“Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you do choose.” – Michelle Rosenthal
What is sexual trauma?
Sexual trauma can be defined as anything that crosses your sexual boundaries without your consent. Sexual trauma can happen at any age to people of any gender. Choosing Therapy defines sexual trauma as “the exposure to any sexually inappropriate behaviors that cause a person to experience a great deal of stress.”
Sexual trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and produce physical and psychological symptoms such as: insomnia, body aches, flashbacks, headaches, hopelessness, depression, avoidance, anxiety, or shame.
Sexual trauma is extremely common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience sexual violence that includes physical contact at some point in their lives.
Regarding sex and intimacy, trauma can cause hyper-sexuality, aversion to sex, sex as a trigger, or even the physical manifestation of pain during sex. If this has ever been the case for you, there are ways to heal and enjoy pleasure again.
“Pleasure may be hibernating, but it can once again be rekindled.”
Sex and relationships after sexual assault, and how to heal
Here’s an important reminder: healing looks different for everyone. It doesn’t matter if your trauma happened one year ago or 20 years ago; sometimes, trauma can rear its head when we least expect it. If you notice your trauma showing up in relationships, around sex, or throughout your day-to-day life, it might be a good time to seek support.
Navigating intimate relationships post-trauma can feel overwhelming and like a total leap of faith with our trust. Vella Voice Expert Karinna Karsten weighed in on healing and navigating relationships as a 5-step process and suggests the following.
- Awareness that there is a need for healing.
- Do your research on opportunities for healing such as hotlines, support groups, therapies, psychological, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
- Taking the first step.
- A loving commitment to yourself and the healing process.
- Learning to love yourself, rediscover your body and develop your own inner compass to make healthy decisions and trust again.
If you’re ready to explore relationships after a trauma, go slowly and listen to your own needs. Before a date, you might make a list of boundaries for yourself that can help you feel safer. This list could include items like waiting to be intimate, taking things slowly, or checking in with your emotional responses throughout the date. Your boundaries can also shift over time.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself, “but how in the world will I learn how to enjoy sex after assault?” remember that pleasure may be hibernating, but it can once again be rekindled. Self-exploration can help people feel comfortable with sexual sensations before being intimate with a partner.
When you’re ready to explore sex with a partner, Karsten suggests developing a trusting rapport and offers, “Once trust is established psychologically, physically, and emotionally you can open up to the journey of exploring a deeper intimate relationship.”
Only you know when the right time to have sex is. It’s important to walk into the situation with the awareness that sex might bring up a few triggers, but there are ways to navigate. Remember that it’s a common experience for trauma survivors if this should happen. You might write down a few ideas for ways to ground if you experience a trigger during sex. This might include using a safe word to signify stopping, practicing deep breathing, or naming sensations you feel in your body to anchor you back to the present moment.
Having a supportive partner who knows your trauma history can help. It’s advisable to make a yes/no/maybe list for new sexual partners so that you have a mutual understanding of which activities are off the table.
Trauma can make it hard to stay present in your body. But, mindfulness practices and somatic therapies can help. In a 2012 review of several studies around mindfulness for sexual dysfunction published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, research indicated that mindfulness can reduce fear linked with sexual activity alongside other positive effects. Tapping into your breath, grounding exercises, and naming sensations can help facilitate mindfulness in the bedroom and beyond.
Just like dating, take sex after sexual assault slowly! You might start with light caressing, a back massage, or simply laying together. Check in with your body and make sure you have the green light to go ahead with whichever activities you choose to explore.
“Learn what behavior triggers you may inadvertently display.” - Karinna Karsten, Vella Voice Expert
How to support your loved one or romantic partner after trauma
It can be tough to watch the person you care about suffer from trauma. You might find yourself with lingering feelings about their trauma that include guilt, sadness, or anger. Karsten recommends supporting your partner’s therapeutic journey and going to therapy together. It’s best to go at your partner’s pace and be patient, especially around sex after sexual assault.
It’s also key to educate yourself, Karsten added. Educating yourself might include reading about what people who endure sexual trauma may experience day-to-day or during sex and intimacy.
Karsten suggests “learning what behavior triggers you may inadvertently display.” These triggers might be subtle, like a specific smell in the air, or overt, such as a phrase that reminds someone of their trauma.
Resources for overcoming sexual trauma
It’s common for sexual trauma survivors to feel alone or isolated about their experience, but there is a vast network of people in the world who share the experience of trauma. There are also experts who are skillful in ways of overcoming sexual trauma.
For your healing journey around sex after trauma, it may be helpful to seek support from a trauma therapist. Specific therapy modalities such as EMDR, somatic experiencing therapy, or CranioSacral therapy can help.
Reading books about your experience, like Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, can also help. Connecting with organizations like Take Back the Night, comprised of people who’ve been through similar experiences, can help survivors feel less alone. As the great bell hooks said, “Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”
If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to receive free and confidential support.