DEAR DR. JENN,
I experienced sexual assault in college, and never really talked about it. I wanted to move on as quickly as possible in my life and I kind of did. I had some short relationships and a lot of hookups afterwards. And since the person was totally out of my life I felt fine being around men. But now I am in a serious relationship, and am starting to have a hard time with sex. I am hardly ever in the mood, I react differently to being touched. My boyfriend is really understanding and supportive but he wants me to tell him what I need, and I don’t even know how to explain what the problem is. —Me Too
DEAR ME TOO,
Based on your signoff you likely know just how common sexual assault is, meaning you are far from alone in what you experienced. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), a person experiences sexual assault every 73 seconds in the United States — one out of every six American women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. And research shows a vast majority of sexual assault survivors will go on to experience PTSD, which can manifest in many, many ways, including a delayed-reaction response like what you’re describing in your current sex life.
To broaden the experience a little bit beyond the one you've written about, it has been estimated that one in five girls and one in six boys have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse. Because sexual abuse involves unwanted or inappropriate touch or exposure, usually from trusted people, it can impact intimate relationships in the survivor's life for years to come.
In situations where one or both partners in a relationship have experienced childhood sexual abuse, or rape or sexual assault later in life, it usually takes a lot of therapy to work through the trauma. A violation of that magnitude can impact every aspect of someone's life. These affects don’t always hit immediately after the trauma, but can arise later, as yours have. Getting professional support is of the utmost importance, and it is never too late to do so.
Some survivors experience a surge of sexual feelings or behavior, and seem to "act out," by hooking up with many people, or behaving in a sexually carefree kind of way; others shut down, feeling less arousal, or even upset and uncomfortable around the idea of sex. Anything in this range, and beyond it, is a normal reaction. Below is a list of ways your sex life might be affected by going through trauma.
Common responses to sexual trauma that affect intimacy:
- Discomfort with certain areas of the body or certain sex acts
- Hyper-sexual behavior or low arousal
- Difficulty reaching orgasm
- Disassociating or disengaging emotionally during sex
- The need to be in control
- Difficulty trusting a partner
In addition to therapy, there are a few things you can do.
1. Connect with your body. When a person experiences sexual trauma, they learn to disassociate from their body. Take five minutes every day to do a body scan meditation to get more in touch.
2. Try not to spectator. When you have experienced trauma, you are more likely to get out of the moment of pleasure and get in your head. This can come in the form of self-criticism or just disconnection; it's more of a self-judgment or insecure feeling than it is disassociating, but the same person can experience both. You can find some tips on how to stop spectatoring in my column on that topic.
3. Talk with your partner about your trauma and triggers. In order to avoid your partner doing something that could scare you or cause a flashback, it is important to discuss what smells, positions, words or activities are triggering for you. It is also okay — even helpful — to talk through the unknowns. Maybe sex was feeling good and then something changed which made you uncomfortable; can you pinpoint together what that was? Just because you aren't yet aware of your triggers doesn't mean you don't have them. Some partners of survivors can tell when "something's up," or notice when their significant other is disassociating during intimate conversations or moments. They should be an ally while you figure this all out.
4. Focus on pleasure over orgasm. Take the pressure off of yourself to have an orgasm. It is not uncommon for survivors to have trouble having an orgasm, especially when they are processing the trauma. Feeling pressure to finish (especially in a performative way) tends to scare orgasms away. Try to relax, as much as possible, and allow yourself to enjoy pleasurable sensations. This might might mean enjoying some sensations on your own.
5. Take things slow. Even if you and your partner have been having sex for years, you may need to pull back or slow down. Feeling in control of your sexual experiences is really important right now. This might not be a linear path, and you may feel comfortable speeding up or slowing down at different times of the year, or over the years, as you process what you've been through. Again, talking through these changes as they come up will help your partner understand how to be responsive to your needs.
6. Prioritize self-care. Make sure you are eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. In some survivors, there is a tendency to want to escape into drugs and alcohol. Avoiding feelings does not make them go away, though, and if you find yourself exploring substances in this way, I would doubly suggest seeking therapy to help work through why, and what else you can do.
It is very possible to have a great sex life after trauma. In order to get there you need to have great communication, a willingness to work on yourself, and a compassionate partner — not to mention compassion for yourself. The trauma may very well have changed your life, but you are still in there. And your capacity for a fulfilling sex life is, too.