Even When You’re Ready, Dating After Sexual Assault Is Complicated

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and abuse in a way that may be distressing to some readers.
Ever since she was a teenager, dating felt different for Alex*. At 13, she and her first boyfriend were on a date at the movies when he leaned in to kiss her. “I had a panic attack and ran out onto the street,” she tells Refinery29 Australia. “I had no idea why. I’d kissed him before.” Ashamed by her reaction, she didn’t tell anyone for years. “I had so much shame that I couldn’t do those things that were expected of me.”
Alex, now 30, later learned that two men in her family sexually abused her until she was 12. The memories were so traumatising that she blocked them out for most of her life. “I didn’t have any words to explain what happened until I was 19.” For years, she struggled to navigate both dating and relationships. “In my first relationships, especially around sex, it was really challenging. I had no idea how to protect myself. So I would completely dissociate and have no memories. That was really confusing.”
When we have sexual trauma, dating and intimacy can be confusing at best and spiral-inducing at worst. Especially when we’re experiencing the intense emotions that can come after sexual assault. “Feeling mistrustful, worried, or self-blaming are [some ways] sexual assault impacts people. That can make dating really difficult,” says Vincent Silk, a writer and sexual assault counsellor in Melbourne who has supported members of the queer community for a decade.
Modern dating narratives tell us to love ourselves before we date or enter a relationship. But this isn’t so straightforward for victim-survivors. Trusting and loving yourself (and others) again can be a messy process. “Sexual assault takes away so much of your power [and] personal autonomy. So sometimes it can be really hard to trust one's intuition,” Silk says. For Angus*, 30, being sexually assaulted by a man at 18 made it hard for him to trust his own sexuality and come as out as gay.
“Being my first experience, it delayed any further experiences for a long time,” he tells Refinery29 Australia. “It’s a shame because when you're young you want to have all these experiences and be comfortable dating. It took me ages to be comfortable with, trust myself and trust being in bed with another guy.”
Experts and survivors say that regaining awareness of and learning to trust ourselves again can help us embrace dating and intimacy after sexual assault. “One of the most supportive things… is to regain an awareness of what's going on with your emotions and physically,” Silk says. “If I become aware of when my heart is beating fast in an anxious way, or what's happening for me when I feel scared, I can take steps towards finding places of safety, confidence and comfort.”
Alex says that practising yoga helped her trust and feel safe in her body again. When she first started, she felt so disconnected from her body that she couldn’t identify different parts of it. “In a class, they tell you to move your left foot. I was like: ‘I feel like it's there but it's not.’ It was so bizarre,” she says. With time and practice, she gained more awareness of her body. “[That was] the biggest shift in my healing journey. Having that autonomy to know where my body is and that I have control over it.”

"We often don’t have a choice about when we recall traumatic memories. Part of our brain sends off a smoke alarm and says: 'we need to get out of here, or play dead.'"

Vincent Silk, sexual assault counsellor
Getting back in touch with yourself is one thing. But how do you know you’re ready to bring someone else into the equation and start dating? There’s no right or wrong answer, as sexual assault affects how people navigate intimacy in different ways. “For some people, it might not change very much, and for other people, it might change everything,” Freya Rose, a counselling psychotherapist, tells Refinery29 Australia. She says it’s normal to experience conflicting emotional states when we consider dating again.
“[You might] feel worried, concerned or afraid about things that might happen… On the other hand, there's probably a part of you that longs for connection, intimacy and pleasure,” Rose says. These feelings are all valid and worth listening to.
“When there's an inner conflict like this, I recommend not trying to dismiss or push through either side... [instead] separate them out and be like: ‘It’s ok, you can both be here,’” she says. “If you can listen to yourself and let each side share its perspective, that conflict tends to become more resolved.”
“Noticing internal signs of where you feel comfy, or where you feel stressed out, is a good barometer as to whether or not you want to start dating, or in what capacity,” Silk adds.
Either way, though, we shouldn’t force ourselves before we’re ready. “There might be a sense of needing to push yourself or make yourself do something. I tend to think that forcing things to happen is the enemy of good sex and intimacy,” Rose says.
Even if we feel ready for it, dating can be terrifying. “There's never going to be a situation where we're 100% in control of what’ll happen. That can be scary,” Silk says. Having a support network can alleviate those fears, especially when navigating new relationships. “If I'm thinking, ‘why haven't they texted me back?’ And then going down this spiral thinking: ‘I'm worthless, they know something bad happened to me, it's my fault’... It can be good to ask [a loved one or counsellor]: ‘Hey, I'm feeling anxious about this. Is this normal?’”
It is normal to get triggered or spiral when we start dating again. Yet navigating your triggers alongside a hot date or new partner can be hard. “We often don’t have a choice about when we recall traumatic memories,” Silk says. “Part of our brain sends off a smoke alarm and says: ‘We need to get out of here, or play dead.’” Our well-founded fears of getting triggered are often at odds with our desire to start dating again. “In dating, you have to be spontaneous and go places where you're not sure whether there’s going to be triggers. You can't always live a life where you're not going to run into one,” Alex says.
While we can’t always know when we’ll get triggered, we can prepare ourselves for it. Rose points out that the main trigger responses are fight, flight, freeze and fawn. “It’s worth thinking about how each of those can show up in a sexual context, and what you might do about them,” she says. For example, if you think you (or your partner) might freeze during intimacy, you can use shorthands to communicate when that happens. “A simple one is Marco Polo,” Rose says. “You establish that at any time, one person can call Marco and the other person responds with Polo… If you call Marco and the other person says nothing, you know they've frozen and everything needs to stop.”
Rose also recommends the traffic light system and Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent for navigating consent and triggers. She also suggests trying to understand the cause of your triggers. “[Is it] coming from the other person, me, or the dynamic between us? Is there any sense that I don't have a choice? Or that if I didn't have sex the outcome would be bad?” she asks. “If something like that is present, it's highly likely that's playing a role in triggering the shutdown.”

"Identify what you need to feel safe and telegraph your expectations clearly. The people who aren't good enough for you will drop away."

When it comes to dating and intimacy, we all feel comforted or triggered by different things. And whether we’ve experienced sexual assault or not, we all have boundaries. Experts agree that it can be healthy to communicate these with new partners early on. “[Establish] ways of communicating where it's clear for both parties that it's okay to ask about things that you want to do, and say no to things that you don't want to do,” Rose says. Silk explains it can be helpful to write your boundaries down, and plan what you might do if you find yourself with someone who won’t accommodate them.
By the same token, it’s important to recognise what feels good for you. “Sometimes when we talk about sexual assault, we forget to talk about pleasure or desire,” Silk says. He recommends writing down the things you enjoy or want to do. “It doesn't have to be explicit. It could be kissing, holding hands, or cuddling,” he says. “Slowing down, going back to the basic experiences of touch, and building up from there can really help,” Rose says.
If you’re navigating your trauma alongside a new fling or partner, there may come a time when you want to tell them about your experiences. “Speaking about a trauma reopens the door to that experience emotionally. Depending on how the other person reacts, [that can] create either an opportunity for healing or re-traumatisation,” Rose says. If you’re unsure about sharing, there are ways to tell how someone might respond beforehand.
“Signs that somebody is supportive are if they're calm when they receive information that might be difficult for them to process,” Silk says. “There are ways you can flag that these issues are important to you. You can use language like ‘enthusiastic consent’ and ‘safety’, when talking about sex and intimacy. If it makes sense to them, they’re listening, or you can tell it's important to them, those are good signs,” Rose says. She also says you can test the waters by stating a small, personal boundary —whether it’s not wanting to go to a particular venue, or do an intimate act. “Try saying ‘no’ and see how they react,” she says. “You can tell an awful lot about someone by how they react to your very first boundary.”
Sexual trauma can leave us feeling like we’re unworthy of intimacy, pleasure and love. But this is far from the case. Indeed, experts agree that healthy love (whether platonic, intimate or familial) helps us heal from sexual trauma. “Harm happens in a relationship. So it makes sense that our healing and our recovery is going to happen in a relationship,” Silk says. “Therapy is really helpful. But people who can’t access therapy fully recover from sexual assault through finding places of safety… where their experience can be seen, held and validated. That might be through friends, connecting with other survivors, or both,” Rose says.
Experts and victim-survivors also agree that having sexual trauma doesn’t mean you should lower your standards. “Identify what you need to feel safe and telegraph your expectations clearly. The people who aren't good enough for you will drop away,” Rose says. “There are people out there that you can date who are lovely, accepting and considerate. So you don’t have to put up with people who aren't,” adds Angus.
Today, Alex is happy to be with a partner who makes her feel safe as she works through her trauma. “He understands that it's not who I am. There's something that's happened and I have to navigate that,” she says. “It doesn't really go away. A new experience can bring up different parts of it that you've not dealt with, and you kind of do it all over again. But you get better at it.”
*Names have been changed for confidentiality
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual 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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