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5 Things That Can Make Sex Better (Or at Least More Tolerable) For Sexual Assault Survivors

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Sex after sexual assault or sexual abuse is complicated. When my abuse memories began flooding back in my late 30s, I was unprepared for how triggering sex became. If I’m honest, it had always been triggering but I never really recognized it because I was actually dissociating during sex, something that took a lot of reconciling and processing for both myself and my husband. But once the proverbial cat was out of the bag, I couldn’t engage in any kind of sexual intimacy without having flashbacks. I ended up taking a long hiatus from sex while I did intense trauma therapy to process my abuse.

• What is PTSD?

With the help of an amazing trauma therapist and a husband who was committed not just to our marriage but to helping me on my healing journey, I was finally able to reengage in sexual intimacy but not without establishing some fundamental rituals. They help me feel safe, less triggered, and reduce my shame surrounding the idea that sex could be pleasurable, and that I deserved to experience that pleasure.

If you struggle with sexual intimacy post-sexual assault or abuse, here are five things that have helped me that I hope will help you too:

1. Schedule Intimacy

I resisted this for a long time because it felt super deflating. I mean, shouldn’t sex be this passionate impromptu thing between two people who find one another attractive? Well, when you have been sexually violated, your sense of agency and control over your body has been taken away from you. Being able to take control over when, where, with whom, and how you are going to engage in sexual intimacy can be a powerful way of reestablishing your ownership over your body. It also helps you mentally prepare for it so that you can make sure that you do the self-care needed to be in a good headspace before engaging.

2. Self-Care

Speaking of self-care, this may go without saying but if you aren’t doing the things that you need to do to feel at your best physically and mentally, you won’t be able to engage in sexual intimacy fully present and in the moment. For me, this includes knowing that I must take a shower immediately after sex, I have to eat relatively healthy so that I don’t feel uncomfortable in my body, I need to take my vitamins and medications, I need to exercise moderately and I need to stay away from consuming any potentially triggering media leading up to sexual intimacy.

3. Boundaries

As much as we all get sick of hearing about boundaries, when it comes to sexual intimacy this is critical. My husband knows that I cannot engage unless he is freshly showered, shaven, teeth brushed, and isn’t wearing any lotion or cologne — both of which are huge triggers for me. We also can’t have any interruptions or distractions, and the room temperature has to be right. And finally, my husband knows exactly what things will cause somatic flashbacks for me, which trigger my dissociation. Figuring this out took trial and error, but once we established them, he could navigate around them without it being a total buzzkill during sexual intimacy.

4. Communication

This is one that I admit is probably the hardest for me. We have to talk about sex when we are not engaging in sexual intimacy. Once you are in the heat of the moment, it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation about what you need and want from your partner. I find it’s awkward as hell, though, and frankly, I found that it was easiest to have these delicate conversations within the safety of a therapy session, where my therapist could navigate questions about how trauma impacts memory and physical responses, and could help contain any intense emotional reactions my husband inevitably experienced — especially those involving feeling rejected. These conversations may or may not involve explicit details about your assault or abuse, but in certain circumstances, sharing these with your partner may help strengthen your connection and help them really comprehend that your physical and emotional reactions to intimacy truly have nothing to do with them.

5. Know Your Love Language

This sounds super “woo woo,” but it actually has been quite helpful in figuring out what Emily Nagoski, author of “Come As You Are,” calls my “accelerators.” According to Nagoski, we all have sexual “brakes” and “accelerators.” For those with sexual trauma, our “brakes” are pretty sticky and we may have never truly gotten the opportunity to figure out what our “accelerators” are. Renowned relationship expert Esther Perel calls it cultivating our “eroticism” which may have nothing to do with the act of sex itself. It’s the stuff that helps us feel free, playful, engaged, and stimulated.

Understanding what these are and conveying them to our partners can help cultivate an environment of foreplay that can amplify our “accelerators” and ramp down our “brakes.” My love language happens to be “Words of Affirmation.” I need to feel appreciated and told that I’m special and worthy to feel secure and allow myself to let go of my “brakes” a bit. You can determine your love language here.

Even with all of this being said, sexual assault and abuse survivors may experience anxiety about sexual intimacy. And that may always be the case. Just like healing from trauma isn’t linear, neither is our ability to engage in sexual intimacy in a meaningful and safe way. The critical thing to focus on is that having sex is no longer something that someone else uses as a means of manipulating you or objectifying you. The ball is in your court. “No” is a perfectly acceptable response and there is no such thing as “normal” when it comes to frequency or how you engage in sexual intimacy. Let your body and your mind be your guide and never force yourself to do anything that you don’t want to.

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Unsplash

Originally published: February 3, 2022
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