While all forms of trauma are damaging, a trauma that results from sexual violence impacts the body and mind uniquely. A main concern of survivors of sexual abuse is how to move on and connect with others in an intimate way without being triggered. Often, after a sexual assault, boundaries become confused and survivors either isolate themselves, in fear that they will be harmed again. Or at times, survivors could exhibit inappropriately sexualized behavior, crossing boundaries which should not be crossed, creating an unhealthy relationship.
Survivors of sexual violence may be physically or emotionally retraumatized when engaging in sex with a partner. Often, they do not want to discuss this detachment, or avoidance of intimacy with their partner, which can lead their partner to feel confused or rejected. This lack of communication, and difficulty feeling safe discussing emotions can cause obstacles in a survivor’s relationship and level of intimacy.
So how can a survivor move on after facing a sexual trauma? In my work as a clinical psychologist for almost 20 years as well as working as an expert witness with sexual assault survivors, I have helped many people cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after experiencing sexual trauma. The following are some ways that survivors can work on moving forward after experiencing trauma:
First, understand, in your head and in your heart, what happened was not your fault. Not any part of it.
In order for survivors to regain control over their relationships and their sex lives, they need to recognize that they are not to blame for any part of the trauma. This may be obvious to the outside person. But to the survivor, thoughts of shame and guilt are a constant concern as one doubts themselves and wonders “What if I did not go that night? Would this not have happened? Or What if I had run away or told him no, etc.”
In order to move forward, the survivor must absolve themselves of all guilt and shame and wrongdoing. It is not your fault.
Establishing Appropriate Boundaries is the Key to a Healthy Relationship
When a person experiences a sexual trauma, boundaries in relationships are often confused. The survivor does not know who they can trust and their world can appear unsafe. The survivor can have difficulty knowing how much to share with a person and when to hold back. At times, survivors have experiences where they share their story and get judged, blamed, or rejected, causing them to further retreat and socially isolate. Survivors can develop narratives such as “The world is not safe.” “I cannot trust anyone.”
In order for survivors to heal, it is important for them to feel safe enough to not only communicate their story to their partner, but also to express when they are feeling insecure, anxious, or need a break. Their partner will help give them the space that they need to create appropriate boundaries, feel that they are heard, and go at the pace that they need, in order to form a trusting bond which will allow for communication and intimacy to occur.
Learn What it is Like to Feel Pleasure Again
The first step for a survivor in terms of intimacy, is to be able to experience sex without having flashbacks or thinking about the trauma. The hope and goal is that the survivor will get to the point where he/she will be able to be mindful, in the moment, focusing on feeling pleasure as well as giving pleasure to the person that they love.
At times, survivors get to an in-between stage where they can experience sex without having flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts, but have difficulty feeling passion or pleasure. They can feel safe in their mind, but are just going through the motions and are giving pleasure to be a good partner. But their own pleasure is missing. Through therapy, the survivor can explore narratives, thoughts and feelings, while re-learning little by little what it feels like to feel pleasure again.
If you experienced a sexual trauma and are exhibiting symptoms, know that you are not alone. There is hope and light beyond your current state of mind.