A note on the terms victim and survivor in this article: Words have power. The word victim is often used to describe someone who has experienced sexual assault, but many women prefer to call themselves survivors rather than victims. Proponents of using survivor feel that it is an active term implying a journey of healing, whereas victim might conjure up passivity and pity. Some women do choose to use the term victim, and it is a useful term when we’re talking about a crime that’s been committed (since sexual assault is always a crime). Taking my example from RAINN, I use both interchangeably in this article.1
Sexual health is an important part of a woman’s health and wellness. Broad in scope, it includes how we experience desire, attraction, pleasure and satisfaction. It includes our comfort with our bodies and the health of our intimate relationships. These are just a few of the factors that make up our lives as sexually healthy beings, and navigating them can be difficult for anyone. For women who have survived sexual assault, it can feel like an insurmountable challenge.
Though it’s difficult to get accurate stats on sexual violence because it’s notoriously underreported, The Rape, Incest, and Abuse National Network (RAINN) has compiled some data on how many women are affected:.
Sexual assault isn’t one specific, clearly defined act. It can take many forms, but basically sexual assault is any sexual contact that occurs without explicit consent from everyone involved.
Some examples include:
No matter what type of assault you experienced, or who the perpetrator was, no matter what you were doing or saying or wearing at the time, I can’t emphasize this enough:
It was not your fault.
In case you need to be reminded again, here are some wise words from GGS board member and fellow survivor, Erin Brown.
I also want to emphasize this: healing is possible.
Meghan* was sexually assaulted by a stranger when she was 20. The problems she experienced with sex began immediately and are incredibly common. She describes sex with a loving partner as “torture.” Says Meghan:
“I no longer initiated sex or welcomed it when he initiated. I didn't want to be touched anywhere on my torso, chest or genitals, and eventually I stopped wanting to be touched anywhere.”
Ariana* was 15 when she was raped at gunpoint. On and off for years, she experienced nausea during sex and a sense of being numb to feeling, both physical and emotional.
A review of studies on women’s sexuality after sexual assault indicate that it is incredibly common for women to experience the symptoms Meghan and Ariana describe, as well as a variety of others. They may include decrease in frequency of sexual contact, avoidance of sex, inability to become aroused, and diminished satisfaction and pleasure. For many women these symptoms last for at least one year post assault, though some may persist for years.5 In one study, fifty-nine percent of female assault victims reported having at least one sexual problem, compared to 17 percent of women who hadn’t been assaulted.6
Many women who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after a sexual assault also experience the symptoms of PTSD during sexual activity.5 Symptoms might include flashbacks and persistent memories of the assault, a “freezing up” response, disassociation, feeling scared, dirty, ashamed, ugly, numb, full of self-hatred, sad, or anxious.7
Reconnecting with your sexuality after assault can feel impossible, but it’s not. The effects that assault has on your ability to enjoy sex and intimacy can be healed and minimized.
The first thing that needs to happen is that you have to make an active decision to heal. Meghan speaks of the importance of active healing: “... if I wanted to make progress in my discovery of myself as a sexual person and sexual partner, I'd have to talk about what had happened. Pretending that you've healed from a trauma is not the same thing as actually healing from that trauma… I'd need to deal with my shit, as painful as it might be.”
This will be hard, and sometimes messy. You may have to deal with emotions that you’ve been trying to avoid, but it will be worth it when it leads to an increase in enjoyable, pleasurable sexual intimacy in the future.7
Talk to a therapist. Find a therapist who has experience facilitating healing in survivors of sexual assault. If you have a partner, they may also benefit from therapy. Local rape crisis centers can help with referrals for both.
Talk to other women. Realizing that you’re not alone and that other women have experienced the same or similar things is invaluable. One of the biggest factors in Meghan’s healing was finding a supportive online group of women who talked openly about their assaults and their lives. Check your local rape crisis center for support groups, or join an online community of survivors.
Take a break from sexual contact. It’s OK. This might be what you need and an important part of healing. When you are ready for sex, only engage when you really want to, not because you feel you should. For example, don’t have sex just because you fear that you’ve been denying your partner or because it’s an important anniversary.7
Start with solo sex, or masturbation. This can be one of your most powerful recovery tools. It gives you the chance to practice experiencing sexual pleasure without the pressure, fear, or distraction of a partner. You can practice working through triggers, dealing with intrusive thoughts, and being present. This can help you feel more confident and open when you’re ready for sex with a partner.7
If you have a partner when you begin your healing process, teamwork is important. Studies show that having a loving and understanding partner is an important factor in reconnecting with sexual pleasure.5 You must always feel safe and comfortable with your partner, and your partner must respect and follow your lead. A partner who touches or moves forward without your consent will impair your healing process. You must build emotional trust and a sense of safety together.7 Also remember that sexuality is more than just intercourse — try exploring intimacy without sex as a goal.
It can be hard to talk about what turns you on and ask for what you want, but it’s key to enjoying sex. It’s your responsibility to share what feels good to you — no one else will! If saying it out loud feels awkward, try showing your partner. Because having control is really important for victims of assault, try creating clear guidelines that include what you’re comfortable doing and not doing, and an agreement that you can stop or refuse at any time.7
Tania,* who was assaulted multiple times as a teenager, said that her healing process involved experimenting with different partners and dynamics until she found her power and enjoyment in sex again. Jessica,* who was routinely raped by an abusive partner, found it helpful for her and her current partner to do equal work in creating a safe sexual space together. She describes knowing that her partner would stop at her request as “absolutely an incredibly important experience for me to feel safe having sex again.”
When experiencing a triggering moment, acknowledge it and allow yourself to fully experience it. Take slow, deep breaths and focus on the fact that you’re safe now. Think about what may have caused it and if there’s a way for you to avoid that trigger in the future. If you want to put it aside to deal with it later, that’s also OK. It may be helpful to ask your partner to watch for signs that you’re having a trigger and figure out what you want them to do when it happens.
If one certain sex act that you want to do is triggering, approach it gently and slowly for a short time, then stop and come back to it later. This way you can adjust to the activity in a safe environment. The next time you try it, try for a little longer. Eventually you will build up the ability to stay present and enjoy the activity without being triggered.7
Remember that your journey is uniquely your own and might not look like anyone else’s.
Just as there is no one correct way to respond to trauma or assault, there is no one correct way to heal.
It takes patience and time. The process isn’t linear. There will be frustrating setbacks, but there will also be progress. It has to happen at your own pace, on your own terms.
In time you will begin to heal and be able to comfortably experience sexual intimacy. Be compassionate with yourself. What helped Ariana was fully accepting that the rape wasn’t her fault. Do not get discouraged if it takes a long time. Meghan and Tania emphasize that the passage of time helped them heal and enjoy sex again. Says Meghan: “Almost 20 years after the incident, it's still a bruise and still affects me, but I feel like I ‘won’ anyway.”
*Women’s names have been changed.
If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.
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