By Corinne Kai
Healing after sexual assault is a constant practice, and a process that will look different for every person. It can include connecting with other survivors, going to therapy, renegotiating sexual boundaries, or a combination of these or more practices. Yet while it may seem obvious that a sexual trauma isn’t necessarily the end of someone’s romantic life, being intimate with a partner after experiencing sexual assault can also play an important role in healing.
Being a partner of someone who has experienced sexual violence can often feel disempowering — like you’re helpless in knowing exactly how to support your loved one. It can be overwhelming trying to figure out the right thing to say or do when your partner is triggered or processing something traumatic. MTV News spoke with members of Space To Speak, a youth-run organization that is dedicated to giving youth a leading voice in the sexual violence prevention movement, to learn what survivors find most helpful from sexual partners.
“Support, to me, looks like acceptance. And to take it a step further, not only accepting but embracing what happened and how it shaped me,” Zaynab, a member of Space To Speak, tells MTV News. If someone discloses that they’re a survivor of sexual violence, that means they trust their partner with that knowledge and how this impacts them. The most affirming thing a partner can do is to hold space for a survivor. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable or not know exactly what to say; simply listening and saying, “I believe you” is a beautiful affirmation.
Sometimes holding space will mean listening to someone about their healing process. Other times holding space might be sitting with them in silence when they don’t have the words yet to talk about their PTSD or triggers. Some survivors find it helpful to talk about what happened during the assault in detail, others may simply want their partner to know this happened to them and not disclose anything else.
Trauma impacts memory recall — meaning a survivor’s memory of the event might be incomplete. It’s important that partners are patient with a survivor’s process, even if they don’t share the exact details of what happened. Allowing a survivor to lead the conversation will provide them an affirmation of empowerment.
The fact that every 92 seconds someone is sexually assaulted in America means that it is possible that both people in a relationship are survivors; if that applies to you, be gentle with yourself as well as with your partner. It can be re-traumatizing to hear about someone else’s experience with sexual violence, and while you both deserve support in moving through healing, it’s possible to have boundaries that ensure you aren’t depleting one another emotionally.
Always ask for consent, and affirm their power to say no.
Maya Siegel, the 18-year-old founder of Space To Speak, stresses the importance of consent being an ongoing conversation, before any and every sexual act. “It's not said enough. [People don’t realize] how much that [consent] encompasses not only sex,” she says.
Siegel began the organization in part to help educate other young people that consent is an ongoing process and a negotiation of mutual desire; she stresses that there should never be a switch from one sex act to another without some form of check-in, whether a verbal “is this okay?” or non-verbal eye contact or nodding. Even advances within relationships should be communicated about and consented to. “Even if you say yes at first to consent, it doesn't mean that you're consenting to every step,” Siegel adds. “And that you can always say no.”
Be aware that a verbal “no” may not always be possible. Survivors of sexual or emotional abuse often experience difficulties in speaking up. Trauma can exacerbate a stress response in the brain, and a survivor can feel as though they’ve frozen and subsequently lost the ability to say no, tell their partner to stop, or use their safe word during sex. As their partner, you can affirm this power to say no at any time and also figure out multiple ways to communicate, at every stage of the relationship or encounter.
It’s also crucial to learn how to take rejection with grace and compassion when a survivor needs to take a break or to say “no” for any reason. There doesn’t have to be an explanation or reason for that “no” — it can stand alone and deserves to be respected. Boundaries are about each individual’s need to listen to their own body, not about the person they’re with.
Create a safety plan for triggers.
While sexual touch after an assault can absolutely be triggering for some survivors, intimacy can also be an act of reclaiming sexual autonomy. Having a safety plan for how to move through triggering moments can be helpful for both partners. Sometimes people will know what triggers them — it could be anything from a scent or seeing a certain type of car on the street or a specific sexual act — but it can still be challenging to bring that knowledge up in conversation. It can be helpful to prompt the question and start the conversation, which shows a level of care and respect for individual boundaries.
After telling her current boyfriend that she was experiencing high anxiety impacting her desire to be sexual, Siegel remembers that he initiated a safety plan to help support her. “He thought of a system where he doesn’t initiate the contact first and he asks ‘do you want a kiss?’ sometimes as a cue that he does,” she explains. “Since then, I’ve felt a lot more comfortable in our relationship because I’m not worried he will touch or kiss me at random.”
Siegel explains that while she’s very upfront with partners about how her body might respond when she’s experiencing a trigger — it took time for her to feel comfortable sharing that information. Having a partner prompt with questions about how triggers might manifest through bodily response or what actions/positions are triggering is a helpful starting point. Some survivors might not know all of their triggers ahead of time — or an emotional response from a stressful day could trigger someone without expectation. When this happens, it’s helpful to have a plan in place for how to best respond to the survivors' needs. Safety plans for triggers can include going for a walk, creating a fantasy scenario (to pull someone out of a PTSD episode), drinking tea, cuddling, or simply talking. Figuring out what feels nourishing before someone is experiencing stress will be helpful for both partners.
It’s also important to remember that being triggered is a response rooted in trauma — it’s not that something wrong happened during sex. Try to steer away from questions or comments that stem from feeling guilty about your partner’s experience and remember that it’s not your fault that this triggering moment is happening.
Allow a safe space to explore sexually.
The way someone relates to sex after an assault may be completely different than before. For some survivors, removing the expectation for sex to look a certain way or end in orgasm can help; by doing so, survivors can renavigate what it means to be sexual in a way that feels safe and nourishing. To that end, intimacy after trauma might look like outercourse (no penetration), or massage, or gentle touching — all ways that redefine sex beyond traditional expectations and open up more possibilities for pleasure.
As a partner to a survivor, one of the best things to do is allow for a safe space to explore intimacy and sensuality without any pressure or expectation. Again: The best tool for exploring sex after an assault is communication.
Reclaim sexual empowerment.
The ways in which society understands sexual violence makes it so that survivors are more likely to be believed when they present as broken and traumatized by what happened; as a result, sexual assault survivors are often desexualized or treated as damaged within mainstream conversations on sexual assault advocacy. And the dichotomy between traumatized and healed is one that makes healing a destination, where all past trauma is processed and forgotten. Yet healing from sexual violence is a lifelong journey with ebbs and flows along the way.
As Zaynab tells MTV News, she wishes her future partners understand that she is not defined by her survivorhood. “I am not damaged goods. I'm not any form of goods or property to be used, period,” she explains. “I am intelligent, strong, and capable, and I will not allow my experience with horrible people allow my heart to harden.”
She has also found that telling people about her experience, and gauging their reactions, is key for her experiences with them. “Someone being immature or incapable of handling me open up to them about trauma is an absolute turnoff,” she adds.
If a survivor tells you they’re ready and enthusiastic about sex, it’s important that they feel believed and supported. However, it’s also important for everyone involved in a sexual experience to have space to feel heard around their needs and desires. Self check-ins prior to sex can help feel out where you’re at in your body and what desires are present in the moment.
Find support for yourself.
Vicarious trauma can happen when supporting someone through their healing process. Seeing someone you love go through something painful can leave you feeling the ripple effects of their trauma. As a partner of a survivor, it’s okay to need space outside of the relationship to process and find healing.
“While I absolutely want my partner to lean on me, I do not want them to be lost without me. I would refer them to professional services that I cannot give while being a supportive presence from the side,” Zaynab says.
Boundaries during these times can be incredibly helpful — and simply checking in before talking about sexual assault can help navigate these emotions. Each partner can say something like, “I really need to process about XYZ, do you have space for that tonight?” Depending on the answer, each person will know to perhaps seek support from someone else, like a therapist or close friend. Having consent before divulging on emotional topics can show a level of respect for a loved one's capacity for care.
Often when people learn someone is a sexual assault survivor, they will talk to them about all the recent news stories or their opinions on rape culture. Those topics can be re-traumatizing for survivors. Partners of a survivor can build networks of care to have those conversations outside of their relationship, and learning more about sexual violence can happen without solely leaning on a survivor for those conversations.