Pleasure after trauma: navigating sex after assault
In my early twenties I found myself in an abusive relationship. In the midst of it all, I felt I was constantly on the back foot in understanding the emotional, physical and sexual violence I was experiencing in real time. I had also become extremely isolated from my friends and family and I didn’t know where to turn to for help. I was incredibly fortunate to meet a friend who could recognise the situation from the outside, talk with me about what I was going through, and support me in moving beyond it.
In 2020 I was sexually assaulted on a date with somebody I met through an app. Again, it took me some time to be able to find the words to fit around the assault to process it myself, let alone to express it to my loved ones or my therapist.
In trying to process these experiences, I read other people’s stories of assault, particularly to try to get a sense for what my way forward might look like.
In trying to process these experiences, I read other people’s stories of assault, particularly to try to get a sense for what my way forward might look like. While there is a lot out there that I have connected with, the majority of accessible writing about life after sexual assault focuses on the status of victim or survivor, on the trauma that arises from violence, and on social and political dynamics between men and women.
While I’m sure such writing can be hugely beneficial for opening conversations around surviving sexual assault, it is hard for me to connect with. I am queer and both of the people who have abused or assaulted me are also part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Further, for all of the pain that these experiences have caused me, sex has remained important to me, and the favoured narrative in mainstream media seems to presume that the most significant barrier to intimacy after sexual assault is rediscovering desire.
While I’m sure such writing can be hugely beneficial for opening conversations around surviving sexual assault, it is hard for me to connect with. I am queer and both of the people who have abused or assaulted me are also part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Despite these gaps in the cultural narrative, when I’ve spoken to other queer survivors, especially queer femmes, I have seen my own experiences reflected in theirs. This is what I’ve learnt:
I share different parts of my story depending on the person. My therapist knows the most about the traumatic elements, my friends and loved ones know the most about how it affects my mood day-to-day, and my partners know the most about what my desires and triggers are.
This, too, is an important point: trust yourself. Surviving sexual abuse and assault can lead to feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt. It is as much a psychological violation as it is a physical violation, and this can make it hard to trust your instincts, maintain your boundaries, and feel confident in your decisions. But, have faith in yourself and listen to what your feelings tell you. This applies to both negative and positive feelings: if you think something might be a red flag, trust that feeling, and similarly if you feel good about a partner or potential partner, you don’t need to second guess it or overthink it. To pass on some excellent advice a friend recently gave me: you are allowed to make the same silly decisions anyone else makes. Hypervigilance and caution can be protective in some ways, but if you make sure you tune into your good feelings as well as your bad feelings, you’ll only get better at understanding both. Practice is key here, and over time your confidence and self-belief will only grow, which will make it easier to be secure in your feelings and to seek out what feels good to you.
To pass on some excellent advice a friend recently gave me: you are allowed to make the same silly decisions anyone else makes.
Finally: prioritise your pleasure. I mean this in all senses. The best dates, the best sex, and the best relationships (of whatever sort you might be looking for) will naturally be with partners who are enthusiastic about what you like, what you want, and what feels good for you. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t also be generous, respectful, and attentive with your partners, but this will come to you organically. After having had traumatic experiences where your pleasure was disregarded, putting yourself first will only be healthy for you and your partners. More importantly, it is what you deserve. Exploring genuine pleasure with partners who are as invested in your pleasure as much they are in theirs is not only healing – it is joyful, and you deserve joy.
Exploring genuine pleasure with partners who are as invested in your pleasure as much they are in theirs is not only healing – it is joyful, and you deserve joy.
Navigating sex after assault is complicated, but it becomes a lot easier to do when you feel safe, supported, and sure of yourself. As with all healing, this is not a linear process, and you don’t need to feel like you’re 100% ‘there’ in order to pursue new romantic and sexual connections. What is important is to have structures in place in your own mind as well as in your relationships to check in with yourself, check in with your partners, and to feel comfortable and confident in your sexuality. Take the rest as it comes.
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