We’re always hearing that we could be having better sex, a better orgasm, or a better relationship. But how often do we hear the nitty-gritty of how we can actually better understand our deepest desires and most embarrassing questions? Bustle has enlisted Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist, to help us out with the details. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. Please send your sex and relationship inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Now, on to today’s topic: how to talk to someone new about being a survivor of sexual abuse or assault.
Q: “I'm a victim of rape. At the moment, I'm single, but I’ve been thinking a lot about my next relationship. With my most recent ex, I never knew how to enjoy sex. I would just lay there feeling squeamish and shut down. It feels like this thing that comes so naturally to everyone else doesn’t come naturally to me. I know my ex never enjoyed having sex with me, and I’m afraid my next partner won’t like it, either. I would like sex to be better in my next relationship, but I have no clue where to start. Do I need to tell my next partner about my rape? How and when would I even do that?”
A: Thanks for the question. I am so sorry to hear that you are a survivor of rape. In my sex therapy practice, I work with a lot of sexual abuse and assault survivors (so many that I’ve actually put together an online course — A Survivor’s Guide To Reclaiming Your Sex Life After Abuse); my goal when working with survivors, in addition to helping them figure out how to process the assault itself, is to help them learn how to have safe and pleasurable sex lives — the same goal I have when working with any client. Here are seven things to keep in mind when thinking about your sexuality and your next relationship.
Know That You’re Not Alone
First of all, I want to share some reassurance that you’re absolutely not alone in your struggles. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one out of every six women will become the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, so there are so many women out there who can relate to your situation.
I also want you to know that sex itself isn’t something that comes “naturally” to anyone. As a sex therapist, I’ve had a lot of conversations about sex, and I can honestly tell you I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t have some sort of hang-up about sex (myself included!). I know it’s easy for all of us to feel like something is wrong with us, but we’re all struggling in one way or another.
Be Gentle With Yourself
I don’t know if you feel this way, but almost every single sexual abuse survivor I’ve worked with has thought of herself as “broken” or “damaged goods” at one point in her recovery process. Not only did my clients have to deal with the rape itself (something that no human being should ever have to endure), but they also had to grapple with painful feelings afterwards — including painful feelings about themselves. These feelings often have the tendency to heighten when you’re in a new relationship.
It’s frustrating that sex is so difficult, and it’s easy to blame yourself. But it’s so, so important to be gentle with yourself. You’re not broken, you’re not damaged goods, and your sex life isn’t irreparably harmed. The better you can get at treating yourself with love and care, the easier it will be to create the same atmosphere with a partner.
Keep Exploring On Your Own
Since you’re single right now, this is the perfect time for you to start exploring your sexuality on your own. Many people, including a lot of sexual abuse survivors, forget that you can have a solo sex life. It’s actually one of the best ways to relearn how to make sex feel safe and pleasurable again. Maybe now’s the time to improve your relationship with your body, learn how to masturbate, or learn how to orgasm.
Figure Out What You Want Your Future Partner To Know
Now, we get to the second part of your question — whether or not to tell your next partner about the fact that you’ve been raped. I highly, highly recommend talking to new partners about your history with sexual assault. After you’ve been sexually abused or assaulted, sex can be triggering. You mentioned that during sex with your ex, you would feel shut down, which is a sign that your body is having a reaction in that moment. Different activities feel triggering to different survivors —some sexual abuse survivors get triggered by intercourse, but not by anything else; some get triggered by blowjobs, but nothing else; some get triggered by a few different activities. Talking with your partner about this can be very helpful.
Try to think about things that would be good for your partner to know about you and your relationship with sex. Consider these questions:
- Are there specific sexual activities that tend to make you shut down?
- Are there specific activities that feel safe and pleasurable to you?
- How would you describe your ideal sexual partner?
- How would you describe your ideal sexual encounter?
Tell Them Before Becoming Intimate...
The next step is to tell your partner. When it comes to timing, I would recommend telling your partner before the two of you start engaging in any sexual activity that has been triggering for you in the past. Whatever it has been, talk to your partner before the two of you get to that point.
As for what to say, I would recommend something like, “Hey, I want to talk about something. It’s difficult for me to talk about, so I hope you can listen with compassion. I was raped X months/years ago. I still want to have a healthy sex life, but sex can stir up a lot of emotions for me. It seems like we’re heading in that direction, so there are some things I want you to know about me before we start having sex.”
And Don’t Feel Ashamed About It
Resist the temptation to think you have to tell your partners about your sexual assault because you’re broken. You’re not. I really want to encourage you to see talking to your partner about your experience of sexual abuse as a good thing. Telling your partner about the abuse is a way to set them up for being a kind and supportive sexual partner, and to make sure that you have the kind of sex that feels safe for you. It’s also a good litmus test. If someone doesn’t treat your sharing with the utmost care and respect, that’s a sign that they don’t deserve to go further with you.
Go Slow And Keep Communicating
Telling your partner about your experience of assault shouldn’t be a one-time conversation; you should continue talking about how to make sex feel safe and enjoyable. When you talk to your partner, I would also recommend talking about going slow and having plenty of check-ins. Having sex with a new person can be anxiety-inducing for anyone, but for survivors, there’s often an added layer of anxiety. Communication can go a long way.