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I survived sexual assault, then got stuck in a relationship I don't feel good about.

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antigone68 asks:

I’m a woman in my early twenties and identify as a feminist. Last November I was raped by someone I had previously considered to be a close friend. However, the assault itself isn’t what I am writing about. I’ve read many of Scarleteen’s wonderful articles on sexual assault and I am quite comfortable with the idea that what happened to me isn’t my fault.

Shortly after the assault, I started up a relationship with a man (which includes sex). I realise that it’s not ideal to start a sexual relationship soon after experiencing sexual assault. I don’t regret entering into the relationship, though, as it has (overall) made me very happy and has provided me with support to deal with my assault. My partner knows about my sexual assault.

A few months into the relationship, my desire for sex (intercourse) started to drop.

Heather Corinna replies:

antogone68's question continued:

I think this was probably for a number of reasons: being busy at university and perhaps having a naturally low sex drive after the honeymoon period of a relationship. However, I also think my sexual assault had something to do with it. I still find physical intimacy pleasurable, but my interest in sexual activity (even my own pleasure) is almost non-existent.

I didn’t bring this lack of desire up with partner for about 2 months, partly because I didn’t admit it to myself for a while. I did eventually bring it up, though, and I asked him if we could have a period where we didn’t have intercourse. Before this I had been feeling a high degree of pressure (both from him and myself) to have sex when I wasn’t feeling like it. We both agreed to have a break.

This lasted about 2 weeks. I initiated sex because the absence of intercourse was making my partner feel so sad that the emotional work required on my behalf to not have sex seemed to outweigh the costs of doing something I wasn’t completely into.

That was about two months ago. Sometimes I don’t mind having sex and get some altruistic pleasure from it. But I still frequently feel an aversion to it and avoid it.

My problem is this: I think that if I talk to my partner about these feelings again, the same scenario will repeat itself. But, I don’t want to end the relationship because I don’t think I am emotionally and/or financially secure enough to be independent. We share rent at the moment. Plus, I find all other parts of our relationship to be very fulfilling. Sometimes having sex that I have no desire for seems like something I am prepared to compromise on in order to stay in this relationship. I’m also aware, though, that this probably isn’t a healthy way to think about sex, particularly not for someone who has been sexually assaulted.

My partner is open to feminist ideas, but I feel like if he really respected me he would not want to have sex with me when I express obvious ambivalence/disinterest in intercourse. We have never had non-consensual sex, but my consent has frequently been unenthusiastic. This isn’t something I’m happy with. My partner is one of those people who experiences a strong emotional connection between having intercourse and feeling loved. We’ve talked about this, but it doesn’t seem like it is something that he can change easily. In reality, though, the idea that having sex with someone who is disinterested/not enjoying it is a sign of love is ridiculous.

I’m not really sure there is an answer to this. I can either leave a relationship I often enjoy and put myself into a financially precarious position, or I can stay and continue to feel like my sex life is something alien to me.

Any suggestions?

First of all, I am so sorry someone chose to assault you, as has happened to so any of us. But I'm very glad that you've made it through and that we still have you here with us, that you've found some of what you needed in order to start healing, and that you came here and felt able to ask for help you need.

Given what you've read, I'm going to assume that you know that healing from sexual abuse or assault, like healing from anything, is a process.

For instance, not everyone initially reacts to sexual assault in the same way. Some survivors deny or diminish their assault or the impact it is having or has had on them. That's the kind of behavior or emotional reactions you'll all too often see people who enable rape and blame victims stupidly say is about the victim not seeming to be bothered or impacted or about rape "obviously not being that big of a deal." But that's not about anyone thinking it unimportant or not being impacted, it's about one of the many ways we get through things and survive as best we can. Often people can't handle the full impact of what was done to them all at once: we can't process such a big trauma and our feelings about it immediately, quickly or even with a real awareness of what happened, why it happened and that it happened to us. It can just be much too much. So, we can deny, diminish or kind of numb out to the assault or our feelings so we can cope in smaller, more manageable bits.

As well, all of our routes and journeys in healing vary. Unlike healing from, say, a broken leg, healing from sexual assault can be less predictable, far more variable and tougher to navigate, especially without qualified help. In other words, not support from a sexual partner or friend who probably doesn't have any knowledge, background or education in earnestly supporting survivors -- or who hasn't even asked someone who does for help and advice -- but support from at least one person, in an ongoing way, who is ONLY there for you to support you without their own agenda beyond helping you, and who knows what survivors tend to need to be truly supported, to heal and to move forward. One thing anyone like that is going to know is that any pressure or obligation to be sexual is big time bad news when it comes to dealing and healing and that for most people in most situations, entering or pursuing an ongoing sexual relationship right afterwards is way, way too soon. Something else someone with this kind of education or background wound know is that it's actually more common to start to get triggered in ongoing sexual relationships than in more casual sexual contexts, and this is even more likely to be a tougher issue when sexual assault or abuse was done to you by someone who you knew well and trusted.

I do have to question how supportive this partner has earnestly been, even if I accept your truth that you have experienced this person as a support to you. It just seems to me that if this guy was really invested in supporting you and had the ability to be truly supportive for you in this, then the very minute these kinds of dynamics going on now cropped up, he'd have started working with you on working them out, even if that meant deciding that he didn't want this kind of relationship with someone who didn't want to have the kind of sex he does as often as he does. He'd be much more mindful of the impact this kind of dynamic could have on you, and perhaps would have even held off on sex with you for a while, or at least asked if you had someone else supporting you besides him you could first talk to about choosing to enter into an ongoing sexual relationship.

Mind, that's assuming in part your feeling obligated is about something he's putting out there, rather than something you're assuming or projecting. In other words, if when he feels unhappy or sad about not engaging in intercourse, he manages and takes responsibility for his own feelings well, acknowledges that while he misses intercourse with you, he's only dedicated to intercourse with you that's right for you and about both of you, and makes clear he's choosing to be fully in this process with you, including your boundaries, and feels capable of doing that.

It's obviously possible, without hearing from him, that you're ditching your own boundaries and limits because you feel -- without indication from him directly or passively -- that it's unacceptable for him to feel sad sometimes, that you have to fix it with sex because you feel guilty or are worried about being put out of house and home or that you owe him sex and when he feels sad, it's because you aren't giving him sex. All of those ways of feeling, even when a partner isn't doing anything to elicit them, are common with sexual assault and abuse survivors.

I do also want to be realistic about everyone's awareness of their own sexual and interpersonal motives here. Whether we're talking about you, him or both of you, lots of people just aren't very aware of the sexual dynamics they create or co-create, nor have any real practice in evaluating them, and expecting people to be able to do that well can be particularly unrealistic with younger people, who are just starting their sexual lives and just learning how to have elective relationships. In fact, I'd say that if a couple of weeks of a partner not having one kind of sex with him he is truly feeling unloved, especially one he knows is in the infancy of a process of sexual healing, he's clearly got some of his own issues to deal with and that it sounds like he hasn't yet. So, we can know he's got some stuff he hasn't unpacked here or even become aware he needs to.

But you know this isn't supporting you in a healthy sexual life and sexuality and isn't supportive of your healing process, either, whether or not he knows, gets or accepts that. You also, all by yourself, have the capacity to nix this relationship -- or at the very least, having any kind of sex in it -- regardless of his level of awareness, his behavior, and how much or how little these dynamics have to do with him.

By all means, a decrease in desire very well could be because of growing past new relationship energy as well as being busy at school. It might even initially just have been only about those two things. At the same time, expecting to have no sexual impact from sexual assault isn't realistic or likely, and whether it was the case before, we can certainly know now that how things have been going and the setup of this is bound to call up some issues around sexual assault and be a real barrier to being in healthy sexual interactions and relationships. And, like I've mentioned, some of the feelings and dynamics you're voicing here are very typical of how people can feel after assault, like feeling obligated to have sex, seeing sex as an exchange, thinking someone is owed sex from you, feeling kind of defeated with ooky sexual dynamics, or being afraid to say no to sex with someone.

What I'm hearing is that as it stands now, you are in a relationship in which sex does not feel optional or about your sexual desires, limits or boundaries. You feel that if you do not engage in the sex your partner wants, there's a certain price you have to pay, namely, your partner becomes sad or depressed and that is or feels like pressure, and the effort you have to put into keeping from sex you know isn't right for you right now is great, so great that having the sex you don't want to have feels like less of an ordeal. As well, you seem to be saying you feel sex is a price you have to pay in order to keep a roof over your head.

You've also described the pleasure you get from sex as being altruistic: as being about giving something to this other person, and your sole benefit being in providing sex in that way, if you mean that literally. Now, people have a lot of different and often compound and complex motivations for sex, so when there is mutual consent, I'm not going to get all judgy about them. But we can certainly always consider -- and with the aim of a healthy sex life, I think it's sound to -- if a given motive is what we really want and if it's working out for us. It doesn't sound to me like this is resulting in you feeling at all good. It's clear this isn't working out for you. As well, altruism usually leaves us feeling very good about ourselves, not feeling used or otherwise crappy. Altruism also is a very different thing than mollification, and doesn't require us giving something that is painful to give or is counter to our own well-being.

There's a paragraph of yours I thought should get special attention:

I feel like if [my partner] really respected me he would not want to have sex with me when I express obvious ambivalence/disinterest in intercourse. We have never had non-consensual sex, but my consent has frequently been unenthusiastic. This isn’t something I’m happy with. My partner is one of those people who experiences a strong emotional connection between having intercourse and feeling loved. We’ve talked about this, but it doesn’t seem like it is something that he can change easily. In reality, though, the idea that having sex with someone who is disinterested/not enjoying it is a sign of love is ridiculous.

I agree with your last sentence here, in that that by no means strikes me as evidence of love. I also think that if and when that is what is going on and he knows that's what's going on, suggesting he is connected to you is particularly wonky: it's very clear you are both quite disconnected in this. You express that your sex life feels like something alien to you: you express feeling disconnected clearly. We can't connect with someone who isn't connecting with us. he might feel connected to something through intercourse right now, like maybe himself or his own sexuality, but he obviously is not connecting with you at all.

Now, who knows what your current partner is bringing to any of this in terms of his own baggage. You might have some clue, but I've got nothing, since it could be a million things. But I do think it's safe to say that when someone earnestly knows someone else doesn't want to engage in a kind of sex with them but feels they are proving love when they do, they are often seeing sex as some kind of sacrifice the other person makes for them. You know that that's messed up. I also think we can agree that if you are engaging in sex in part because you feel your survival depends on it and this person is experiencing that as an expression of love they are seriously not clued in to what is going on with you at all. A partner that profoundly disconnected from us is never good news for anyone. That kind of sexual framework also just isn't going to be one where you're able to have a healthy sexual relationship.

I agree with you that if he is in this kind of mindset, expecting him to be able to change it radically anytime soon isn't real. You need to figure it's not likely to change unless he wants to work on that and starts doing that, in which case it's going to take a while, and I don't think the long process of all of that is going to be something good for you to be around as a partner and a survivor.

I think you have two choices here: you can put all of this out there to him, as strongly and straightforwardly as you have had here, and put some very hard limits down. For instance, you will NOT be engaging in sex to try and keep him happy or to keep yourself housed and fed. He WILL need to manage his own feelings around this and decide for himself if he can earnestly handle -- and if he wants to -- being in a sexual relationships with someone who is really just starting a longtime sexual healing process. (Of course, a decrease in or lack of sex is going to happen now and then in most long-term sexual relationships, so this might not just be about you, but about his ability with or desire for long-term sexual relationships period.) If he wants to stay in this with you in a way that's healthy for you both, he will need to find a variety of ways for you to express love for him -- if you do even feel love for him -- that he values exclusive of sex. And he will need to agree not to manipulate around these things at all.

In setting down those kinds of limits, I'd avoid any judgments. It's okay for someone to not want a long-term or exclusive sexual relationship. It's okay for someone to feel like they can't handle being with someone who is healing from trauma (and that isn't about anything being wrong with you, so we're clear: it's about the fact that none of us are superheroes capable of handing everything all the time). It's okay for him to not want to be in relationship with you if it isn't sexual.

What's not okay is for anything like that to be the deal, but it both isn't honestly expressed and put out there so you both can make informed choices, or for any of that to be going on and for either of you to be trying to kind of forces, change or push the other into agreeing to those situations when you don't want to or feel able to. For instance, if he's not up to a long-term sexual relationship with you or others, and the ups and downs that tend to happen sexually, it's not okay for him to stay in this and try and make it more like short-term sexual relationships: that won't work and it's also not fair to ask of someone. It's also never okay to try and get what we want at someone else's expense. He wants to feel loved, of course: most of us do. But if he's doing any pushing on you to do something that makes him feel that way that you don't want to do, or that is not healthy for you, that is absolutely not okay.

If any of those things up there were true for him, it's possible for both of you to come to terms with those limits amicably, without anyone winding up homeless and or asking things of the other that aren't fair or compassionate. People who earnestly care about each other can do that and sort out situations like this with love and care and with everyone only doing things they truly want to and know to be healthy for them.

Alternately, you could move on from this relationship as a sexual or romantic relationship (the latter if, for you or this partner, a romantic relationship means a sexual relationship, which it sounds like it does at least for him) or altogether.

My gut feeling says that, like some relationships in our lives, whether we're survivors or not, this probably has been a transitional relationship for you. In other words, it's something where you both may have gotten good things from it to a certain point, but not something where, at least right now, continuing it as it has been is likely to turn into something fantastic for you or him in the long term. It sounds to me like what he wants and what you need are very different and at real odds, that trying to work through that isn't happening, and also like you're not in the position where you can even feel able to freely choose what's best for you. A setup for an awesome long-term relationship to build on this is not.

It also sounds possible that, as often is the case with any new relationship as it goes on over time and gets out of the new stage, there were certain dynamics that were part of it you've only recently become aware of, or only recently became problematic for you. Or, maybe the dynamics present at the start of the relationship have changed, which probably include becoming dependent on this person (and whatever dynamics were going on that facilitated such a quick move-in-together). But whether they have or haven't changed, you know that right now, this is not a good thing for you and not something you feel good about anymore.

I don't think it's emotionally or sexually healthy for anyone to be in a sexual relationship where they feel obligated to provide sex, or engage in sex primarily to avoid negative fallout or homelessness. I'm always particularly concerned about sexual abuse or assault survivors who find themselves in these kinds of situations. Why? Because we have usually already gotten very painfully delivered messages that we owe people sex in some way, or that if we don't provide it, something even more terrible could happen to us, right? We may have also gotten the message that sex is what we're for, what we have to offer. Both of those messages are difficult not to get during and in the aftermath of sexual assault, and even people who haven't been assaulted or abused get them. They remain very pervasive in our culture, unfortunately, especially for women.

Part of healing from sexual abuse or assault is going to involve learning that those messages are flat-out wrong, developing a certainty in how very wrong they are and doing what we can to keep ourselves protected from those dynamics. If we put or keep ourselves in situations which enable those messages, it's going to be very hard for us to get to that place in our healing. A relationship like this which may have, at one time, helped you survive and heal might be becoming a barrier to further progress for you, on top of clearly being a barrier to your overall happiness. To boot, it seems to me like given where you're at with taking care of your most basic needs, this might be flirting with being -- or may already be -- survival sex for you.

Let's talk about how your actual survival when it comes to a roof over your head is part of this, because of course it is when you're in that spot. Have you sat down and really gone over your options? For example, if you feel you can't go things alone financially, how about any friends you might be able to live with, even if that means couch-surfing for a while? What about getting a roommate to split the bills? Family? Have you looked into what, if any, social service programs there might be in your area to help you with housing and other basic needs? You say you're at uni: have you spoken to anyone there, like a guidance counselor, about this situation and found out anything they might know that would help you find other housing you could afford? Sometimes when we feel stuck or helpless, we can get stuck in that place in our heads and not take the time to exhaustively evaluate our options. I know how tough it can be to get unstuck when we're in that space, but you seem like you're at a point where, if you haven't already, you'd do well with a little self-push to try.

As well, do you think this is someone who has earnest care for you? If so, might he understand why this isn't a workable situation for you anymore, and either shift to just being housemates until you get back on your own two feet, or help you transition into living separately the way that most of us would do for someone we care about when they're in a rough spot?

If not, I do think one thing you might need to be very honest with yourself about is that this person's support of you may be conditional. I know that when that's the case, it's a hurtful truth to look at, but at the same time, if supporting you around your assault is contingent on having sex, that's not support. Being real with yourself about the truth of this situation, if that is the truth, should help you make your best choices here and also will probably help you as you move through life to better evaluate what relationships are or are not healthy for you.

This is something where we're probably best having an ongoing conversation, and I'd be glad to do that with you. We've talked people through these kinds of practical matters before. As someone who has been in precarious financial positions for a whole lot of my life, and who has been without a home more than once, I'm a pretty creative thinker with this stuff, and I'd be happy to brainstorm with you. If you want to do that, you can just hop on over to our message boards here, give me a shout, and we can get gabbing. If that doesn't work for you or isn't what you want I'd suggest you find someone you can brainstorm this with. You obviously need some help, and from someone you're not dependent on or who seems to be requiring sex from you to help you.

Most of the time, in most places, no one has to exchange sex to get their most basic needs met. The alternatives may not be comfortable in other ways, but they don't have to be uncomfortable in that way. The alternatives will often have their own level of suckiness for a while, too, whether that's about living in a crummy neighborhood or place, eating rice and beans every day for a while or having to work more than one job. But you know, many of us have dealt with those things and come through them, and if you don't want to be in this situation, I think you can, too. I think you'd probably suffer less because of getting sick of peanut butter sandwiches or dealing with a place with roaches than with something like this. When it comes to what you're feeling is a lack of emotional independence, if that is something you lack, I think you're much more likely to develop it outside a situation like this than within it.

Ultimately, I hear you seeing this as being about two choices, but I think you're limiting yourself. I think you likely have far more than just the two choices you listed, where you lose either way. I think you have other choices where you can survive and any relationships you're in are healthy and of mutual benefit.

One step you might be able to think about taking is to try and move from surviving to thriving (I know that sounds cheeseball). I know that can be tougher when we're not just talking about surviving abuse or assault, or emotional survival, but also about actual survival: keeping ourselves fed and housed. Having to deal with both those kinds of survival at once is seriously challenging and overwhelming. But it can also be a little too easy (even though the situation itself of course is anything but easy) to kind of get stuck in survival mode and be unable to see what can lie beyond. Heck, even when we know getting to that next place will be a lot better, it can be scary in some ways. It's scarier to think about having good stuff to lose instead of crap, for example, and it's scary to think about the things we might need to do to thrive which might be just as hard as where we're at now, just in different ways, maybe ways we've less used to or familiar with.

But I don't want you to get used to this kind of situation, and I'm sure you don't want to get used it it, either. You deserve better: everyone does. Here's what I want for you: I want you to be able to get to a place where you are surviving and thriving, or at least solidly in the former and en route to the latter, which includes being on and sticking to roads most likely to get you there, rather than to lead you to dead ends or into the kind of maddening circular endeavor that's the emotional equivalent of trying to get somewhere via Google maps. I want you to have your most basic human needs met and then, in any relationship you choose to be in, to only be in relationships that are mutually beneficial, good for your heart and spirit, and truly support you in healing and having a life where sex is never something taken from you, forced or pushed on you, or that you feel you have to give or exchange as a payment for anything.

If any or all of those things sounds like what you also want for yourself, then I think you need to first figure out if you really want to try and resolve things in this relationship or not -- separate from what it currently offers you in terms of a place to stay, so from the imagined vantage point of having your basic needs be a given no matter what.

I also think it'd be a really good idea for you to get started on some counseling and support expressly for survivors from people who know their stuff. That's about help with healing, but also about help and support in evaluating this relationship and future relationships as well as help with your living situation. Advocates for abuse and assault survivors are usually well-connected to local resources, and also understand how easy it can be for anyone, including survivors -- and sometimes especially survivors -- to wind up in the kind of spot you're in. I think it's clear that you need some qualified help you can depend on.

I'm going to leave you with a couple links from us, but then, since it sounds like you've already spent a good deal of time here at the site, a couple from other places I think might benefit you. And again, if you want to talk this out more with me, I'm happy to make myself available to you.

written 12 Sep 2011 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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