Sexual trauma can include sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexually abusive relationships, military sexual trauma, and any other experiences that feel like a violation of one’s sexual autonomy and safety. Experiencing sexual trauma can, but doesn’t always, lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms of PTSD can make vulnerability feel threatening.
Opening up to somebody can be a vulnerable and scary feeling, especially when one shares they have experienced sexual trauma or sexual violence. One thing to remember about sexual trauma is that your story is completely your own, and you get to decide when and if you’d like to share your experience with partners.
How to Know if You’re Ready to Talk to Your Partner
Disclosing a history of sexual trauma can be a delicate topic to navigate. One thing to remember, is that sharing your story is not a one-size-fits-all approach. You can share as much or as little of the event(s) as feels comfortable.
Shame is a common factor that often makes trauma difficult to discuss because the effects of sexual trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder can impact one’s emotional, physical, and sexual life.
This can look like, but is not limited to:
- Feeling long term discomfort, fear, or anxiety surrounding vulnerability or intimacy
- Avoiding vulnerability and/or intimacy at all costs
- Fear and/or discomfort around being sexual or the type of sexual acts that are performed
- Physical health problems such as sexual dysfunctions (vaginismus, anorgasmia, and more)
If you can relate to any of what is listed above, just know that being able to identify these emotions/behaviors is the first step towards healing. Once you feel able to, certain indicators of feeling ready to disclose sexual trauma to a partner might be:
- Feeling ready to be more emotionally connected to your partner
- If you feel a sense of safety, trust, comfort in your current relationship
- Wanting to take control of your life and emotions
- Wanting your partner to understand why you may emotionally or physically withdraw in certain situations
- Wanting your partner be able to better understand how to support you through any distressing moments
5 Tips For Keeping Yourself Safe While Sharing Your Sexual Trauma
Communication is one of the pillars of a strong and healthy relationship. If sharing your story is a step that you feel you are ready to take, you might start by communicating to your partner that you care about them and want to make the relationship stronger. You might let them know you’d like to share a difficult experience with them and need their patience and understanding.
Sharing your story can be a significant step in the relationship for both you and your partner, so it may be beneficial to ask your partner if they consent to you revealing a history of trauma with them. By setting the tone for the conversation, your partner has the opportunity to ensure they feel ready and able to show up for you emotionally throughout the talk.
Here are some ways that you can keep yourself safe while disclosing your story.
Share Whatever is Comfortable
Sharing your story doesn’t have to happen all at once – it could be thought of as a tiered approach. For example, you might start with sharing a more general description to see how your partner reacts. If you start feeling dysregulated or are not getting the response you envisioned, you can take a break and come back to the conversation at a later time, when everyone feels ready.
Establishing Boundaries with Yourself (and Your Partner)
Be mindful of what details you are willing to share and what may feel too much for you at that time. You might also check in with your partner and inquire if they have any boundaries they’d like you to consider when talking about your experience, especially if they also have their own sexual trauma history.
See a Mental Health Professional
Being able to process your trauma can be a very healing time for sexual assault survivors. Individual therapy can help shed light on impacts the trauma has had on your life and relationships.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The more you tell your story, the easier it can become, providing you are sharing with safe, empathetic people. You can learn what your triggers are, and, in turn, you might feel better able to self-regulate during those times. You might practice writing your story down through journaling, or even talking in front of a mirror.
After your have disclosed to your partner, is there anything you need from them in order to feel safe and supported? Do you need a hug? Do you need water or a warm beverage? Do you want their company, or to be alone?
In addition, it is important to always remember to check in with yourself after telling your story. Be aware and mindful of what you feel and where you feel it in your body. For example, are you feeling more tense? Are you holding your breath? Take a moment before continuing with your story if you need to, and, as previously stated, disclose details whenever YOU feel ready. This is YOUR story to tell as you please.
Creating a Sexual Safety Plan With Your Partner
Are you wanting to create an environment or a safe space within intimacy with your partner? Here are a couple ideas to maintain safety within your sexual relationship and to diminish symptoms of distress. Of course, every survivor’s needs can vary, but it can be a good place to start. You can take any of these suggestions, alter them in ways that work for you, or even add your own ideas to this list.
- Prioritize consent
- Identify potential distressing moments so you can communicate them with your partner
- Be aware of resources that you can utilize alone or with a partner when these uncomfortable feelings arise (grounding/meditation exercises)
- Don’t move to fast – go at a pace that feels comfortable for you
- Utilize trusted supports when in need (therapy, support groups, etc.)
- Come to an agreement on a safe word (something that can be said to interrupt sex)
- Maintain honest and open communication surrounding sexual health and trauma
- Stay curious! – not just about yourself or your partner, but how being intimate and sexual trauma are connected.
- If you want to say no to any intimate contact, validate and normalize that word: No.
These are just a few ways that you and your partner can maintain safety during sex. What feels right to you may not feel right to someone else. Explore who you are in this space today, learn about yourself, and use this knowledge to grow as an individual and in a loving partnership.
One thing to remember, is that you are not alone in this journey. You are worthy of having a happy, healthy life; and this includes a happy and healthy sex life too! With compassion and patience, you can find a way to move forward from this pain and be intentional to finding your way to living and loving life and yourself again.
Resources for survivors of sexual trauma/violence: