Sex after rape. Where do I begin?

lost
asks:
Hi. First of all, thank you guys so much for being here; I've used so many of your resources before and found them so valuable, I really appreciate you <3 I am a college student who has had sex with one person before. This person was my boyfriend, who ended up emotionally abusing/manipulating me, psychologically abusing me (e.g. gaslighting), and sexually abusing me (coercion, assault, and rape). It was an extremely confusing relationship where normal and healthy relationship and sexual stuff was thrown around and entangled with extremely unhealthy abuse, and it was my first and only experience in dating and sex. For awhile I thought I never wanted to venture back there, but recently I've been feeling like I want to. However, I feel totally lost. I feel like a loom or something where all the threads are totally tangled up--I feel like everything is messed up. How do I not associate new partners with the trauma? Often whenever I think about men or sex my brain goes into panic mode, even though the thought itself isn't something traumatic. How do I un-stick my brain? How do I re-learn? I have no idea where to start. I'm scared if I don't have sex again soon with someone normal, my experiences are going to define me. I just want to have normal, neutral, healthy, and even fun sexual experiences with men. But it feels impossible. How do I talk about it with a new partner? How do I avoid getting triggered? How can I take control of my mind? How can I stop shaking every time I allude to what happened to me? I also want to try casual stuff (the idea of another relationship still makes me sick), but I've never done that before either. I feel like a ship without a compass.
Heather Corinna replies:

Hey there, lost.  I'm so sorry that you had to experience that abuse, but I'm very glad you survived it, and have started to be able to look towards healthy, wanted intimacy in your future.  Let's see if I can help get you started.

First, I want to alleviate a fear that could get in your way. You don't have to do anything sexual or otherwise intimate until and unless it's something you want and feel ready for.  Moving more quickly than you really want to and feel up for won't help you: it might even make healing and moving forward harder. There are no deadlines with this, and what defines you is always going to be up to you, and is only going to be about what you decide is who you are. It's in your best interest to go at your own pace now, just like it's always been.

Please know that just by asking for help and thinking towards your own future, you've already started healing.  I know, having been there myself, it can be daunting and can feel impossible sometimes, especially early on after trauma, but I feel confident you're going to get through this and to the healthy relationships and sexual interactions you want.

I think where you begin is with yourself.

It sounds like you're still dealing with a lot of the impacts of this trauma and could use help learning how to manage it. My best advice is to seek out help from a qualified counselor who works with sexual and intimate violence and abuse survivors.  One of the easiest ways to find someone like that is to start with a local organization for survivors: they often have those counselors and those services, as well as a network of others outside their own staff. Another option is finding out if your college offers any of these kinds of services: if so, you might still be able to access them remotely right now.  There's not a lot of good news because of this pandemic, but it has increased access to remote counseling for many, which can be a lot less intimidating. If you want some help seeking this kind of care out, let me know: I'd be happy to help you find these resources.

In the event you don't feel ready for or want help like that yet, I can suggest some books that can be good starting places, too:

  • The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, by Wendy Maltz is one I recommend often.
  • This is an older book, so some of its language is outdated, but I find it a very useful general resource: The Rape Recovery Handbook: Step-by-Step Help for Survivors of Sexual Assault, by Aphrodite T. Matsakis PhD.
  • Whether or not you have complex PTSD, I find this workbook useful for trauma survivors: The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind-Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control and Becoming Whole, by Arielle Schwartz PhD and Jim Knipe PhD.
  • If you don't mind dense reads, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk M.D., is a deeply helpful book on understanding how trauma plays out and influences not just our thoughts and feelings, but also the whole of our physical bodies.
  • And if you want to dip a toe into what it might look like when it's time for you to craft a consensual sexual life you want, I think my friend Jaclyn Friedman's book -- also herself a survivor -- What You Really, Really Want can be fantastic for this.

You might find it helpful to come over to our moderated message boards where you can talk with other survivors who have navigated or are currently navigating this. Not only might that help you feel less isolated, it can also potentially give you some ideas from other's experiences that may work for you.

Unless you feel very differently about it -- after all, you're the expert of you and your healing journey is just that, yours -- I encourage you to give yourself some time for yourself before you start dating again or seeking out sex with partners.  None of this is baby steps, because it's all big stuff, but I find that it works better for people feeling the way you are to go slower rather than more quickly. Taking some time to really center yourself in your own sexuality, and just in your own self, period, can also go a long way when it comes to self-defense against potential abusers or other people being terrible.

You can first learn some techniques that work for you when your trauma gets cued (including if you have PTSD that gets triggered), and give yourself some lower-stakes practice with those alone, first. Feeling shaky and worried like you are is a cue that you probably need to do some more healing first and gain more mastery over your own trauma responses.

If you haven't already, I'd start coming back to sexual activity through masturbation first, well before sex with a partner. That's a much less risky way to start to find out what feels good to you and what doesn't, and a great way to start building a new sexual life for yourself that centers you, what you want, your pleasure and your limits and boundaries. Restarting your sexual life by yourself and all for yourself can be something that will probably feel a lot safer for you, it can also create a dynamic where feeling sexually whole again isn't about someone else, but all about you. In this pandemic, it's also what's best for everyone who doesn't live with their sexual partners.

I think taking an inventory of your sexuality and your sexual wants and needs before you start pursuing sex with others again would be a big help, too. It's a lot easier to be clear with ourselves and communicate to others what we even want, as well as what we need and do not want or need, when we've taken stock to know all that. Since it sounds like your own wants and needs weren't even considered in your last relationship, I think it'd be extra helpful for you, as you're starting from scratch in a lot of ways. We've got two tools here that can help you do that kind of inventory: Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklistand another inventory-helper in print or digital zine format, F*ck Me!

Trust yourself to know when you're ready to start to pursue sexual partners. You'll feel differently than you do now when you are: you won't feel panicked. It's okay to take whatever time you need: sex with other people isn't going anywhere. It'll still be available for you when you feel ready and comfortable with it, and it'll also be much better for you when you are.

When it does feel like it's time for you to start exploring sex with someone else, it's okay if you find out you feel more comfortable starting out with sex outside of ongoing relationships and that's the way you'd like to first try being sexual again.  There's no right or wrong about that, period, very much including in this context. But I'd suggest that if that's the way you go, you still make sure you have enough of a relationship -- it doesn't have to be romantic or committed or long-term -- with someone to know that you can trust them, and to feel comfortable telling them what you  need to in order to make it most likely that sex isn't just consensual and emotionally safe for you, but is also a positive, pleasurable -- and yep, fun -- experience.

Often people think of casual sex as something we have to go into blind and without any trust already established, something that doesn't work for a lot of people, but which can obviously often be extra problematic for survivors of sexual assault or other abuse. But we have options: we can engage in something outside a romantic or otherwise ongoing relationship, and without any ongoing commitments and still do so safely, sexually, physically and emotionally. Casual sexual interactions and building trust, settling limits and boundaries and making asks for our needs, be they about trauma or about other things, aren't mutually exclusive.

In the midst of this pandemic, many people who pursuing casual sex are doing so the way I'd suggest you do, anyway.  If they're using apps or otherwise coming to this without knowing the person they want to be sexual with already, they're having text exchanges and video dates before they're even considering meeting in person. They're talking more about safety than before, and filling each other in a bit more on the particulars of their lives right now.  You can use this in your favor: it's very normal right now for people to take more time making choices about casual interactions than they may have before.

You don't have to tell someone you barely know or are just getting to know your whole history or any specifics about your rape, though you certainly can do that if you want to. Feeling someone out before connecting with them (separate from COVID-19 concerns and safety) is more about you just seeing what your gut says about a person, and filling them in on some of the basic needs you have for any sexual interaction to be okay for you.  Just seeing how someone responds to clear sexual communication, boundaries and asks for care often tells us a whole lot.

What those things you tell someone are will depend on context, you and what those things are for you. To give you some examples, that can look like telling someone something that cues trauma for you and letting them know you'll need them to avoid that thing, or letting someone know what you need if you start to dissociate or otherwise exhibit a traumatic response, and how you want them to check in with you. At the very least, you'll need someone you feel comfortable even having that kind of conversation with -- even if you do it in a very shorthand version, which is fine if that's what works for you -- and who you feel as certain as you can that, at the very least, if you say no or stop to something, they will stop, without question, delay or argument, and with ease, support and no-big-deal-iness.

You say your abusive relationship made you feel confused, spun: trust your instincts with anyone you're considering.  If you don't feel 100% about someone, trust yourself to know it's probably for a good reason, and don't continue to engage with that person or move things forward. One of the ways you'll avoid associating new partners with trauma from your ex is by choosing people who don't cue that trauma. Chances are good that some people will and some won't, and the people who do may do that because they just aren't ready for your particular jelly, or for some other reason, but they also might because they're not safe and your brain is telling you it knows they aren't. This is one of the things that can help you choose partners well, only picking folks who make you and your brain feel safe instead of scared.

These conversations with potential partners may or may not lead to in-person meetings, especially at the present time, but even if they don't, I think they could be very valuable. They could help you build confidence expressing your needs and your boundaries, and in engaging in mutual active consenting. They can give you experience taking charge of your sexual life and anything sexual that involves you. They can give you practice taking a pass on people who don't feel right and building trust and clear communication with people who feel like maybes. In the event you move anything forward to sexual interactions that are virtual, you can get a feel for what feels right for you and what doesn't, and start to learn what you might actually like doing with someone else. You can gain some skills that will set you on the road for the good stuff, and the healthy stuff, in person.

I feel like anything past this point would be both me and you putting the cart before the horse, so I'm going to leave you here for today.  I have a few extra things you can read, and again, please feel free to ask for any additional help you might need now, or further down the road. I know it can feel like an endless slog at first, but I feel confident that you're already on the path to where you want to be, and will get yourself there at a pace and in a way that works best for you. You'll get untangled in time. You'll find your way.

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