotional baggage” will turn them off or have them running for the hills.
However, these conversations are important to have for fulfilling and safe experiences. I’ve found that quite a few people are open to talking about trauma and how to avoid certain triggers during sex. Of course, I’ve also met people who didn’t take my PTSD seriously or who didn’t believe my experiences, but I’ve learned that these people aren’t worth your time or energy anyway.
3. Your sexual preferences, kinks, and fetishes may change — and that’s okay. While not many of us want our trauma to define who we are, it’s also important to acknowledge that we may simply not be the same people after we’ve been assaulted. However, sex can be just as exciting and fulfilling even when you’re “keeping it safe.” Women especially are prescribed restricting scripts on how to behave during sex, so the pressure to act a certain way can be overwhelming.
It helps to remember that being your authentic self is a way for you to reconnect with your body, especially if you’ve experienced dissociation due to trauma. Never feel like you have to sacrifice your sense of safety and security to satisfy societal expectations of what sex should look like.
4. On that note, it’s extremely helpful to identify your triggers and figure out a personalized plan for when they strike. This is something that my therapist and I have been working on, and it has made a huge difference in how I cope with my trauma. Know what your triggers are, whether it’s spotting your rapist on campus, reading a book that contains sexual violence, or being in a submissive position that makes you feel unsafe.
Once you’ve figured out what triggers you, come up with strategies to prevent them from happening and to calm yourself down when or if they do occur. Everyone has different methods of coping, but feeling prepared can generally alleviate a lot of the stress and fear that come from not knowing what to expect.
5. Don’t ever forget that you deserve goodness, and to be touched and loved on your own terms and at your own pace. After being raped, I felt like I had to punish myself for having “allowed” it to happen and for not having fought harder. I resorted to self-harm and destructive behaviors like letting guys take advantage of me and kick me out of their rooms in the morning without so much as a “see you later.” I stopped saying “no” because the word had lost its power for me.
Now that I’m with a partner who loves me deeply, I am reminded that I deserve so much more than pale imitations of intimacy. I also realize now that I don’t owe anyone sex, and neither do you. Be gentle and patient with yourself, and realize that you declare the terms under which you engage in any sexual activity.
Most importantly, I’ve learned that trauma is not linear. There are good days, and there are days that leave me sobbing so hard it feels like my chest is going to crack open. Triggers feel severe at some moments, and manageable in others. It’s okay — this is completely normal.
There is no set way to recover from trauma, but I hope this article is healing for other survivors. I know it has been for me.