Rediscovering Sexuality After Trauma
This blog contains content surrounding sexual assault, violence, and murder, which may be triggering for some. If you or someone you know is in need of support, you can get help through organizations like RAINN.
When Sarah Everard was kidnapped and murdered in March, it sparked an outcry from those who had been harassed or subjected to gendered violence. Online, scores of people shared their stories of things that happened to them despite following all “the rules.” Rules that exist because, for some reason, we bear the responsibility for our own assaults.
The fact these ideologies still surround something so horrific and so common is baffling. But so it goes. New data from the World Health Organization shows 1 in 3 women (around 736 million) are subjected to physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, or to sexual violence from a non-partner. They point out that this number has remained largely unchanged for the past decade.
Such experiences—and their aftermath—can have a number of adverse impacts upon survivors. This includes the possible impact to our sexual selves.
It’s important to note everyone’s response to sexual trauma is different. Some are able to enjoy sexual activities soon after their trauma, while others require more time to get there. There’s no shame in either response.
For this piece, I’ll be sharing tips for those whose sexual lives have been adversely impacted by their trauma.
How Trauma Can Affect Our Sexual Selves
As mentioned above, everyone’s response to trauma is different. When it comes to our sexual lives, we may experience a number of aftereffects. Some of the common effects of sexual trauma include:
Those who have experienced trauma may find they are triggered by certain forms of touch, particular smells, specific bodily positions, and even emotions similar to those they experienced during their assault. Writing from a personal standpoint, I’ve found myself triggered by a turn of phrase… a tone of voice… a facial expression. All of these evoked a certain moment in time. It can be hard to know what all your triggers are, and you may discover new ones in the future.
This is a sense of disconnection from yourself and/or surroundings. It sometimes occurs as a coping mechanism, one that allows survivors to distance themselves from their trauma.
Because our culture tends to blame victims of sexual assault, survivors often find themselves grappling with misplaced shame. They blame themselves for ending up in an impossible situation. They blame themselves for unsuccessfully extricating themselves from that situation. Later, this shame can color their interactions with romantic partners.
How Survivors Can Begin to Heal
There is no one size fits all path to healing. Kai Werder, a sex educator and healing practitioner, gives a long list of activities that survivors have found useful, but notes that what’s helpful for one person might be harmful for another.
“Some find exercise or body movement is really helpful because, oftentimes, trauma lives in our bodies,” says Werder. For this reason, they explain, somatic practices can be an important part of the healing process.
Somatic practices are those that tap into the mind-body connection. They make it easier for you to notice the signals your body is sending you about areas of pain or discomfort. Physical memories of an incident can sometimes be deeper than mental memories. Some examples of somatic therapies are mindful movement, trauma-informed yoga, breathing exercises, and sensation awareness exercises.
Research shows that some people find exercise triggering. So, it’s important to have a trigger plan (more on that later) because it’s useful to explore different forms of healing.
Werder also mentions talk therapy, being in nature, reading about trauma, joining a support group (whether in-person or online), and even exploring sexual pleasure.
“It can be really healing to have positive sexual experiences,” says Werder. “To masturbate. To rebuild that sexual relationship with yourself on your own terms.”
They emphasize that even when you find something that works for you, the healing journey is not linear. “The journey of healing is long,” explains Werder. “So being gentle and being slow with yourself is really important.”
How Survivors Can Reconnect with Their Sexual Selves
Once you feel ready to reconnect with your sexual self, Werder recommends focusing on small pleasures. Start with an evening bubble bath, a favorite meal, or a walk around the block. While enjoying these, practice mindfulness and notice various sensations.
When you’re ready to explore sexual touch, you may find it more comfortable to start with yourself. Ease into it. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, you can always press pause.
When you feel ready for partnered sex, consider whether or not you want to disclose your trauma to your partner. Some don’t want to, and that’s okay. You don’t owe anyone your disclosure.
Still, there should be communication about consent and about how you can best care for each other.
You can’t always predict what might trigger you. It can be helpful to have a conversation about which body parts or positions are off-limits and which language you’d prefer to use around your body and around sex. Get specific about what your desires are and where your boundaries lie. If you’re clear on those boundaries, you’re less likely to be forced into a position of disclosing.
It’s useful to make a safety or trigger plan in advance. What do you need when you feel triggered? Do you need alone time? Would you like to be snuggled? Could your partner bring you a warm cup of tea? Think about what would make you feel calm in that moment. How can your partner help make that happen?
Werder says we shouldn’t forget about aftercare. This is a concept that comes from the BDSM community. It’s a combination of activities and attention given to your partner to provide a sense of closure to the sexual experience. Werder explains that having the space to decompress and process together is essential. The come-down period after a sexual encounter (caused by the release of chemicals in the body, among other things) can feel intense. They say that aftercare can look like anything from offering your partner snacks, to making sure they get home safely, to having a conversation about the experience.
An important note for partners: If your partner was triggered, it’s not about you. Still, it’s possible to experience secondary trauma, and you should make sure you have a strong support system in place outside of your sexual relationship.
If you or your partner is grappling with sexual trauma, look for your state’s Coalition Against Sexual Assault. They’ll likely be able to point you toward local resources like hotlines, support groups, long-term counseling, and more.