How It Feels To Put Yourself Out There Again After Leaving An Abusive Relationship

Content warning: This article details instances of sexual assault and domestic abuse and may be distressing to some readers. 
When's the last time you did something that scared the shit out of you?
I'll start. Writing this article is in my top three, together with watching Mars Attacks! at a young age, getting my abuser the wrong orange juice, and this one: admitting to being sexually trafficked when I was 19. 
I've spent 10 years trying to hide it. They say the reason traffic jams are more likely to happen at an accident is because people slow down to see the gruesome aftermath of what happened. But this article won't be that. I don't want to share that story, and I also can't see how it would be pertinent here.
Yet, it did happen. I was young, and easily impressed by a bouquet of roses being delivered to my workplace. I thought guys my age were boring, and I felt like I knew it all.
I thought I had caused what was happening to me, and that I was the culprit of my own disgrace. I also remember Googling whether I was in an abusive relationship, as my mind couldn't wrap itself around it.
This story is not about painting myself as a victim or a heroine; it's about acknowledging a time in my life when things were messy and confusing. And while there's no sugarcoating or romanticising what happened, there's also no shame in admitting that I've moved on.
I've had enough of making up stories about my past, feeling like a deliberate liar, and constantly fearful of having my timeline exposed. It's a weight that's followed me in both casual conversations and deeper connections.
Dating adds another layer of complexity. Having to open up to new potential partners about what happened and why I'm triggered by certain things is no small task.
Some triggers might seem trivial, like being patted on the back or receiving a message filled with 'x's. Then there's the inexplicable disdain I have for anyone wearing a Ralph Lauren polo shirt. These might seem like peculiar hang-ups, but they are pieces of the puzzle that make up who I am. They're the small reminders of a bigger picture, one that I'm learning to see without distortion or shame.
What's it like dating after being sexually trafficked? And how do you keep a part of your life that, even after 10 years, remains so prevalent in everything you are?
The short answer is: I don’t know. I ask myself that nearly every day and, if I'm being really honest with myself, holding onto this secret has made me feel like I was in control of it for the longest time. It made me feel that this secret was mine alone, and nobody could ever hurt me with it or ever truly know the reason behind my seemingly minor triggers.
That if it was my secret, at least I had that; the one thing that was mine that no one could forcefully take from me. But I feel it's time to accept that at 19, even if I believed I knew everything I needed, I truly didn't. I am at a stage where I feel like I need to embrace what happened, love myself and manage to close that chapter.
Now, I'm navigating a dating scene that feels like walking through a minefield of memories and triggers. It's not just about getting to know someone, but also about gauging when and how to share pieces of my past without making it the centrepiece of every conversation, making every date, message and gesture feel like a balancing act.
Sure, there are those little red flags I've learned to watch out for: the too-quick compliments, the stories where he's always the hero or the victim, the subtle digs at my choices — but more than anything, it's about listening to my gut. After all, if I've learned anything from my past, it's to trust my instincts more. 
Then, there's the casual side of dating: the late-night texts, spontaneous plans, and flirting. In those moments, I sometimes find myself pausing, hesitating, thinking: "What if they knew?". Yet, I refuse to let those thoughts hold me back. Instead, I treat them as gentle reminders to stay authentic, to not lose myself in the process of getting to know someone else.
And, surprisingly, there are moments of unexpected clarity and genuine connection. Moments when I feel seen, understood, and appreciated, not for my past, but for who I am now. It's these moments, no matter how fleeting, that keep me hopeful, keep me going, and remind me that while my past is a chapter in my story, it isn't the entire book.
Realising the implications of the trauma took years. Grasping its influence on my sexuality, my interactions with others, and my mental health is an ongoing process. Writing this story is definitely a step in the journey of acceptance.
My experience has shaped my relationship with intimacy in ways that one might not expect — it doesn’t scare me or bring me to tears and drag me back to that dark past. Instead, I see it as something I don't truly own. My attraction wanes after the initial months. I find myself more intrigued by what my partner desires than what I want, like I’m performing an act and pretending to be someone else; to just get it over with.
Carrying such emotional baggage has led to the end of many relationships. From those who discovered it snooping through my phone notes and felt entitled to guilt-trip me, to those I confided in, only to be misunderstood and have my secret weaponised against me.
As I approach 30, I find myself in relationships where I owe nothing to anyone, where intimacy feels like a task, and the mere thought of a future with someone feels suffocating.
After such a tumultuous past, dating becomes a minefield, and trust becomes a rare commodity. My survival instincts have, for a long time, determined my actions, often pushing me into situations that might seem paradoxical. For instance, while the idea of being in a room alone with a man can flood me with unease, I've felt an unexpected and inexplicable urge to act out when merely grocery shopping with my mother. And, oddly enough, I've found myself increasingly drawn to understanding men over 40. As they navigate the complex waters of ageing, I'm intrigued: how do they reconcile with their changing roles in society and the inevitable march of time? Still, their journey remains a curiosity I've yet to fully understand.
After a decade, I've started to discern a faint silver lining in the events that transpired — or perhaps, what I allowed to transpire. I'm still navigating the tumultuous waters of blame, wrestling with whether I should feel at fault or not.
But I have a keenly honed ability to recognise the flags that are straight out of what I believe to be an abuser’s playbook. Alarm bells sound if someone lovebombs me, or if every celebration is spoiled to centre around them. If they recount tales where they're consistently the hero and yet, somehow, always the victim or talk about their exes as if they're all unhinged. If they're friendless and assure you that age is just a number, or if they loathe your friends, seeking to distance you from those who care about you.
Dating now is a delicate balance. I'm on my toes, thinking twice before swiping right, and while a bouquet of flowers might remind me of a more naive time, it's also a reminder to recognise how far I've come and to always read the fine print behind a grand gesture.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. 
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