Life after sexual assault

Relearning to love oneself after trauma is scary, but it doesn’t have to be done alone

This article contains discussion of sexual assault.

It was over a year after my assault that I finally had sex again. At first, it didn’t matter that I was in a loving relationship full of trust and goodness, both of which I had long denied myself. It didn’t matter that I finally felt safe in someone’s arms again — all that mattered was that someone was using my body, and in a matter of seconds I was transported back to a scene I kept reliving. I felt cold sweats, as if waking up from a nightmare: the low sinking of an anxious stomach on a night out, the fizz of fear I got if someone was genuinely interested in me. After I had sex again, I just sat on a park bench staring into the cool, dark space around me and tried to make sense of how I was feeling.

Having sex showed me just how much trauma I still unwillingly harboured something I will grapple with with varying degrees of success for the rest of my life. Someone will touch you in a particular way or in a particular place; you’ll hear a song or smell a familiar cologne. The smallest trigger used to send me crumbling, and though it has gotten easier and easier with every full night of sleep I get without thinking of it, people don’t tell you that dealing with your trauma isn’t a linear process. Some days I can’t believe that it had prevented me from having sex with my boyfriend for the first four months of our relationship. I’m standing at the finish line, having navigated my way through my trauma, scathing, scolding my sleepless nights. I know deep in my heart that I am safe and loved, so it is difficult to not feel ashamed of how long it took for me to trust him. Other days, the thought of holding his hand terrifies me and it’s like I’m trapped in a mindset where anyone who wants to touch me wants to hurt me.

“I felt guilty to my past self, like I was undermining the way I once felt by slowly but surely recovering.”

Beneath the trauma, though, there is a horrible denial of your own pleasure. Since my sexual assault, I had several sexual interactions with men, though never sexual intercourse, but the instances were always unimportant and trivial and not especially pleasurable. I would drink copious amounts of alcohol and go on the hunt for self validation of my general okayness — it was my way of telling myself and my friends that I was alright with aggressive self-acceptance, and persistence with the physicality of intimacy and none of the emotion. I had been freefalling since it happened to me; my body was disposable. The sexual acts always served the men I was with, and I ignored my own sexual needs and desires. The idea of my body being pleasured and loved by my boyfriend made my stomach churn that I deserved to have sex and actually enjoy myself was the hardest thing I’ve had to relearn. I felt guilty to my past self, like I was undermining the way I once felt by slowly but surely recovering. I didn’t even let myself masturbate for months afterwards. I didn’t think I deserved to feel satisfied or enjoy myself. Somebody used my body as a thing and I believed that that was all it was worth.

I know that those things I internalised are horrific and untrue. I want to be loved; I’m ready to be appreciated and put back together, but so many fibres of my being were pushing me into isolation and fear at the thought of exposing that vulnerability. Though being in a relationship has been a scary challenge, there is no doubt that it has helped me massively. The main thing I’ve learned is that this is still an issue that I need to address even a year after the fact. It’s taught me that this is something I need to acknowledge every time I take my clothes off, every time I get kissed by surprise, everytime there is a boundary that needs to be set because of a random discomfort that I can’t put into words. There is authentic love and care behind every moment of physical touch: something I had refused to let myself believe. I am allowed to be desirable and get enjoyment out of that, not fear. I deserve for someone to be gentle with my body I deserve to have fun. I deserve to want to have sex, to give into my own needs without shame and an anxious knot in my stomach. 

My experience has taught me that I can’t navigate my way through my personal trauma alone. Something as simple as an earnest conversation with your friend, or a good listener, or a partner that won’t judge you when you act all funny and then cry, is crucial. My emotional distress isn’t my fault, and the way I have suffered isn’t my fault, so why am I still punishing myself everytime I deny support? Yes, it’s my body and I am finally proud of that, but I didn’t have to spend a year coming to that realisation on my own. As the wise Hermione Granger once said, “Fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself”. I’m open with my friends about it, and, as always, a dizzying number of them relate to my experience. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and spontaneous sex with no second thoughts yet, and I would never want to gloss over what feels like an inescapable terror of recovery as I am coming out the other side. But every time I talk about it, write about it, cry about it, I feel a little lighter.  

“I deserve to have sex and enjoy it to enjoy the way my body works and responds and functions.”

The initial sex was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done revisiting something traumatic I honestly never thought that I would have to experience again. It was exactly how you’d imagine sex after sexual assault to be: heartbreaking and terrifying. The body I had spent so long learning to love again was being used and enjoyed by someone that loved me. No one can prepare you for the feeling of your body not being your own, and the all-encompassing fear of potentially being hurt again. But I’m so tired of being tired. I deserve to forgive. I deserve to have sex and enjoy it to enjoy the way my body works and responds and functions. It’s not shameful, it’s not scary; it’s a part of me. A big, important, messy, beautiful part of me.