In response to sexual trauma, it is common for people to respond either with aversion to sex or with reckless and frequent sexual behaviors. For me, it was the former.
The amount of time and effort I have spent working on and researching the topic of sexual healing makes what I want to write in this post so close to my heart. It is personal and frustrating and agonizing and just important to me. It’s important for me to talk about this (unglamorous, uncomfortable) part of rape recovery because despite how often the media portrays rape, whether in so many TV shows or sensational news stories, in a few episodes or a few weeks or months the consumers of that media have moved on to the latest drama, and the victims of rape very well may have a lifetime of healing ahead of them.
There is so much to say, and I don’t know where or how to begin. I will start by saying that much of what I’ve learned came from a self-help book called The Sexual Healing Journey by Wendy Maltz. If you or your partner are looking for some way to begin the process of sexual healing, this book was an invaluable resource to me. I am not a doctor or expert in this subject, so I will just share some of the lessons I have learned on my own journey.
But first, a bit of background.
The (abusive) sexual relationship between myself and my rapist lasted for three months. I had never had sex before him, and I didn’t have sex for four years and seven months after him. As part of what I believe was him grooming me, he told me a lot about his sex life. One of the things he had told me far prior to anything physical ever happening between us was that he kept a count of how many times he has had sex. He would text me an updated number after he supposedly would have sex. After the first time he raped me and before the second time, he teased me that he saw a number one above my head every time he saw me, indicating I had only had ‘sex’ once. During the course of the abuse, he told me I would be celibate after him. I didn’t understand why he said or thought that, but it made me uncomfortable and more insecure.
Apparently not to his surprise, he was right. Once he had made the decision to stop raping me, I had absolutely no interest in sex, relationships, or even being touched by most people. When there was space in my brain to even consider any thoughts regarding sexuality, I struggled with my aversion to it. At the time I was not able to admit that I was raped. I believed that I felt traumatized by something that wasn’t traumatic. On a good day I believed that I felt raped by something that wasn’t rape. Denial made it harder. But I questioned whether my disinterest in all things sexual came from how traumatized I felt, or if I might be asexual.
I learned more about asexuality. I felt like I could identify as demi-sexual, which is when one only has sexual attraction to people they are emotionally connected with; or grey-asexual, which is when one doesn’t usually desire sex but occasionally does. I could do a whole other post about asexuality, but for the purposes of staying on topic I’ll leave it at that. Despite kinda-sorta feeling like those labels could describe me, it didn’t feel totally right. If I never have sex again (a concept I was very comfortable with), how will I know for sure that it wasn’t just the experience I had that I didn’t like? Would I be a ‘real’ asexual if it was just because I was afraid? And besides that, the one thing that I hated about the idea of being celibate was that my rapist would have been right, and that was the opposite of empowering. At the same time, to have sex only to prove him wrong would still feel like he had some control over my decisions. It was lose-lose. So I did my best not to think about sex entirely, which was without a doubt the easiest of the options I had.
The day I bought that book in 2012 I was entranced and went through around 60 pages of it. I was remembering things I had previously repressed both about the experience with [rapist] and things further into my past. I hit a very hard wall when I reached a part where I was supposed to come up with sexual goals for the future. With that crash in momentum I put the book down, and I didn’t look at it again for three years.
I lived those three years working on myself, learning how to love myself and forgive myself as well as him, finding myself, and staying alive and productive. I wrote a lot about the experience and made art inspired by it. I didn’t totally ignore that it had happened. I thought I had allowed myself to heal for the most part, and I largely ignored any indicators that that wasn’t true.
Until I started dating someone, and all of the sudden I was back in a world I had written off and very in over my head.
My boyfriend and I had previously shared our relationship histories, and from that he learned what had by this time become my elevator pitch to explain mine, “I learned to associate sex with shame.” I left out the part where I believed sex was and would always be painful and undesirable to me, because I was very ashamed of that.
There were a few eye opening experiences early on in our relationship. He asked me if he could finger me, which made me cry because I had never been asked. If I didn’t answer, he didn’t do it. If I wasn’t sure, he didn’t do it. After a few inquiries on his part he told me he wouldn’t ask anymore, that I could tell him when I was ready because he didn’t want to be pressuring me. And then I finally admitted to him that the touching of my vagina was painful. I told him I didn’t know if that would ever change, and I understood if he didn’t want to stick around to find out.
He decided to stay.
Slowly, as I began to trust him and feel more comfortable and safe with him, I was able to open up to him, and he was there to listen, and think, and talk it out. Eventually one day a few months in, I showed him the book.
We spent hours a week working through this book, together. He read out loud. I would tell him to underline or box or asterisk or ‘smilie face’ lines or passages that resonated with me or were helpful, and we’d discuss them. We would write down notes and fill out charts and questionnaires. We made bad jokes to lighten to mood. The nights were long and the days following were heavy for me, to say the least. Though we found a lot of laughter together, there were many times where I would spiral into some black hole/flashback and become unresponsive and unsalvageable. There is little as torturous for me as those experiences, and I can only imagine what it is like on the other side for my boyfriend.
But what exactly were we working on? Largely, I felt the book dealt with my ability to acknowledge what happened as well as identifying triggers and maladaptive feelings and behaviors I may have surrounding sex. It offers a huge variety of activities to relearn sexual touch, coping mechanisms for dealing with the trauma, and guidance on how to healthily ease back into a physical relationship. Some chapters focus on the abuse itself, some focus on how it’s affecting a survivor today. There is even a chapter focused on the partner of a survivor and how they are affected by their partner’s past abuse.
While we were going through this workbook, we continued to be in a relationship, obviously. Though our emotional connection was quickly becoming indestructible, it was challenging for both of us. We were still a new relationship, but there was so much work we were doing, so much time we were spending being so serious, and it was draining. Though we did have physical chemistry, what I was capable of doing was very restrictive. A word, an image, a song could be enough to send me spiraling into the abyss. The idea of touching or being touched was terrifying.
Months went by, and the only real progress that was being made was both of us were becoming very educated about what a truly healthy relationship looks like and what sexual abuse can look like. Additionally, I was remembering more things and feeling more comfortable to share them. It got to a point where my boyfriend was able to identify what happened to me was rape without me having to say it (which is what I wanted despite knowing I should be able to say it myself), and even more miraculously he was able to understand the reality of how I felt about my experience.
Somewhere between six and eight months ish into our relationship, I felt comfortable having my boyfriend relatively non-sexually touch my vagina, and he helped me try to do the same with his penis. It felt and feels frustrating and stupid to be so afraid of a body part, but there’s not a lot in this life that feels like a penis, so whether it’s my boyfriend’s or my rapist’s, it’s a penis, and that is a weapon that has been used to hurt me. It was bad enough that the slightest word (like being called “you” or “gorgeous”) or action that reminds me of [rapist] could literally make me lose touch with the fact that my boyfriend was my boyfriend and not my rapist. How could I manage to stay present at the feel of the literal physical thing that was used to assault me?
I was so afraid to progress physically with my boyfriend. Of course I was afraid of the physical pain, but I was also afraid of the triggers and flashbacks and memories that I might still be missing. I was sure the more physical we got the worse those experiences would be. Everything was unknown.
As I got more comfortable and allowed my boyfriend to start sexually touching my vagina, the vaginal pain relatively quickly reduced. For a while there was complete numbness, which was frustrating in its own right but at least it was something different and new and not painful. Slowly, and I mean slowly, I began to be able to feel more and actually enjoy something sexual for once.
At this point, I accepted that I might actually be capable of having sex someday. I still wasn’t able to admit that I had been raped. I stopped being able to write the fiction book I had been working on for over a year because it had been my way of coping with my feelings indirectly. It was disheartening to feel like dealing with them directly now hindered this project I cared so much about. Many days I wasn’t sure what the point of all this ‘healing’ was when it was causing so much suffering, but the truth is, the suffering wasn’t caused by the work we were doing but by the reality that I was finally starting to face.
Though the anticipation of what kind of reaction I might have to sex was only intensifying, the complete acceptance and lack of pressure in our relationship kept it in perspective for the most part.
Eventually, ten months in, we were able to have sex.
I had had these vivid visions of what might happen to me if a penis so much as touched my vagina: An explosion of memories, more traumatic than anything I had already remembered; a flashback I never come out of.
It was never like that.
What I could never have imagined or anticipated was that sex with my boyfriend didn’t remind me at all of the intercourse my rapist had with me. Besides the physiology of it, it was not the same thing in the slightest.
There was such clarity that came from having a healthy, consensual sexual relationship. The buildup to it was necessary for me because had I not been able to heal in some ways, learn to trust my partner, and relearn some of my incorrectly learned thoughts surrounding sex, it never would have been a truly healthy relationship. And though in many ways adding sex to my life was a huge step quite far along in the healing process, in some ways it was also the beginning — it was the beginning of my ability to understand a concept in the book that had previously been out of reach: Rape is not sex. Sex is not a trigger for me because what [rapist] did to me was not sex.
Acceptance has been a process that has lasted many more months. Along the way there have been realizations I never could have anticipated that have rocked the already cracked foundation of my world. My healing is not over yet, not even close, even though I have been so lucky to have found a partner who respects me so much and has taught us both more than he even knew he could. But I’m getting there, and it’s only getting easier.
Still, to me, sex is not just a fun and pleasurable thing. It’s not a game. It’s not casual. It’s not easy. I can’t imagine my sexuality ever being completely untainted by my rape or my rapist. Other people’s sexuality can feel extremely isolating to me at times. Other people’s ignorance can be frustrating. Knowing that much of what I have to say can make people uncomfortable is upsetting. Struggling with the consequences of my rape can be inconsistent and unpredictable, and some days are really difficult.
But the work I’ve done so far has made a difference. I believe these things will continue to change for the better, from more time and effort and support and asking for help and through this blog where I’m finally not contributing to the silence I’ve hated living in for so long.
Ultimately for me the decision to try to sexually heal has been about so much more than having sex. It has made me realize despite how thorough my sexual education was about how not to get pregnant, I knew very little about consent and how to have mutually healthy sex or even a truly healthy relationship. It has made me find a voice for myself that I’m using to say that there is a massive lack of sexual assault education, and sex ed cannot be complete without it. And even closer to my heart, I’ve been able to use this voice to communicate with my partner and have a deep and beautiful relationship that I never could have imagined would come in the aftermath of my rape.