Sex After Sexual Assault: Empowering Survivors to Explore Sexuality Safely
Content Warning: This article deals with sex, sexual assault, trauma, and BDSM/kink. Use discretion in reading further.
Sex is inherently vulnerable. Sex is not, and should not be, inherently frightening. Intimacy often comes with exposure, but should never evoke fear or dread. Sex should not mean succumbing but rather allowing.
Sometimes, our bodies are the only things that feel like they are truly ours, and letting someone in requires lowered defenses. For survivors of sexual assault, intimacy means choosing to be ultra-vulnerable; their bodies may feel like they are not entirely theirs.
Sexual assault is not a solitary issue, no matter how isolating it may feel for a survivor. For college students, especially queer folks and gender minorities, sexual assault is unfortunately common. Dismissal of queer sexual assault both by members of the LGBTQAI2S+ community and by those outside it is prevalent, with disbelief of queer, trans, and non-binary experiences on both sides of the aisle. In general, according to the National Sexual Violence Research Center:
20% - 25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college
27% of college women have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact
Nearly two thirds of college students experience sexual harassment
But there is strength in numbers, and no survivor is alone. We are and can be strong, and can lead healthy and happy sex lives—here are some ways how.
Many survivors feel shame that can last a lifetime after an assault. Some don’t disclose their status as a survivor due to the compounded stigma of sex and sexual assault in their communities. Family members and friends often make judgements based on cultural values about sex, making sexual assault a further complicated issue to broach. Some survivors also feel guilt and confusion about their own sexual desire after assault, feeling ineligible to a positive bodily experience. A healthy and safe sex life can be one way to gradually process the shame or guilt of a sexual assault.
Approaching sex as or with a survivor of sexual assault is not easy, but it doesn’t have to be hard. Healthy sexuality with anyone should include the same primary principle—open and honest communication.
First: Communicate Clearly
For many survivors, explicit verbal consent is essential to create a safe sexual experience. Frequent check-ins during sex can be helpful in addition to communication about boundaries and needs beforehand. Not only does verbal communication establish enthusiastic and comfortable consent, but it can improve safety by ensuring both partners are genuinely experiencing pleasure. Asking a partner what they like, if they like what you’re doing, or if they would like something else prioritizes affirmative consent and mutual pleasure.
Despite good intentions, however, constant verbal communication can feel for some survivors like a partner is treading too carefully, almost as if they view the survivor as broken or fragile. Having a discussion ahead of time about non-verbal cues can promote normalcy for a survivor, as well as alleviate such inadvertent feelings. Asking, for example, “If you were enjoying yourself, what would that look like to me?” can confirm consent while allowing the survivor room to move past their assault and avoid unintended over-caution.
Communication is also crucial in preventing dissociation, when survivors may struggle to remain present during sexual experiences. The link between mental health and sexual assault is overwhelmingly clear; post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are common among survivors of sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 81% of women and 35% of men reported PTSD or similar significant short- or long-term impacts after assault. In addition, survivors may feel an overall loss of control during sexual experiences. Due to past trauma, a survivor may be negatively affected by sexual contact alone, not just specific triggers. Letting someone touch their body can feel overwhelming to some survivors. Check-ins and monitoring non-verbal cues are important methods to help confirm the survivor is still present and enjoying their sexual experience.
Another important piece of sexuality for survivors is trauma-related triggers. A trigger can be a number of things, such as a gesture, a sexual act, a setting, an object, a word or phrase, or more. These things ‘trigger’ or generate an emotional or mental response in a survivor that can bring back traumatic memories, cause dissociation, increase anxiety, and overall hinder a sexual experience. While triggers don’t affect every survivor and can affect survivors to varying degrees, it is important to openly discuss specific sexual circumstances that could be triggers even in a safe environment. Discussion of known triggers ahead of time can establish specific areas, actions, or words that are off limits, allowing for clearer boundaries and better communication overall. The important thing a partner can do is be attentive before and during a sexual experience, listening to their partner and their needs.
Taking Control and Reframing Sex as a Survivor
It is undoubtedly important to follow the lead of the survivor and clarify wants and needs in terms of communication. This can be in part because control and bodily autonomy are sometimes imperative to survivors in their sex lives moving forward. This control can take a variety of forms—explicit communication, as mentioned, could be one example. Control could also be established by gradually physically progressing at whatever speed is comfortable for the survivor, either independently or together with a partner. Survivors may also benefit from self-care methods like taking a bath to increase comfort with their naked body, or masturbation to explore sexuality safely. With a partner, starting with something like holding hands or a back rub could help establish trust and intimacy before a sexual encounter in order to prioritize the survivor’s agency and wellbeing.
Sex toys can also be a vital part of self-exploration and sex with a partner to provide control and a safer experience. Naked contact or sexual intimacy can feel foreign or overwhelming to some survivors after assault, despite a desire to have sexual experiences. Using sex toys can create a safe and pleasurable barrier between the survivor and their partner, allowing a physical and mental separation between the survivor’s naked body and someone else’s. Sometimes the specific nature of a survivor’s assault can make certain bodily contact triggering, like penetration with fingers, an object, or a penis, for example. In this instance, sex toys that focus primarily on external simulation could be a helpful addition to that survivor’s sexual exploration, allowing them to concentrate on pleasure without triggering trauma. In addition to enhancing a partnered sexual experience, sex toys can be effective tools for explorative masturbation, an important tactic to foster self-care, self-love, and self-familiarization. One caveat: with sex toys, it can be crucial to be mindful of how the toy looks or feels. Consider using toys that, for example, are not similar to any human skin color or do not resemble a phallic object, if those are triggers for the individual survivor.
No survivor has to engage with their sexuality, but many choose to reframe sex after sexual assault by prioritizing communication and pleasure. For some, this means a redefinition of sex itself, the focus becoming not on orgasm or any specific acts, but simply on a consensual experience of pleasure. Some survivors may view orgasm as a loss of control, a vulnerable moment in which they are not in charge of their own body. Removing the emphasis from climax allows survivors to explore sexuality however they deem fit, with nothing required of them. As the partner of a survivor, it is important to participate willingly in this new meaning of sex with no expectations to fulfill.
Another Way to Explore: BDSM
Another way a survivor can reframe their sexuality is through BDSM. Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism (BDSM) is a form of sexual play involving power dynamics, pain as pleasure, and roleplay, to name a few capacities of the kink. Many people have a Fifty Shades of Gray image of BDSM—not explicitly consensual and sometimes excessively violent. Some folks think BDSM and kink are inherently violent—that a woman or gender minority could not possibly be consensually engaging in kink, especially play involving power or pain. This is a misconception: healthy BDSM never involves non-consensual violence and always involves consent and communication.
This is why for survivors, BDSM can actually be a safe, consensual, and empowering form of sexuality. Preference for BDSM often stems from the fact that healthily-practiced play requires explicit consent, open communication, discussed boundaries, an emphasis on physical safety, and an enthusiastic understanding on the part of both partners. BDSM can allow survivors to feel in control—consent is automatically a part of the conversation, and they are able to be informed about what an encounter will entail before it even begins. Some survivors may also find it helpful to reframe their triggers or trauma in the form of consensual BDSM. For example, a survivor who may have experienced a certain physical aggression during their assault, such as choking, might actually find pleasure and a sense of control in being choked in a safe, consensual environment. This can allow a survivor to reclaim and reshape their narrative as they move forward in their sexuality.
There is no right way to have sex with a survivor. There is no right way to have consensual sex with anyone. But a few things are for sure: safety, communication, intention, understanding, and listening are essential for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual interactions across the board. Listening and learning are the only ways to know ourselves and others. Enjoy your intentional, consensual, pleasurable, and safe sex!
*A note on our stats: Research data is often conducted within the gender binary. These statistics were included to give a sense of the magnitude of the problem, but The Thirlby acknowledges the lack of inclusivity in research and the lack sexual assault awareness for trans/nb folks and encourages research to move in an intersectional and inclusive direction as The Thirlby attempts to do as well.
Good Vibrations Boston - Health & Safe Sex Workshop focused on Sex after Sexual Assault
About the Author
Elena Phethean (she/her/hers) is a junior from Pleasantville, NY studying Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies and Community Health at Tufts University. There, she is the co-coordinator of Tufts Sex Health Reps, a student group bringing comprehensive and inclusive sexuality education and sexual assault prevention to campus. She also loves music and sings with her a cappella group, the Tufts Jackson Jills. As a queer woman, she is especially passionate about women’s/gender minority health and queer sexual health outcomes, as well as working with survivors.