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What Sex After Sexual Assault Is Really Like

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One in three women is sexually abused in her lifetime — and yet we never talk about what that means for their sex lives. We’re too afraid to mention rape and pleasure in the same sentence. But, this scared silence only makes it harder for survivors to find their way to sexual satisfaction.
It was less than a week since Donna had collected her bloody clothing from the floor of her attacker’s basement apartment, after he'd spiked her drink at a bar. So little time had passed since the rape that Donna's body was still covered in bruises from the hours-long assault — and yet, she wanted to have sex. She wanted to reclaim it.
Her then-boyfriend, Steve, was wary of getting physical so soon after the assault, but Donna remembers telling him, “It’s important for me that rape and sex are not the same thing.” So, reluctantly, he agreed. They stripped off their clothes. As Donna puts it, “I don’t really remember having sex with him,” she says. “I kind of came to afterward in the bathroom.” She describes the experience as a traumatic out-of-body flashback.
In the following weeks, as she began to process what had happened to her, Donna says the sex with her boyfriend became less painful. “I think I was healthier about boundaries and [better at] explaining to him what I needed and what was okay.” But, it wasn’t until that relationship ended and Donna met her now-husband that things really returned to normal. “He’s very passive — his personality, but sexually as well,” she says. “He’s not a dominant force and, for me, that was something I needed. I needed to feel safe.”
Looking back now, nine years later, it’s clear to Donna that she wasn’t ready to reclaim her sex life just a week after the assault. But, at the time, something was pushing her forward. “I was clinging to every little thing I could hold onto of myself, because I felt so much had been taken away from me that night, and I needed to know that I would come out the other side and still be me,” Donna explains. Wendy Maltz, a sex therapist and author of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, says some survivors are inclined to speed toward recovery, but most need weeks, maybe months, before sex itself doesn’t feel traumatic.
This is the complicated aftermath of sexual assault that is hardly ever talked about — even in our current climate of unprecedented public discourse about rape. In recent months, the media has been dominated by coverage of sexual assault accusations against celebrities (such as Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi), debate over a Rolling Stone feature on campus sexual assault, and footage of students at Columbia University carrying mattresses to class in solidarity with a female accuser. But, discussions about sexual recovery after assault? Those remain taboo.
There is good reason for that: Women are still fighting to improve legal definitions of sexual consent, and they're putting pressure on universities to take assault accusations seriously. Relative to those battles, discussions about sexual pleasure can seem kind of small. And, survivor advocates have faced some difficulty getting the general public to understand that sexual assault is about power and violence, which inherently makes many people uncomfortable connecting rape to healthy sex lives. As Donna says, though, “For victims, it’s not that separate; one is going to impact the other.”
Even now, nearly nine years later, Donna finds herself interrogating her turn-ons. She likes it when her husband has sex with her from behind, which is how she came to during her rape, with her attacker penetrating her in that way. “Do I want to have sex like that because I like it, or do I want to have sex like that because I need to process something? You second-guess your own desires.” Donna doesn’t expect that to ever disappear.
After more than 30 years of counseling survivors, Maltz has found that sexual assault “is a direct hit to the most core, fundamental part of yourself. No wonder the repercussions radiate out in so many ways.” Those repercussions can range from fear to vaginal pain to emotional distance during sex. In the wake of an assault, some women become hyper-sexual, but it’s more common for them to withdraw from sex altogether. And, these are only generalizations about recovery: There are as many different symptoms and coping strategies as there are survivors.
Alex was raped at age 17 by her ex-boyfriend, whom she later consented to having sex with on several occasions as a way to try to “take control of what had happened.” After the end of that relationship — during which she learned to close her eyes, clench her fists, and wait for sex to be over — she turned to BDSM. This was in part because, as Alex puts it, power dynamics were what she knew. BDSM allowed her to have more authority in her encounters. “Even as the sexual submissive, BDSM gave me a way to dictate how sex would go,” the 26-year-old explains. That’s because kink, when done respectfully, involves clear boundary-setting and safe words. (Of course, not everyone who pursues BDSM has a history of abuse. At least one study has found that for most practitioners, it isn’t a “pathological symptom of past trauma.")
Then, Alex met her current partner, who was uninterested in the BDSM lifestyle. She began to explore a different side of her sexuality. “I learned to laugh while having sex,” she says. And, I started concentrating on what actually felt good — for the first time,” she says.
Maltz says that survivors often have to “relearn touch,” as she puts it. She’s developed a series of techniques to help women relax and stay present during sex. The process starts out with very simple, non-threatening exercises — for example, she recommends simply using your finger to draw messages on your partner’s back. Only after survivors conquer these non-sexual exercises does Maltz suggest moving on to techniques involving nudity and sexual play. “The sexual abuse takes place on a physical plane, so it has lots of physical associations,” she says. “You have to create a new file with associations to touch.”
Too often, this is the piece of recovery that is ignored, Maltz explains. “Even therapists often think, ‘Oh, if we just deal with the feelings about the abuse, that will be enough to heal these sexual problems.’ That's important, but it’s not the whole story,” Maltz says.
Of course, before embarking on this healing process, a woman has to first tell her sexual partner — and that can be difficult. Alex avoided revealing to her partner that she had been assaulted until five years ago. When she told him, he "just put his arm around me and held me in silence,” she says. They didn’t speak of it again until just last year, and she’s been sparse with the details. “He and I have never had the conversation about how or why or what, really,” she says. “My intuition says that he doesn't want to go there, only because it hurts when someone you love is hurting.”
Maltz says that it’s best to introduce the topic in very general terms. “For example, a survivor might say, 'I was sexually harmed in the past,’” she says. “Then, in time, you might share more details slowly, as trust develops, and [if] you feel good about your partner's response. Giving a partner some type of heads-up about the importance of approaching sex sensitively can save a lot of unnecessary grief and divisiveness."
Not all survivors find their sexuality so changed after assault, though. Mary was abused starting at age four, by her mother’s boyfriend. He would take baths with her and created a game that involved her touching his penis. Mary suspects this is why she hates giving hand jobs. “When men have grabbed my hand and put it on their erection, I recoil,” she says. “I mean, I know it's there, dude; I'll touch it when and how and if I want to.”
Other than that — and an aversion to facial hair, because her abuser had “a very scratchy beard” — Mary says her sex life has largely been untouched by the abuse. “I have always liked sex, and was lucky enough to have partners who knew what they were doing or were willing to learn,” she says. “Honestly, giving birth vaginally to a nine-pound-12-ounce child was far more detrimental to my ability to achieve orgasm than anything else ever has been.”
Given the range of repercussions, it might seem difficult to define what healthy sex looks like for survivors. Maltz puts it in broad and simple terms: It’s something that feels “wanted and pleasurable.” Still, getting there can be tough. Her basic advice: “Learn everything you can. Educate yourself. Seek professional help from someone who's worked with survivors of abuse.”
Ultimately, though, “you kind of have to fight for it,” says Maltz. “Get spunky about your right to a healthy sexuality. You're entitled to experience sex in a positive way, with care and respect. You don't have to let the abuse be the last word.”
One way to help survivors have the last word is for us as a culture to talk openly about the sexual aftermath of abuse. At a time of unparalleled attention towards rape, we need to make space to speak — not only about policies and legislation that protect women, but also about survivors' often-difficult journeys to reclaim their sex lives.
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