“About a year after my sexual assault, I got into a relationship. I cried the first time we had sex”, says Tšhegofatšo, 28, when recounting how it felt to have sex after having experienced trauma. For people across the world, this is not an uncommon experience. Sexual activities, which are supposed to elicit pleasure and joy, trigger memories of pain and trauma.
According to a study by the World Health Organisation, an estimated 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. A large number of women report symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Depression after such traumatic experiences. Learning to engage in sexual activities and intimacy after sexual trauma can feel like a minefield because of the uncertainties around what could be triggering.
However, this does not mean that having a healthy sex life is out of reach for individuals who have been through trauma. Following, are some things to keep in mind as you move in your journey towards healing.
1. Everyone reacts to trauma differently, so listen to your body
Taking the time to understand the various ways in which your body and mind react to trauma is important. Recognising triggers will not only make your next sexual experiences better, but also make you feel more at home in your body. Dr Leela Magavi, a board-certified adult psychiatrist and board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, says, “Sexual trauma causes some individuals to avoid sex altogether and causes other individuals to partake in risky, excessive sexual behavior. Individuals who have endured sexual abuse may start to believe that sex is all they have to offer. Some individuals enter unsafe territory as this feels familiar and although painful, elicits a feeling of being in control. Individuals may experience flashbacks and hypervigilance; they may be easily startled when their partner approaches them or touches them.”
Tšhegofatšo, when asked about how she responded to her trauma, says, “I initially tried to "master" the sexual assault, pretending it just didn't happen, and trying to engage with sex like nothing had happened. It was too much. Once I had started talking about it in therapy, it soon became important for me to really sit with and reconcile my relationship with sex and how to make sense of that after trauma.”
It is essential to remember that it is not only your brain that may react to the trauma you have been through, but the body may also show certain symptoms. Low libido, anorgasmia, and vaginismus may be some of the ways in which the body reacts. “I evaluate many women who experience pain with intercourse after enduring sexual trauma, even if the trauma occurred years ago. The emotional pain manifests as physical pain. Many men experience erectile dysfunction due to trauma” adds Dr Magavi.
2. Communicating with your partners can help
Sarah*, 23, says, “Eight or nine months after my traumatic experience, I fell for someone. I was very physically attracted to him. I just knew that I wanted to take things slowly and that I wanted to communicate with him about why engaging in sex was going to be difficult for me. But our communication skills were not great, and I did not end up having sex with this guy.”
As you prepare yourself to have sexual experiences again, communicating with your partners becomes important. Ranging from whether you want the lights on or off during sex to discussing boundaries and consent; it's all important. Being able to talk to your partner may allow you to be vulnerable but also feel that sense of safety that you need in order to be able to enjoy sex again.
According to Dr Magavi, “Communication allows trauma survivors to remember that they are not alone and that feelings of shame and guilt after enduring trauma are normal. It helps them recognize their strengths and aspirations and find their voice.”
Sexual trauma can also change the kinds of experiences you are willing to engage in with your partners. A particular type of foreplay that you may have enjoyed in the past may no longer feel comfortable to you anymore. Discussing this with your partner can allow you to feel more comfortable in bed, and have more agency over the situation.
As you experience a range of mental, emotional, and physical responses, it is important to remember that there is no right way to react, and it is fine to feel how you do. It is also crucial to make sure you seek the help that you need to get past this.
3. Therapy is a useful tool for recovery.
Often, emotions after trauma can feel overwhelming, difficult to comprehend, or just numb. Therapy can be a great way to start understanding and processing such emotions, paving the way to a healthier mental space. It can also be helpful to talk about your thoughts and feelings regarding sex, in therapy, to prepare for future experiences.
Mindfulness and arts-based therapies can also help you lean into and express thoughts and emotions that may be difficult to voice or confront. On this, Dr Magavi says, “Meeting with a therapist or psychiatrist allows trauma survivors to confront their fears gradually and safely. This may involve writing or speaking about their experience and processing it at their own pace with the help of a medical professional.”
Couples therapy or sex therapy can also be a way for you to build confidence with your partner and engage in enjoyable sex. It can help you build trust and comfort with a long-term partner, or help you understand your own sexual desires in a way that allows you to engage in casual sexual encounters without having them trigger you.
4. Connect with your own body again
When asked about whether the kinds of sexual activity she finds pleasurable has changed, Tšhegofatšo says, “I'm a little more wary of certain things, but I am mindful about being kind to myself about that, and that feels like it's enough for now.” Echoing this, Sarah says, “I would be kind to myself, kind to my wants and desires, and not place expectations on yourself to respond to sexual expectations in a certain way.”
Connecting with your body, and listening to what it’s telling you is important. Being kind to it and respecting it, even more so. Activities like yoga, stretching, swimming and more can help you be in touch with different body parts and how each of them feel, and how they store stress and trauma.
“Before I could engage with any other person, I needed to learn my own body again, to forgive my body for all the ways I felt it had betrayed me (not screaming, not fighting harder etc.) while remembering that it was all ultimately an effort to keep me safe, to help me survive the moment.”, Tšhegofatšo adds.
Another activity that may help you connect with your body and reclaim sexual pleasure is masturbation. It can help you regain control, as well as awaken desires that may feel too vulnerable, in your safe space. Dr Magavi says, “It is helpful to start by engaging in masturbation and pinpointing parts of the body that elicit pain and sadness and identifying parts of the body that elicit pleasure.” She advises that sharing these with your partner when you are ready can also help you have a more fulfilling experience.
What are some ways you have helped yourself heal from trauma and engage in enjoyable sexual experience again?
*Name changed for confidentiality
Written by Nayanika Guha