Sexual trauma is a form of trauma that impacts most, if not all, communities worldwide. If a person hasn’t experienced sexual trauma themselves, there is likely someone in their inner circle who has. The impacts of sexual trauma can show up as physical and emotional symptoms that can hinder the sexual relationship survivors have with themselves and with their romantic partners. Knowing the signs and ways to work towards healing can help survivors develop and nurture hot and healthy intimacy.
What Defines Sexual Trauma?
Sexual trauma is any event in which a person experiences non-consensual contact or behavior. It is sometimes also referred to as sexual violence or sexual abuse. Some specific traumatic experiences can include rape, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, military sexual trauma, sexual harassment, and other sexually traumatic events.
While the examples listed are overt cases, experiences of sexual trauma can show up in more covert ways as well. Some examples of covert sexual trauma might include slut-shaming, emotional incest, body-shaming, early exposure to explicit sexual content, non-consensual nude imagery, and verbal sexual harassment such as catcalling.
Keep in mind that trauma is a subjective experience. What feels terrorizing for one, might feel unimpactful for another. It is the power of the survivor to make that call. If something felt traumatic to you, then it was, and you can begin the healing process.
How Does Sexual Trauma Impact Intimacy?
Sexual trauma is a violating experience, one that often leaves the survivor feeling powerless. Single or multiple incidents of sexual trauma can severely impact a person’s relationship to sex, sexuality, and intimacy with themselves and others. Effects of sexual trauma can include but are not limited to the following.
Many survivors who have experienced sexual trauma struggle with negative thoughts and feelings towards their body image. Some survivors will blame their body for the abuse, feel hatred towards it, or feel disconnected from it. The preoccupation, disconnection, or hatred of the body can make sexual intimacy an anxiety-inducing experience.
Hyperarousal is the underpinning function of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It refers to the arousal felt in nervous systems of survivors when they are emotionally dysregulated or triggered. In other words, the survivor’s body is telling them they are in danger, even if they are not. Hyperarousal can be triggered by certain positions, words, smells, or anything that makes the survivor’s nervous system jump into flight-or-fight mode during or after intimacy.
Feeling dissociated or disconnected from the body is common for sexual trauma survivors to experience during intimacy. It can happen occasionally or be a long term symptom the survivor struggles with. Many survivors experience dissociation during sexual trauma.
It’s a way the brain protects the survivor from being mentally or emotionally present during the event. Dissociation can occur during intimacy, even when the survivor is in a safe relationship with a romantic partner.
Flashbacks + Body Memories
Recollections of a survivor’s sexual trauma can manifest during intimacy in the form of flashbacks and body memories. Flashbacks are typically intrusive traumatic memories that can make a survivor feel as if they are re-experiencing their sexual trauma.
The flashbacks can feel extremely real and terrifying to the survivor at the moment, even if they are not in actual danger. Body memories, or bodily sensations that trigger thoughts and memories of trauma can also occur during intimacy.
A Survivor’s Guide to Hot + Healthy Intimacy After Sexual Trauma
1. Education of Sex + trauma
You can’t go wrong with knowing everything you possibly can about sex and how trauma can affect intimacy, especially if you are a survivor or the partner of a survivor. It can be beneficial for the survivor to seek out education around sex, sexual safety (physical and emotional), sexual boundaries, consent, and bodily autonomy.
Many survivors find that it helps to build a vocabulary around their sexual needs so they can communicate effectively with their partners. For the partner of a survivor, it can be an empathetic gesture to do their own research instead of asking their partner to fully educate them on the experience of sexual trauma. The more partners know about themselves and each other, the hotter the sex can be!
2. Constant Communication
It’s typically important for all couples to regularly communicate about their needs, but it can be especially true for relationships where histories of sexual trauma are present. Open and honest communication can be an essential tool for couples to navigate safe and pleasurable intimacy before and after sex.
Communication can be used for a couple to express their needs, discuss boundaries and triggers, discuss turn-ons and offs, and debrief after sex to ensure everyone is feeling safe, regulated, and on the same page.
It’s up to both members of the relationship to be honest, and forthcoming about their sexual needs since each partner can’t read the other’s mind. For couples who struggle with this task, it might help to work with a couples therapist who can help navigate any communication barriers a couple bumps up against.
3. Evaluate Safety + Boundaries
Safety is essential for safe (and hot) sex. If a sexual trauma survivor does not feel safe and regulated, they will likely view intimacy as threatening and triggering. It can be helpful to evaluate safety before engaging in sexual activity.
Do you feel turned on, anxious, numb, enthusiastic, dissociated, relaxed? Try doing an appraisal of what feelings are coming up before engaging in any sexual intimacy.
If you notice any overwhelming feelings that would potentially escalate during intimacy, it may be best to wait for a more regulated emotional state. Please note that even if you engage in sexual activity with consent, you are always able to stop at any point you become triggered or uncomfortable.
Boundaries are a way to ensure sexual safety is acknowledged and maintained during intimacy. What are your sexual boundaries? What are red light (STOP!) and green light (GO!) behaviors? Try making a mental or physical list of sexual boundaries and share those parameters with your partner so they can be aware of your safety needs.
4. Map Out Triggers
Mapping out triggers and sharing that information can ensure that a survivor’s partner is aware of no-go behavior and avoid re-traumatization. Think about what positions, movements, activities, smells, sounds, textures, words, and types of touch might trigger a flashback, memory, or dysregulation.
When your partner knows what to avoid, they can do a better job making sure they keep you safe and regulated during intimacy.
5. Strive for Attunement
Attunement is a focus on what is going on with yourself and your partner. When couples attune to each other, they can pick up on most non-verbal cues that tell them their partner feels a certain way. For example, one partner might notice that the other seems checked out or mentally somewhere else.
An attuned partner would be able to see that shift and check in with their partner. This can be beneficial during intimacy as one partner might realize something has changed before the other partner even notices. Attunement can also be a way to assess that a partner is enjoying themselves. Seeing that pleasure in a partner’s emotions, eyes, and actions can be a huge turn-on!
6. Get + Stay Curious
Curiosity can be a catalyst for keeping intimacy hot, exciting, and fun. People often gravitate to patterns in life and relationships, but intimacy doesn’t have to follow any set in stone blueprint. Intimacy and connection can thrive when couples frequently explore their fantasies, sexual desires, and kinks. For example, a couple might entertain the idea of incorporating elements of BDSM into the bedroom.
It’s often fun to explore ideas; however, keep in constant conversation when something new comes into the picture. If something feels uncomfortable at any point, stop and reassess those actions when you feel safe and regulated. Partners of survivors: stay attuned when you add new activities and check-in or stop if your partner seems off or triggered.
7. Pleasure Over Perfection
Intimacy is about connection and pleasure. Many couples get stuck in a mindset that sex needs to happen a certain way, be a certain amount of time, including various positions, result in many rounds of orgasms. The goal of intimacy isn’t perfection, but priority on each partner’s pleasure.
If there are times when a couple pauses intimacy because a survivor is triggered, that’s okay! If sex doesn’t end with an orgasm, that’s also okay. There is no one perfect way to get intimate. Focus on pleasure, safety, being present and connected, and the rest can fall into place.
Learning to develop intimacy after sexual trauma can feel like daunting task. In this free webinar, Dr. Kate Balestrieri (Certified Sex Therapist + Founder, Modern Intimacy) discusses how to develop healthy sexual relationships and a hot Sex Life after sexual trauma.
In a collaboration with Bruna Nessif, in her Return to Self series, Dr. Kate Balestrieri discusses the long-term effects of sexual trauma on person’s life, such as panic attacks and the mental health concerns. She details how the long term effects can impede healthy emotional and sexual intimacy in the lives of those who have experienced sexual violence. Last, Dr. Kate Balestrieri walks through six steps to cultivating healthy relationships, sexual encounters and sex that feels good!
Survivors of sexual abuse are often left holding the arduous task of reclaiming sexuality, and healing from a wound inflicted by another person. The task for survivors is to heal as an individual, and in relationship with others, which can often prove to be the more challenging of the two. Feeling safe, feeling comfortable, and enjoying sex are possible for assault survivors and their sexual partners.
Dr. Kate Balestrieri, a Los Angeles Psychologist provides an overview of what to expect, with regard for intimacy after sexual trauma, and how to move through the pain. Bruna’s warmth and passion for healing come through this video, as she shares her powerful introduction, before Dr. Kate presents for approximately 90 minutes.
This is a video all survivors and their partners could benefit from watching.
For more information about Bruna Nessif’s amazing Return To Self series, on healing and personal growth, click here.