Sexual trauma is a common—yet isolating—occurrence. When traumatic sexual experiences interfere with your sex life, it can diminish the satisfaction that you feel. Working through this to reprioritize your pleasure can be difficult, but it is rewarding.
Bodily Responses to Assault
Sexual assault is always an abuse of power and control, and the survivors have the physical memory of someone weaponizing sex and using it against them. Even those who move on to healthy sex after trauma still have these dark experiences in the back of their minds, and more importantly, they carry these memories in their bodies, as well. Though survivors know theoretically that they are safe with their loving partners, different triggers (types of touch or other triggering memories) can bring them back to the assault.
The amygdala controls the survival response, so when trauma occurs, your brain’s amygdala fires and triggers a reaction of fear. Survivors of trauma who remember something about the attack are prone to having this fear reactivated, even when nothing scary is happening. The prefrontal cortex part of our brain is responsible for helping us behave rationally, but it is not in charge of the situation during trauma or traumatic memories. That’s because the body has already decided it’s more important to survive than to behave rationally.
It’s important to understand these cognitive processes because there’s no way to power through these situations individually, by simply willing yourself to move on. To get back on a path of safety, comfort, and arousal, these memories need to be processed with a trusted therapist who specializes in trauma.
Leaving Shame Behind
The shame resulting from sexual assault can paralyze survivors and discourage them from regaining sexual pleasure and intimacy. Research has shown that most rapes are perpetrated by a known acquaintance, friend, partner, or family member. So sometimes, survivors suffer doubly because they weren’t violated by a stranger but rather by someone they trusted completely. Often they will blame themselves for trusting that person in the first place, or they will feel like that person had more of a right to their body than they did, and neither of these mindsets can help them move forward.
Leaving shame behind starts with forgiving yourself. Even though the assault was never the victim’s fault, the first step toward healthy sex after trauma is accepting the situation for how it happened and ejecting the harmful narratives that play in the back of your mind when you think about it. Sometimes family members or officers of the law invalidate the victim’s story, which exacerbates the idea that the victim should have somehow prevented it. But no matter who has invalidated your memory, moving forward includes believing yourself.
Giving and Getting Consistent Consent
Whether or not you are a survivor or are in a sexual relationship with a survivor, it’s always important to give (and get) consent during every sexual activity—every time it occurs. Survivors in particular will feel more comfortable and empowered during sexual activities if they know that, for example, their consent to oral sex doesn’t apply to any other kind of sex. Tomorrow, that consent may look different than it did today. And remember, consent can be revoked at any time.
How Your Partner Can Help
Finding a supportive partner after sexual assault can be therapeutic and crucial to regaining sexual pleasure. Partners who will let you initiate sex or be patient with the path toward sexual fulfillment are beneficial to your progress. Showing support for a partner who has experienced sexual assault can come in many forms, including listening to your partner about the experience, sharing in the emotions about the experience, and checking in with them to find out where they are in the recovery process, and how you can help contribute to their recovery.
Something particularly helpful for sexual assault survivors is finding a community of people who have gone through sexual assault, whether in the form of group therapy or even friends with whom they are comfortable regularly talking about it. Though sexual trauma feels very isolating, it is, in fact, devastatingly common. Feeling heard and understood by someone who has been in the same situation is effective and healing. When you’re ready for life-changing sex after trauma, work with a reliable counselor to get results that can alter your sexual trajectory in positive and affirming ways.
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.