After a sexual assault, many people find that their sexual attitudes and reactions seem different. While these effects do not have to be permanent, they can be worrisome and prevent the enjoyment of sexual life and intimacy. Experiencing sexual effects after sexual assault is not only very common, but it is also understandable. Some find that sex has different meaning than before the assault. Some people may react by avoiding sexual activity and isolating their sexual selves. Some may find that they no longer enjoy certain sexual acts that they previously enjoyed. Others may react by having more sexual activity than they had before this experience or rushing into sexuality due to a sense that it is all people want from them. It can be hard for people to understand why they are responding the way they are and this can feel odd or confusing.
Sexual effects may be present immediately after the experience(s), or they may appear long afterward. The ten most common sexual effects after sexual assault include:
- Avoiding or being afraid of sex
- Approaching sex as an obligation
- Experiencing negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
- Having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling sensation
- Feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
- Experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
- Engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors
- Experiencing difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
- Experiencing erectile or ejaculatory difficulties
- Experiencing vaginal pain or orgasmic difficulties
Noting your specific sexual feelings can be an important part of beginning to heal. Once you become aware of what you are experiencing and how it is impacting your sex life, it may help you begin to integrate your experience of sex assault and move into a realm of sexuality that feels comfortable for you.
Moving towards new sexual attitudes and reactions
Sex assault can change people’s attitudes about sex in a variety of ways. Many survivors of sex assault describe feeling at odds with themselves internally. A person who previously felt that sex was a positive and exciting act may feel uninterested or frightened at the prospect of being sexual after an assault. At the same time, if a person previously had negative beliefs about sex, such as “sex is all people want from me” or “sex is shameful or harmful” sexual assault may strengthen those beliefs. Ultimately, what can be most difficult is that survivors might not feel like “themselves” anymore when it comes to the topic of sex.
After an assault, it can be hard to tease apart what is harmful sexuality and what is more healthy sexuality. When someone uses sex to hurt you, it can be hard to find the confidence that sexuality can be a fun, free, connecting experience. The passing of time and positive sexual experiences by yourself or with a partner may naturally move you towards new sexual attitudes and reactions. You can also actively begin the process of shifting your ideas by trying some of the following:
- Consider the language you use about bodies (yours or others) and sexuality. Some common language about these topics can have violent connotations and might feel degrading. Routinely using this language can reinforce the belief that sex is dangerous and hurtful. Alternatives might be:
- If you don’t know language that suggests that sex can be positive, tender, passionate, exciting or funny it is okay to make up your own.
- If you haven’t thought about this since health class the latest thinking about the variety of different bodies and how they really work is quite fascinating. You can look at books or relevant internet articles to get information. This can give a new appreciation and respect for ourselves and our sexuality.
- Discover more about your current sexual attitudes and what you like or don’t like, want to change or keep the same. This experience may have changed you but that doesn’t mean you are damaged. Note where you are now and consider how you want to think and feel about sex in the future.
- Discuss ideas about healthy sexuality and sex with others such as with your friends, partner, therapist, or support group members. You may not always agree with what you find but hearing about other people’s ideas can help you hone in on your own beliefs.
- Educate yourself about healthy sex. Read books, take workshops, or talk with a counselor.
In Dating and New Relationships:
- Take control of planning the time you spend with someone. Think about what helps you feel comfortable. Make sure every date includes those elements. For example you might want to arrange double dates with a good friend to accompany you or do things in a group. Consider going out during the day for awhile or make plans to be in public places. Don’t feel you have to be alone or in an uncomfortable environment with someone unless you absolutely want to.
- Trust your feelings to help you in setting limits. Limits might include deciding beforehand what time to be home, how much physical intimacy, if any, to allow; whether or not to use drugs or alcohol.
- You can offer alternatives as your way of showing interest but maintaining your comfort level. For instance, if your date suggests an activity you are not comfortable with, you can suggest an alternative: “No, I don’t want to go have a beer but I’d love to go out for a cup of coffee.”
- If you don’t want any physical contact it is okay to tell your partner. You can suggest other ways to spend time together (go for a bike ride, go rock climbing, take a hike, go to dinner, go to the movies, etc.)
- Consider all the forms of physical contact and decide which of those you are interested in sharing: kissing, holding hands, hugging, etc. Let your partner know. When being sexual, experiment at your own pace with what feels comfortable. In the beginning you may start to feel anxious or have flashbacks, this is not uncommon. Take a deep breath and remind yourself where you are right now. You may want to talk about this with your partner before beginning sexual contact. Let the other person know that you may need to stop and try something different or just take a break.