Surviving sexual assault comes with many difficult consequences. One thing that’s particularly hard to come to terms with is being able to be intimate with your partner(s) again, whether that means having sex or just being able to hug and kiss. We talked to experts about how to gradually become okay with touching again when you’ve dealt with unwanted contact.
What are the consequences of assault on intimacy?
Although you may still want to be intimate after having been abused, you may not be able to for some time. “There may be a disconnect between the mind and body and how they interact and respond to feelings and physical contact, which may be frustrating and upsetting at times,” says Jennifer Marsh, the vice president of Victim Services at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). “Intimacy can be challenging, especially when a survivor is still deciding whether or not to tell her new partner about a past assault.”
Having a significant other at the time of your assault could help your recovery a good amount, but it doesn’t make intimacy any easier after the fact. “I was in a relationship already when I was raped, so I guess I consider myself lucky in that regard,” says Alaina Leary, a first-year graduate student at Emerson College. “When I was recovering from what happened, my girlfriend was very considerate and never asked me about sex and intimacy. She let me decide when and how I was ready to re-enter that part of my life, if I was at all.”
Although being abused or raped is a scarring experience for everyone, “it's important to remember there's no one way to react or respond to an experience of sexual assault,” says Laura Palumbo, the communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). “Sexual assault impacts survivors in a variety of ways, and a person's experience shouldn't be judged or labeled based on how they respond. The research supports this by showing a spectrum of ways individuals deal with the distress of assault physically, psychologically and emotionally.”
In other words, one person may be able to engage in intimacy sooner than another. Palumbo lists some of the consequences of assault on intimacy, stressing that they are in no way universal:
- Lack of sexual desire
- Pain associated with sex
- Lack of orgasm
- For some survivors, increase in sexual behavior
- Increased recklessness
- Decreased condom use
- Increased alcohol and substance use
What resources are available to you?
If you’ve suffered assault, counseling is the most recommended option. Beyond overall recovery, this process can help you regain the ability to be intimate. “Local sexual assault service providers offer a variety of counseling options that can help a woman talk through the steps to developing healthy intimate relationships,” Marsh says. “To be connected to the service provider near you, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE.”
Palumbo adds that “community rape crisis centers have someone available to speak with 24/7, no matter when the sexual violence occurred. Your college campus may also offer services for students such as counseling, support groups and sexual health resources.”
Many rape and assault survivors find talking about their experience extremely difficult, but therapy is truly the fastest and safest way to recover. “I saw a therapist to cope with the aftermath of it because I ended up having anxiety and panic attacks,” Krys Douglas, a junior at Georgia State University, explains. Although you can’t forget what happened to you, you can get much better and get your life back, like Krys did. Besides therapy, remember that your friends and family are there for you, and will listen without judgment.
Can intimacy ever be the same for an assault survivor?
Rape or abuse survivors sometimes feel like they will never be able to have intimate contact again, but this is far from the truth. “There is absolutely the ability to return to having healthy sexual relationships,” Marsh says. “An assault may be something that always is a part of a woman's life but it does not have to define her or her future relationships.”
Of course a survivor can have normal relationships, but getting there is a process that takes longer for some than others—and that’s okay! “For many this process takes support, treatment and time,” Palumbo says.
It took Krys a few years to recover well enough to have sex. “I suffered a sexual assault in high school and although when it happened I was already planning to be abstinent, I had no desire to have sex after that,” Krys says. “I was able to still date people afterwards and have crushes but sex was far from my mind.”
How can you dissipate any fear or distrust of your partner(s)?
A survivor must understand that she can reclaim her body and her power with any partner she has post-assault. “It is important for a woman to know that this is something that she has complete control over—who can touch her, where and when, are all decisions that she can make and discuss with a partner she trusts,” Marsh says.
For Palumbo, “reclaiming sexuality is really about understanding your needs, wants, limits and boundaries. Everyone deserves the right to define their sexual identity on their own terms while respecting the rights of others.”
So how can you feel okay with intimacy, no matter who it’s with? “Open communication is vital,” Palumbo says. “A survivor may or may not choose to share her experience with a sexual partner, but she always has the right to set her own limits and express her own wants.”
We can’t stress the importance of choosing someone who respects you and your needs enough. “After I was raped, there were times when I didn't want to be hugged, kissed or touched in any way, sexual or otherwise,” Alaina says. “I needed my girlfriend to understand that, and she did—and we went through it together. I talked to her about what I was dealing with and she really listened to me.” You should never engage with anyone who doesn’t listen to you in this way. Communication is key, and it is not one-sided.
If you’re not ready to show physical affection, make sure any partner you have knows and respects this. “I would advise anyone who experiences this to take their time and only do what they're comfortable with,” Krys says. “You never really fully get over the trauma of it but I found a way to gain strength from it so I can speak about it and have no issue or feel any shame.” Krys was eventually able to lose her virginity during her sophomore year of college; she took the time she needed and came out stronger.
Even when you do have sex again, you may never be okay with certain behaviors. “For example, I could never be with a sexual partner who wanted to fake ‘choke’ me in bed.” Alaina says. “My attacker choked me during and before the rape and it would trigger me too much.”
You must figure out what you are comfortable with and never let anyone talk you into doing anything else. “I'm still comfortable with being dominated as long as it's consensual—what matters is keeping that open communication, so my girlfriend knows it's what I want her to do,” Alaina adds. Remember that you can always, always, always say “no” to anything.
Assault is a painful, scarring experience and can have many consequences on your relationships. But if you seek out help, listen to your own needs and communicate with your partners, you can and will reclaim your mental and sexual health.