Recovering from Rape: Healing Your Sexuality
Many women find that they need time to heal and recover following a sexual assault. You may be wondering about your future sexual relations: Should you tell your partner? Will you be too tense to respond? Will you be permanently affected by the rape? Should you avoid sex altogether? Should you just go ahead and pretend nothing happened?
Recovering from a sexual assault is an ongoing process that occurs over time. In this pamphlet we offer many suggestions for dealing with the sexual part of your life during this recovery period. Some approaches will be more helpful depending on your background and life situation. We urge you to experiment with some of these ideas. There is not a “right way” for handling sexual relations following an assault – see what feels safe and comfortable for you.
Feeling “safe” and “comfortable” are important guidelines for your sexual activity. After a sexual assault, many women are fearful and confused during sex. They may feel out of control like they did during the rape. Sex can become unpleasant and frightening. Healing happens most quickly when women are careful to avoid stressful sexual situations, and choose sexual activities that feel comfortable. You are the only one who can know and choose. We recommend many of the suggestions that we have included here as ingredients for a healthy sexual relationship: rape or no rape. Communicating, making choices about sexual activities, being assertive, and taking time to go slowly contribute to a satisfying sexual experience. As a result of the sexual assault you may want to become more assertive, or be more open about your feelings than you were in the past. You may find that you want to avoid certain sexual situations that really weren’t so great in the first place. In taking care of yourself in the sexual arena, you may find that you make changes that you will want to incorporate permanently.
Dating and New Relationships
It is common to feel hesitant about resuming dating and socializing following a rape. There is no need to force yourself into accepting dates too quickly. It may be more helpful to seek the company of close friends for social activities for a while. The delay may help alleviate some of your discomfort. Sometimes the very nature of dating with its potential for intimacy can be frightening, and there are a number of things you can do to decrease your anxiety.
- Taking control of planning the time you spend with someone.
- Think about what you want in order to feel safe, and make sure every date includes those elements. For instance, arrange only double dates with a trusted friend accompanying you, or only daytime dates or dates to public events. Don’t be alone with the person unless it feels absolutely right. Your desire for this kind of structure will subside over time.
- Making decisions that help you feel secure.
- Decisions that you made about dating in the past may not be right for you now. Since the assault, you may feel afraid to do what was easy or natural on a date before. If you feel scared or nervous about any aspect of the date, then this activity is something you shouldn’t do now: it is a limit for you. It won’t always be a limit. When you decide to change what you do, take small steps.
- Trust your feelings to help you in setting limits, and don’t criticize yourself for needing this extra care. Limits might include: deciding beforehand what time to be home; how much physical intimacy, if any, to allow; whether or not you will use any alcohol or drugs. These are all things that can be decided beforehand, or decided during the date. A way to discover what will feel safe is to close your eyes and imagine what a comfortable, secure date would include.
- Offering alternatives as your way of showing interest.
- If your date suggests an activity you are not comfortable with, decline by suggesting an alternative: “No, I don’t want to go have a beer tonight, how about getting together tomorrow afternoon for coffee?” or “No, I don’t want to go to your apartment for dinner, let’s go to a restaurant.” It may help to rehearse with a supportive friend so you feel more comfortable delivering these lines.
- Explaining only if you want to.
- In a new or casual relationship you may choose to say nothing about the rape, or you may simply say you’ve had something upsetting happen and you’re not ready to talk about it. Your desire to set limits is healthy, and there is no need to make excuses for yourself or your behavior.
- As the relationship progresses toward more intimacy, you may feel the need to talk about the sexual assault. The information in the section titled “How To Talk To Your Sexual Partner” deals with this issue. Over time, you may realize you are selecting dates whom you feel very safe with, but whom you are not attracted to. Or you may not be having satisfying intimate relationships with those you are attracted to. If you realize this, you may want to seek counseling.
How To Talk To Your Sexual Partner
Because of the reactions you may have after being sexually assaulted, your desire and ability to be sexual may be affected. It is important that you feel control over the amount and kind of sexual contact that you have. This control can be established by talking to your partner about your feelings, providing your partner is willing to listen and respect you. If you haven’t talked to your partner about sex before, it may seem difficult to start, or you may even feel angry or fearful about having to talk about it at all. Some women choose not to talk to their partner about the assault or sex. This choice is alright if it does not interfere with your recovery from the assault. However, in most cases, it is important to try to take some steps toward communicating even if it’s hard to do. Below are listed some common reactions with specific suggestions on how to talk to your partner. You may find that your comfort level changes – one day you may want to have sex and the next day hugging may feel threatening. Or you may want to stick to suggestions under #1 and #2 for several months. We suggest that you observe and honor your feelings. All of these responses are perfectly normal.
- You don’t want any physical contact.
- Tell your partner about these feelings and suggest other ways to be together that show caring (i.e., cooking meals, taking walks, going to movies, etc.). You may want to spend time talking to your partner about what is bothering you, and what you feel good about from day to day. Emphasize verbal contact.
- You don’t want sexual contact, but do want other forms of physical contact.
- Tell your partner about these feelings and suggest other ways to be physical: “I’m not feeling like having sex these days, but I would like to have physical contact with you. What I feel comfortable with are massages, hugs, kisses, holding hands, and sitting close to you when we are watching TV or reading on the couch. I will initiate some of these activities and want you to initiate, too.”
- It is sometimes helpful to actually set up times for touching, and to set a clear ground rule of no breast or genital touching even if either person is sexually aroused.
- Other specific activities may include taking a bath together and taking turns washing each other, cuddling under the covers and gently stroking each other, choosing a warm and comfortable room in the house and taking turns touching each other (excluding breasts and genitals), exchanging massages (try some oil or talcum powder) whether deep muscle or light and soothing. Don’t forget your favorite music or candles, and pay attention to how it feels to touch and be touched without the pressure to be sexual.
- You are open to sexual contact but are cautious because you don’t know what your reactions will be. Certain behaviors, touches, looks, and smells may trigger fear, anxiety, and/or flashbacks (memories of the assault).
- Stop the sexual activity at any time. It is particularly important to stop when you feel anxious, panicked, or scared. It’s OK to know your limits and act on them. Some couples set up a signal system, for example, a squeeze on the right shoulder means “stop now, I’m scared.”
- Before beginning any sexual activity, you may want to say to your partner: “Lots of times I’m not sure how I’m going to react during sex, so I may want to stop even after we’ve started. I’ll try to tell you what I want instead, like different kinds of touching or a different position.”
- Pay attention to what triggers your feelings and suggest other activities: “When you lie on top of me I feel scared and have flashbacks, and I’d like to lie side by side when we hug.” Don’t put any pressure on yourself to perform sexually.
- If there is any physical discomfort as a result of sexual contact, do not hesitate to get a medical examination.
- You are open to sexual contact and don’t have anxiety reactions to specific activities, but you become aware of previous sexual issues that you have ignored or avoided (e.g., lack of orgasm, painful intercourse, lack of desire, previous sexual abuse, etc.)
- Tell your partner as much as you know about your feelings and what you want to change, if anything.
- Seek help from a therapist who specializes in working with sexual problems. The therapist can help you talk to each other, as talking can be embarrassing and difficult.
These suggestions require that your partner respects your wishes and stops when you say stop or stays within certain limits that you want. If you feel that your partner cannot do this without resentment or pressure, we recommend that you first deal with trust and respect in your relationship.
Information For Your Partner
When you learn that your partner has been raped, you will experience many feelings. It is common to feel extreme anger and a desire for revenge towards the rapist. You may feel very protective in the weeks following the rape and become angry with anyone who disturbs your partner’s sense of well-being. Your partner is likely to go through a wide variety of reactions that may cause you to be confused or to feel inadequate when you think about how to help.
One of the most sensitive issues you will face with your partner is how and when to reinitiate sexual contact. It is usually helpful to simply begin to talk to her about how she feels. Expect a broad range of feelings and responses. She may feel uninterested in sex or angry about any expectations you may have; angry at men in general, including you if you are a man; confused and anxious when you discuss the subject; or she may be open and interested in re-establishing contact. Whatever her response, make an effort to listen to her feelings and to understand them.
Once you understand your partner’s feelings, do your best to comply with any requests she makes that allow her to feel safe and supported by you. She may interrupt lovemaking if she has unexpected feelings of fear and anxiety. Stop any contact immediately if she requests it. Emphasize the type of sexual and non-sexual touching that allows her to relax. As a general rule, if your partner shows sexual interest, continue to initiate contact even if some sexual activities need to stop for a while.
If your partner is not open to sexual contact with you, understand that this is a normal response and not a total rejection of you. She is recovering from a violent and intrusive act that has temporarily disrupted all her normal response patterns, including sexual desire. Do your best not to pressure her. You can find other outlets for your desires for awhile. This might include masturbation, or directing your energy into other areas of personal interest. Believe that your partner’s sexual desire will return in time.
You may notice that you lose your sexual desire also. This is not unusual, and may be the result of the many thoughts and feelings that you are having. You may be fearful of hurting or scaring your partner. You may feel that somehow she is “dirty” or “contaminated.” You may feel angry and suspicious about what she is telling you. Even though these feelings do not seem rational, they are common and can seriously affect your emotional and sexual relationship if they go on for long and are not talked about.
The good news is that these feelings can be talked about. If you are reluctant or scared to talk to your partner, talk to someone else as a first step. You will feel less confused and have a sense of relief if you talk to someone who knows about these feelings. You may find someone who can be of help by asking at a sexual assault center or calling a community crisis line.
You and your partner will recover from this difficult trauma, and are likely to resume normal sexual activity in time, though you may recover at different rates from one another. In the long run, you can look at this incident as an opportunity for the two of you to grow closer to each other and find new and lasting ways to express love and support.
Fantasies, Flashbacks and Orgasm
One of the frequent side effects of sexual assault is a flashback of the incident during sexual activity. Flashbacks are feelings, thoughts, or pictures that occur during sexual activity and bring up memories of the assault. Because these images are sometimes associated with positive sexual feelings in the present, you may feel confused and guilty. Gradually over time, these flashbacks can subside. Sometimes during sex it may be appropriate to stop the activity as the memories emerge, while at other times letting them pass without concentrating on them will help. You may find that just letting a flashback or memory be there without trying to make it disappear makes it lose its importance sooner than if you try to shut it out or pretend it isn’t there.
Some women fantasize during sex about being out-of-control or being forced to have sex. Fantasies are images or scenes that produce enjoyable feelings. Many women have had rape fantasies before the assault happened. This does not mean that the woman wanted to be raped or wants to be raped again. Rape fantasies during sex can represent many things, but, in fantasy, the person doing the fantasizing is totally in control of the content and the stopping and starting of the action, which is not the case in an actual sexual assault. The desire to be out-of-control in a fantasy is not a desire to be raped in real life.
Some women have had the experience of fear, disgust, and pain during the sexual assault, and also have experienced arousal or orgasm. If this happened to you, you may feel responsible for being raped or think that you must have invited the assault or you wouldn’t have responded in this way. The sexual response of orgasm has been known to occur in extreme circumstances that threaten life. With fear and enough physical pressure, orgasm can automatically happen.
Even with this information, some women feel responsible for the assault and confused about their feelings. It is quite understandable that you feel reluctant to discuss your sexual reactions during or following the rape. We still live in a society which tends to blame the victim. Should you need additional assistance, look for agencies or individuals who are skilled both in sexuality counseling or sex therapy, and in sexual assault counseling.
Alcohol and Drugs
In the aftermath of a sexual assault, some women use alcohol or drugs in increasing quantities to help them feel sexual, get to sleep, or to block out flashbacks. Using drugs can become a part of their sexual routine. If you find that you are relying on drugs or alcohol to block your nervousness and anxiety, talk to an expert in alcohol and drug use. The problem will get worse without intervention. There are many other ways to handle the stresses following a sexual assault. The anxiety, fear and confusion that you are feeling will subside over time. Dependency on drugs or alcohol, however, can be a lifelong problem.
Is Seeing A Counselor A Good Idea?
You may have been considering seeing a counselor since the rape but are not sure if you really should. Below are some things that can happen after a rape. Some of these things can be positive life changes and make you stronger, while others may seem disturbing. If the ones that are distressing are interfering with your life, seeing a counselor can be very helpful. Also, your partner may want professional help or you both may want couples counseling.
Seeing a counselor does not mean that you are falling apart or are “mentally ill.” Talking to a counselor just once can be helpful in understanding and dealing with how you are feeling. We do recommend that you talk to someone who counsels women who have been sexually assaulted, as not every therapist has these skills.
Possible Reactions Following A Rape
- Weight gain or loss
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Dressing differently than you did before the rape
- Changes in your social habits (e.g., spending more time alone or with other people than you usually did before the rape)
- Feeling guilty or responsible
- Feeling out of control
- Unexplained fear or anxiety
- Feeling depressed or hopeless
- Changes in your attitudes towards men
- Frequent angry exchanges between you and your partner that did not exist before the rape
- Fear of your partner
- Remembering other situations when you felt afraid and/or powerless
- Changes in your sexual responses (e.g., lack of desire, lack of orgasm, painful intercourse, etc.)
- Inability to continue a sexual experience due to anxiety or memories of the rape
- Wanting to talk to someone about the rape and/or your feelings
- Past memories of sexual assaults
Counseling Compensation in Washington State
In Washington State, you may be eligible for payment of your counseling fees through the Washington State Crime Victims Compensation Program. The only requirement is that you report the rape or attempted rape to your local police department within 72 hours, and apply to the Washington State program within one year. In other states, check your local police department for similar compensation programs.
Seattle Institute for Sex Therapy, Education, and Research staff:
Christine Coe, B.S.; Deborah DeWolfe, M.S.P.H.; Michael Kelch, M.S.W, A.C.S.W.; Elizabeth Rae Larson, M.S., A.C.S.; Marilyn McIntyre, M.S.W.; Pamela Seaman, M.A.
Special thanks to Pacific Northwest Bell for their major contribution to printing costs.
Thanks also to the many individuals and organizations who provided assistance and financial support.