Reconnecting With Sexuality After Sexual Trauma

The violence and impact of sexual assault stretches way further than just the incident, and has a tremendous influence on every aspect of your life. Read how Anna Wim dealt with the aftermath of their sexual trauma, and what lead them to rediscovering a good relationship with sex again.

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It happened 7 years ago. I realized it 6 years later. While it might not be the sexual assault story we usually are presented with, it is actually very common. Rape doesn’t only happen in poor-lit back alleys, by masked strangers, leaving you covered in bruises and scratches. Thanks to the immense grip of rape culture and normalization of sexual coercion so rifle in our society, often, it is hard to realize that not all assault is the scary, violent incident, and rather resembles a lot of what is actually portrayed as hot and “normal” sex in movies, TV shows, or books. Messages that encourage (mainly) cis men to just try until their partner gives in, highlight spur of the moment, no-talking-or-asking-for-consent-involved sex, and center heterosexual penis-in-vagina penetration without any foreplay or added lubricant, all contribute to the climate in which sexual assault can breed without ever being noticed.

When it happened to me, it was during my first sexual experience. It hurt, but my whole life I was fed with stories of how your first (penetrative) time was “supposed” to hurt, and how bleeding was “normal”, so I didn’t make much of it. I had always struggled with vaginismus, so I just assumed all the discomfort, pain, and later bruising was due to that. Even though I was already dipping my toes into becoming a sex educator back then, I did not see anything wrong with the lack of any sort of consent discussion, the person never informing me about not using a condom, the virtually zero interest in my pleasure, or that I was so heavily intoxicated I was actually unable to give consent to begin with. This very first experience set precedent for everything that followed: encounters filled with coercion, inability to say no, lack of focus on my wishes and needs.

The Aftermath

But somehow, at one point, something clicked in me, and I realized what my first time really was, and how much it influenced me in my later sex life. And if I said it broke me down, shattered me to pieces, I would not be lying. Let alone the fact that I could not understand how I, a sex educator, could miss this obvious truth for so long, I was puzzled by what sex really could be, whilst my body felt like it wasn’t mine and every catcall on the street or wandering eye sent me into panic mode. I started having flashbacks during sex with my partner, dissociated a lot, and was unable to voice my desires much more than ever before. I struggled with dressing myself, because nothing felt right on my body. I felt so used—and abused—and disconnected with the reality around me. At times, I felt like I didn’t want anyone to touch me, whether sexually or not. It was rough.

The Healing Work

Since I’m a writer by profession, my first step towards healing was to write it all. I wrote a recounting of the initial experience, now through the lens of realization and trauma-awareness, a list of all the other instances in which my consent was crossed, a hateful letter to the perpetrator that I never intended to send. I talked about it with people around me, I shared it online, I researched self help articles and books. Still, sex was weird to say the least. My libido would change drastically, my mind would simply tap out after a few minutes of partnered sex, my desire to masturbate was non-existent. And the issues with feeling good in my body persisted.

After a while, I realized I was unable to get through it on my own. Sure, I did have a great support system around me, and I even regularly visited a psychotherapist, but I needed someone really specialized in sexual abuse to help me heal. So I found a sex and intimacy therapist and soon we were sitting opposite of each other, me sharing all my thoughts, them guiding me through the work I had to do. My therapist encouraged me to have conversations about my thoughts during sex outside of the bedroom, to come up with safety signals to show my partner when I wanted something to change or stop but was unable to say it out loud (which would happen to me a lot), to practice saying “no” and “stop” in non-sexual settings to get used to it. We talked, or rather I did, a lot, tracing the long line of trauma and how it impacted my being unable to advocate for myself during sex, and how to make the bold, scary, difficult step forward, out of the trauma-influenced road.

The New Reality

I would love to say that everything is a-okay now, trust me, I really would. But trauma after sexual assault is complex and intricate, and it’s not easy to heal from it. I still get incredibly sad and dissociated when I think of how many people only saw me as a body to (ab)use, I struggle with my body image, I get distracted during sex and find it difficult to voice my own need or boundary. But I am coping; much, much better.

I have incorporated a non-verbal safe word gesture into sexual encounters, a simple tap on the other person, as a way to indicate when something isn’t right but I’m unable to say it. Once that is performed, everything stops, and there is a talk about how to proceed – sometimes it means the end of that sexy session, sometimes just a shift in position. Being able to pause and have a moment dedicated only to my safety and comfort is so important, and makes me feel so much safer.

I try to inform my partner of how I feel about sex when some mood change appears: now I don’t want any penetration, now I do, now I’d rather just masturbated on my own but you can watch me. Speaking of which, I have been embracing mutual masturbation as a form of partnered sex, bringing in my favorite toys, to get used to the concept of associating sex with my own pleasure too. Erotic massages, either solo or by my partner, have been of great help as well – not only do they make me feel much more present in my own body, they bring a new pleasurable sensation.

There is still so much work for me to do, but I know I have the right tools now. I have the understanding of the concept that I deserve pleasure, and that sex is not supposed to hurt, and I also have methods like safe words or using sex toys to give me more autonomy of my body during sex. It will take a while, but it will be better.

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