sexual trauma recovery

My experiences with this are not universal. This article focusses on a cisgender woman’s experience because it is what I know, but it should be acknowledged that transgender people are disproportionately at risk of sexual violence. I hope this is a conversation which continues and widens.

Trauma is never contained within a single event. In my experience, it is a process. It has happened, it is happening, and it may be yet to happen. It is often insidious, taking a hold on your life or mental health unexpectedly. As a survivor of sexual assault, nowhere have I felt the reverberations of this more profoundly than in my experiences with sex and sexual healthcare.

It is difficult and exhausting, but trauma does not signal the end of your sex life or ability to look after your sexual health. I want to cast a light on the possibilities of reclaiming both these things, because it may take time, but it is never out of your reach.

Following assault, sex might seem like terrifying impossibility. I distanced myself from a part of my body I felt had betrayed me, and created a kind of detachment from sexuality as part of my identity. I very much internalised this, so when I made the step of wanting sex again, it felt insurmountable. Impossible, even. I would burst into tears without warning, or everything would tense up. Even when I was saying an enthusiastic yes, my body said no – it felt debilitating once again to have that control over my body removed from myself.

This can be a symptom of a condition called Vaginismus which, though rarely spoken about, affects many people. The NHS defines it as ‘the recurrent or persistent involuntary tightening of muscles around the vagina whenever penetration is attempted’. It does not only occur in people who have been abused, but this can be a trigger.

When I turned to the internet for reassurance, I found very little. The majority of sourced were rife with misinformation, and there was no information outlining options. I have learned a lot during my recovery, and the first thing I can tell you is that there are almost always options.

It’s important not to rush. Never do anything just because you think your partner wants you to. Forcing yourself to do something that frightens you will only take you back to square one. If you are with someone who deserves to be having sex with you, they will be patient and they will wait. That is a truth, undeniable. Anyone looking to pressure or coerce you into doing something with your body that you are not comfortable with is not worth your time.

If you are someone with a vagina having sex with someone with a penis, try not think of all sex that isn’t penetrative as a means to an end. This way, it will be less of a source of stress or disappointment each time you try penetration and it doesn’t work; sex is multi-faceted, and involves everything from kissing to touching, and beyond. Work on enjoying the types of intimacy you are comfortable with, even if this isn’t anything beyond kissing. Take everything at your own pace.

Though a supportive partner, baby steps and a few months can be enough for some, this is not a ‘one size fits all’ process. For some survivors being able to have sex, penetrative or otherwise, takes more work. You can go to your GP about all of this. The system may be long and frustrating, but this is a good starting point, and they can refer you to a sexual health clinic, Gynaecologist or sex therapist. All of these can help, and are part of an extensive list of ways to get on the road to recovery.

There are things called vaginal trainers, used to help people with vaginismus or similar sexual problems. These are objects which you can practice, on your own, inserting into your vagina. They increase in size, and again, you take this at your own pace. They allow you to get comfortable with your own body before introducing someone else.  A doctor told me, ‘whatever you’re comfortable with doing yourself, start two steps back from that when you are doing it with someone else’. I think this is a great piece of advice. If you’re struggling with sex, get to a place where you feel totally in control of your own body before trying with a partner.

With sex comes sexual healthcare, and this can be a minefield when you are experiencing the aftermath of sexual assault, making routine procedures like vaginal examinations or smear tests traumatic. It can be hard to hear people talking about them as if they are an uncomfortable inconvenience, when you know that for you it would be terrifying. Though it would be easier not to think about this, to ignore letters about smear tests and to avoid vaginal examinations, you deserve to be able to look after your health, and it is something you can work on.

If you feel able, tell your GP about what happened to you. They should be able to refer you to a doctor with whom you can work on this. Again, they may suggest vaginal trainers, and possibly counselling. Before appointments like these, the best doctors have asked me, ‘what do you want to get from this?’. It is such a simple thing to be asked, but giving someone this agency is so empowering. This might not always happen, so at the outset of each appointment, ask yourself the same question. Remind yourself that you are in control, and that you will be the one making the final decisions.

Some other simple suggestions that I have found alleviate the stress of these appointments are: bring a friend of family member who makes you feel strong to wait in the waiting room, ask all the questions you want to (never allow yourself to feel stupid), and request a doctor of a particular gender if that would make you feel more comfortable – a vast majority of patients request same sex doctors, and it is well within your rights to do so too.

What you should always remember is that although trauma is a long, exhausting process, so is healing. It will not come overnight, with one doctor’s appointment or counselling session. It will be work and sometimes it will be terrible, but when you can love sex and reclaim a hold over your sexual health again, it will be the most joyful victory.

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Illustration: Lily McMahon