Pursuing Sexual Intimacy with Sexual Assault Survivors by Betty Butch
(Content Warning: In this piece, I’ll be referencing details of my trauma for illustrative purposes.)
Navigating the intricacies of sex can be daunting for anyone, but sex as a survivor of assault can be especially harrowing. The healing and coping process after an assault is usually non-linear and lasts a lifetime. Exploring and expressing sexuality can leave survivors vulnerable to the impact of our trauma, but it also can be incredibly affirming. Embracing my changed but resilient sexual self – a reckoning that needs frequent revisiting – has led me to pursue pleasure and intimacy on my terms. Those terms have taken years to discover and communicate, but it’s been worth the work. Every day is another opportunity to rebuild.
After exploring sexual intimacy for over a decade after my assault, there are a few general tips I’d like to share for the benefit of the folks who want to be good sex partners to rape survivors. For the purpose of providing examples, I’ll be making specific references to my own triggers and needs, but it’s important to remember that every survivor is different.
And because every survivor is different, you’re going to need to talk to them about their individual needs. The most important things to consider when having sex with a sexual assault survivor is their consent and comfort, two things that will require clear, patient, and continuous communication.
But if you’d like some additional framework to get you started, here’s 10 Things to Consider:
You are not entitled to their story.
If you are not a rape survivor yourself, you may think you need to know the details of your partner’s assault so you can avoid doing something that might remind them of it. But recounting our trauma – especially from start to finish – can be emotionally taxing on a level that few other labors are. Some of us find catharsis in sharing, some of us don’t. Do not needle or cajole a survivor into reliving their assault to satiate your curiosity, well-intentioned or not. If your partner doesn’t want to discuss the details of their assault with you, you need to respect their wishes.
And I hope I don’t need to say this, but I will anyway: if your partner says they were raped, believe them. Don’t demand that they describe the event to “prove” that they legitimately suffered. If you don’t believe them, you don’t need proof - you need a reality check. In the past, I made the mistake of tolerating so-called friends who maintained “healthy scepticism” about what I experienced, and it held me back from healing for years. If the people who claim to care don’t believe you, you stop believing yourself.
They do not need to justify their boundaries to you.
If a survivor says “I don’t want to do that,” or “that sex act is a hard limit for me,” you need to respect that – as you should with any lover. You don’t need to know how it intersects with their trauma so you can judge if it’s a reasonable or worthy request. If something makes them uncomfortable or they tell you that something is off-limits, it’s off-limits. No negotiation, no compromise. Trying to heckle or convince a survivor that their boundaries should be more flexible (“you can trust me”) is not only cruel and selfish, it also mirrors tactics used by rapists. Assaults aren’t just random dark alley attacks; sometimes, they’re a loved one not accepting a “no.”
Comfort zones can fluctuate. What was okay yesterday, might not be okay today.
Some days are worse than others, and we don’t always know why. I can identify a number of things that can “set me back” from being comfortable with sex: when the weather is similar to the summer I was assaulted, when there’s (even offscreen) sexual violence in something I’m watching/reading, when my self-esteem is low so I’m already feeling vulnerable. But some bad days come out of nowhere.
With or without warning, the effect is largely the same. Suddenly I’m unable to stomach some of the things I’ve spent years reacquainting myself with as part of the affirming journey I’ve chosen (and everyone’s journey and goals are different.) Sometimes the bad day fades and I’m cautiously back on track; other times, I have to start all over… or decide that, perhaps, it was a hard limit after all.
They may have specific pacing needs.
A survivor’s pacing preferences are individual to them. While you should never have sex unless you want to (this is a two-way street), it’s important to acknowledge and seek to accommodate your partner’s comfort zone and speed. Some survivors want to take intimacy very slowly, waiting until they feel safe with a new partner before approaching sex. Some of us feel safest when having quick or casual sex. Some of us may prefer not to have sex, and will instead explore and express sensuality through other outlets. Just like other boundaries, their pacing needs don’t require justification to be respected.
Sex may need to be approached in a nontraditional way.
Society’s perception of sex – penis in vagina penetration being paramount – is arbitrarily limiting, and it erases the experiences of queer, trans, and disabled folks whose sex doesn’t center PIV. This cisheteronormative lens can negatively impact survivors because it implies that if they choose to have sex another way, they’re choosing a substandard method. They’re “missing out” on “real” sex. Oral sex, tribbing, sex toys, hand use… these are all sex acts, and they can be just as satisfying. Take it from the trans queer with assault-induced vaginismus who has a thriving sex life!
If your partner’s boundaries impede what you’d imagined sex would look like between you, discuss their limits and preferences and work together to come up with satisfying alternatives. Masturbating side by side, having phone sex, choosing sex toys that bridge the gap…
One of the reasons I’m so passionate about sex toys is that they’ve transformed how I interact with my partner sexually. For example, when I can’t stand to be touched, I can instead have my partner use a powerful wand or remote-controlled vibrator on me. Assault survivors’ bodies may not experience or express arousal in traditional ways, so using toys that don’t require an erection (like many vibrating masturbators) or penetration (such as external vibrators) may be the best option for pursuing satisfying sexual intimacy.
You may need to come up with a whole new way of talking about sex.
You don’t have to be kinky to use kinky negotiation tactics to facilitate clear communication about sex. Even when I’m going to have vanilla sex, I like to pre-plan the session and discuss the details with my partner so we’re on the same page. Kinksters might talk about pain limits and pick out bondage gear before a scene; survivors and their partners can discuss how the survivor is feeling about various kinds of intimacy and touch, and plan out what sex acts they’d like to engage in.
I’ve heard time and again that planning robs sex of spontaneity and passion, but I don’t understand that mentality. Saying “and then I’ll rim you” isn’t anything like actually doing it. Knowing it’s going to happen gives survivors stability because they explicitly know the other person’s intentions and can use that knowledge to combat their mind and body’s protests. Instead of dreading the potentially upsetting unknown, you can just enjoy the anticipation.
Additionally, I like to use the “green – yellow – red” system for mid-sex check-ins with my partner. Sometimes it’s too hard to articulate that something is bothering me; saying “yellow” to indicate growing discomfort, and “red” to ask them to stop, allows me to verbalize without needing to justify myself. Telling them “green” is also nice, because I can passively voice my enthusiasm.
They may become upset during intimacy, and not know what triggered it.
Being assaulted affects everyone differently. It can take someone’s entire life to unravel the impact, and that includes the multitude of ways (big and small) it can influence how our minds and bodies react to situations.
“Triggered” means being put into a distressed emotional state, which can manifest in a number of ways including panic attacks or flashbacks. This can be caused by anything from unexpected exposure to upsetting content (such as a graphic depiction of rape in fiction), to an unpleasant instinctual reaction to touch (like an unsolicited hug from s stranger.) We might freeze up, or break down, or become disoriented or uncomfortable. And unfortunately, we might not even recognize why.
For years, I would become physically nauseous when my vulva was touched too lightly. But because the gesture wasn’t an overtly aggressive or intimidating act, I didn’t even realize my brain was associating it with my assault. Now that I know it’s a trigger – reminding my body of my attacker’s exploring touch – it’s become a hard limit for me.
Boundaries can fluctuate simply because “progress” is being made, too.
“It sounds odd, but sexual abuse actually makes you forget that your body is yours and not property or an object. The minute you realize your body is indeed your own, you are instantly reminded that it was forcefully taken from you,” a survivor going by Lauren told SELF. I identify a lot with Lauren’s statement, because as I’ve continued on my journey towards sexual empowerment post-assault, I’ve had to grapple more directly with my trauma. This is my choice, and it’s not the path every survivor takes.
Exploring more of sex with your survivor partner may mean you have less of it, or less of certain kinds of it, or that their discomfort will change or grow. The important thing is to support your partner as they feel out their sexual identity and discover what works for them and what doesn’t.
They may need aftercare.
After vanilla sex, I want right back out of bed so that I can distance myself from the vulnerability of it. I’ll usually want a snack and to chitchat about random nerdy things until I’m no longer thinking about how skin contact feels like the unpleasant kind of electricity, at which point I can relax.
Aftercare is typically associated with kink, and it’s usually perceived as being the same for everyone: a cuddle or massage, a juice box, and reassurances of a job well done. But aftercare looks different for everyone – and intimacy doesn’t have to be kinky to justify asking for it. Some survivors want additional tenderness after sex as a reminder of their safety and worth; some will benefit from a few texts the next day reminding them of the nice time you had, to help disrupt the post-sex guilt cycle they may have. (I struggle with it, too.)
Support shouldn’t stop once you leave the bedroom.
Every day can present a new challenge for someone who’s survived an assault. Nightmares, trauma anniversaries, inadvertent reminders of our attackers, triggers, taxing therapy sessions – some of us are constantly raw and healing. Writing this piece caught me off guard with how vulnerable it made me feel, despite being light on the personal details. Because we live in a culture that romanticizes murky consent and justifies rape, talking about it outside of these kinds of glorifying parameters is isolating and harrowing. We’re numerous, and yet alienated.
Even if your relationship with an assault survivor is non-romantic (such as friends/metamours with benefits), it’s important that you’re supportive outside of sexual encounters. You’re not obligated to be someone’s unlicensed, untrained therapist, but giving your partner room to be honest with you even when you’re not about to lock lips (etc) will help build a safe space wherein intimacy feels safer. And contrary to what internet trolls will have you believe, safe spaces? Are a good, necessary thing.
RAINN has an extensive list of resources for survivors and their partners/families. Looking for resources outside of the US? They’re listed at the bottom.
Betty Butch is a queer, sex-positive blogger who reviews pleasure products and writes about identity and kink at bettybutch.com. You can find her on Twitter via @betty_butch.
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