I was raped 7 years ago. I didn’t think it had any major effect on me until a year and a half ago. I couldn’t initiate sex with my partner. I couldn’t let go and be purely present. I couldn’t share fantasies. The list goes on. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do these things. The relationship ended and this was one of the biggest issues that ended it. I’ve been seeing a trauma therapist since November. But this is a topic still hard to broach. As someone who has been raped, do you have any advice? What was your experience with partners after that?
To the reader who submitted this — first of all, I want to thank you for sharing this with me. Talking about trauma and about sex is really difficult, so I especially appreciate that you asked this question.
Disclaimer: As this reader noted, I’m a survivor of sexual violence, but I’m also an educator. I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that my experience is not necessarily going to align with theirs — and that’s okay. I’m going to share a bit about my personal experience (that’s part 2, for folks who want to skip over it) but ultimately, your experience is your own.
What you’re going through is valid, regardless of how it aligns with my own experience. People’s post-traumatic responses are highly varied, so if I don’t mention something here, it doesn’t mean that your experiences are abnormal — this post is meant to serve as an overview, focusing specifically on this reader’s questions.
In this post, I’m not going to talk about specific things that you can do when you’re struggling with sex after trauma (I’ll publish a post solely dedicated to that later). Instead, I’m going to be focusing on each of the four sections of this question.
Part 1: Common Experiences
There are two common sexual shifts that people tend to experience after sexual violence — sexual fixation and sexual avoidance.
People who experience sexual fixation tend to use sex as a coping mechanism — they might think “well, my boundaries weren’t respected before, so now there’s no point in asserting them.” People who experience sexual fixation might…
- Study their body obsessively
- Masturbate much more frequently than before
- Feel disembodied during sex, just going through the motions rather than the experience
- Experience lower levels of personal discretion when it comes to sexual boundaries, safety, partners, and behaviors.
On the other hand, sexual avoidance is what you might encounter more often in books or movies. It can look like…
- Fear or anxiety about engaging in, talking about, or observing sex
- Change in attitude toward masturbation, ranging from disinterest to disgust
- A panic response during sexual experiences, perhaps feeling hyper-aware of everything that is happening
People who have experienced sexual violence can experience any or all of these things, depending on where they are in their healing journey, who they are engaging in sex with, and their context at the time.
The feelings of not being able to initiate sex, talk about fantasies, or be truly present sound like sexual avoidance. It’s a close cousin of the “freeze” response in fight/flight/freeze/fawn.
Basically, your mind is associating sex or sexual behaviors with bad, scary, do not engage. Even if you might want to have sex, your trauma response is taking over because it thinks it needs to protect you.
Part 2: The Personal Stuff
You asked about my personal experience, and I’ll share it briefly to illustrate how fluid these experiences can be. But, I’ll repeat my original note — my experience does not define yours. Every person has their own way of coping with trauma, and while there are commonalities that bring us together, it would be wrong for me or anyone else to say “this is normal and this is not.” We may — in fact, we do — experience things in different ways. That’s okay. For readers who want to skip over this section (there is no graphic detail), skip forward to part 3.
I was sexually assaulted for the first time when I was 13 years old. After that, I experienced sexual avoidance — I didn’t want to kiss anyone, and if people touched me (or attempted to touch me) in certain ways, I immediately panicked and backed away. That didn’t change for a few years.
Then, I was assaulted again. I was 16, and afterward, I experienced sexual fixation. I had sex with pretty much anyone because I didn’t believe that there was even a point in saying no. I didn’t consider what happened to me to be rape — I just thought it was this bad thing that happened. It wasn’t until college, when my new partner said, “Look, this wasn’t just bad sex. That was rape” that I even faced what I was experiencing. (As an aside, I don’t recommend labeling anyone else’s experience for them. But for me, in this context, it was helpful.)
Not long after that, I started obsessively studying sexual violence and talking to my therapist about what I was experiencing. It had been five years since the first assault had happened, but I was processing it all like it was brand new. Over the next few years, I experienced a lot of anxiety around sex and struggled to initiate anything. My list of triggers was long. Since then, that list has gotten shorter and shorter, but I still struggle sometimes with flashbacks and with feelings of sadness, frustration, and bodily disconnect.
Over a period of more than 10 years, I fluctuated from sexual avoidance to fixation and back again. That’s all to say — it’s okay that you’re struggling with this even though you feel like it’s been a long time.
Recovery is not linear; rather, it’s cyclical — you’ll go through periods where things are easier, and you’ll go through periods where you’re struggling. That’s okay. You’re going to be okay.
Part 3: Talking to Your Therapist
I hear you asking about how to talk to your therapist about what you’re experiencing. Before you bring up anything to them, I would assess how safe you feel with them. Knowing your baseline comfort level before you begin a conversation you don’t feel entirely comfortable with can help you anticipate your own reactions that you might have once you bring this up. Talking about sex can be uncomfortable, but you deserve space to process these things and work toward solutions.
Second, come with a plan. Having a general roadmap can be incredibly valuable when you’re talking about trauma, sex, or anything that is particularly uncomfortable or difficult, because it can remind you of key points that you want to bring up. Have you disclosed your assault to them? Have you mentioned the difficulties around sex at all? Depending on the answers to those things, you may want to plan time just to begin that conversation.
Here are some questions your therapist might ask you:
- Tell me more about not being able to be fully present or talk about your fantasies.
- You mentioned that you became aware of this about a year and a half ago — what was your experience before then? Did anything in particular change?
- What makes you feel safe and comfortable? What makes you shut down?
- Have you tried communicating these things in another medium (writing, verbally but facing away)?
You might eventually decide that maybe this therapist isn’t the best fit for you here. If that’s the case, write down your concerns and bring them up with your therapist. Ask if they have a referral for someone who is better equipped to talk about sex and sexuality. You may still want to see them for your trauma therapy, but maybe you’ll start seeing someone new to work through the sex-specific components.
Part 4: It’s Not Your Fault
Reader, I hear an undertone in your message. When you talk about the amount of time it’s been, that your relationship ended, and that you struggle to talk about this with your therapist, I hear you blaming yourself. I want to be clear: None of this is your fault.
It is very common to not experience a post-traumatic response until long after the trauma itself. It is common to feel uncomfortable talking about these things with a therapist. It is common for these things to affect our relationships.
You’ve done a brave thing by seeking out a therapist to talk about this, and you’ve done another brave thing in coming here to ask these questions. I hope you recognize that courage and strength in yourself.
You experienced something incredibly difficult, and you are working through it, healing and growing and strengthening. Sometimes it’s just hard to see that through the challenges.
Another underlying current here is a question I am often asked: “How can I heal my relationship with sex?” I’ll publish a full post on that later, but in the meantime, here are some resources that I recommend. Staci Haines book is an especially helpful tool, and it’s one that you can peruse at your own pace.
- Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma by Staci Haines
- Pandora’s Project, an online resource with a form and articles
- Your therapist may know of a local survivor support group that can provide a dedicated community.
- Your local rape crisis center may offer a support group or educational programs related to sex after trauma.
If you want to submit an anonymous question to In My DMs, you can do that through this form. I try to respond to all questions within 6 weeks.