Sadly, sexual assault is a widespread experience for both women and men. And those who have experienced an assault can suffer from lasting sexual issues. The path forward is difficult, but feasible. Here’s what survivors and partners of survivors should know about recovery after sexual assault.
The Facts About Sexual Assault
Between 1/6 and 1/3 of women go through some form of sexual assault or abuse. And then there are the smaller traumas that occur afterward: the victim-blaming, the dismissal of what happened, and the discrediting of the victim. Many people are hesitant even to use the word “rape” and instead engage in self-blame; to wonder if they shouldn’t have consumed alcohol or drugs, worn that outfit, or if they misled the person.
Our culture’s view of how rape victims should conduct themselves has turned sexual assault and abuse into something even harder to recover from than just the initial act of sexual violation. Sexual assault is complicated, but recovery is possible. And so is a healthy sex life after the fact.
Media and Entertainment Plays a Role
Further exacerbating the issue is the prevalence of rape in our culture, often in the form of television, music, movies, books, podcasts, and more. Anywhere you look, you’re bound to hear about rape. Worse yet, some avenues of entertainment like pornography can even glorify rape by portraying it as “sexy.” Viewing these situations can be traumatizing for survivors, and it can make their sexual abuse feel inescapable.
The Aftermath of Sexual Assault and Abuse
Survivors of sexual violence often have a tainted view of sexuality—at least initially or until they engage in therapy. They may describe sex as filthy, repulsive, agonizing, or degrading because the trauma has powerfully adjusted their relationship to their own sexuality. The whole universe of sex often gets reduced to sexual assault—and the possibility of healthy, enjoyable sex is almost forgotten.
The Importance of Consent
Though victim-blaming is ubiquitous, sexual assault survivors must realize that they were not to blame. Whether they were drinking, wearing revealing clothing, or interested in sex at first, none of those reasons justify what happened to them. The reality is that blaming the victim weakens the idea of men’s sexuality as something that they should rightfully have under control and the idea that men are sophisticated, nuanced, and educated sexual beings. And, victim-blaming can lead the sexual assault survivors to live in perpetual fear that their choices could inadvertently lead to violence. So moving beyond self-blame, even as our culture indulges in it, is key to recovery.
When You’re Ready
Finding a timeline to move forward depends on how soon the survivor can avoid self-blame, at what point they are ready to regain positive feelings about their bodies, and how quickly they can recover self-esteem. The assault, depending on how trusted the person was who perpetrated it or how violent it was, can influence these factors greatly. Essentially, the survivor will need to begin separating the assault from their view of sexuality before they are ready to start the journey to a healthy sex life.
If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or your sexual partner is, keep in mind that it is imperative that the survivor feels in control over every sexual encounter. They need to feel very comfortable with the idea that they can stop to rest in the middle of a sexual situation without “ruining the moment.” And they need to feel empowered to alter the form of touch they are receiving, without their partner feeling upset or chastised. The main idea is this: if someone doesn’t know how to get out of a situation, the only thing they can focus on is how to stop the interaction. Partners of survivors should clarify that the sexual activity can stop at any time without either party feeling guilty.
Different types of touch may be off the table, too, and that’s okay. Mentioning this in advance of sexual encounters can help stave off physical contact that will destroy arousal for the survivor. The body has its own set of memories, and even experiencing a loving touch—if it’s a reminder of an assault—does not eliminate the old memory, and it may be harmful to the survivor unless they have been able to reclaim that touch. So, start open communication about the types of touch your partner enjoys, and which kinds to avoid.
Those conversations can be difficult and are best navigated with the help of a qualified therapist. When you’re ready to get started, find someone you trust to help you (and your partner!) find sexual bliss in the aftermath of sexual assault.
Bio: Dr. Nazanin Moali is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist in the Los Angeles area. She works with various individuals to understand and improve their sexuality. Dr. Moali conducts personal consultation sessions in her Torrance and Hermosa Beach offices, or via a secure, online video-counseling platform. Click here to download the 101 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Hot checklist. Download her new ebook, How to Increase Your Libido – For Women, here.