If you’re involved in a relationship with a sexual abuse survivor, there might be moments when you don’t know exactly how you can be most helpful in her recovery. Uncertainty about how to help is especially likely to arise when it comes to the most intimate aspects of your relationship, like sexual activity. You want to have a healthy sexual relationship with your partner, a relationship that leads to well-being and continued healing, but what does this look like?
To help understand the survivor perspective, consider that, for a survivor, her initial sexual experiences happened when she was being threatened, coerced, or manipulated. She wasn’t in a situation where she was able to fully understand what was going on and give consent. Due to these negative experiences, sex and trauma can be strongly linked in her brain. This connection isn’t something a survivor can just forget about or disregard. A supportive partner can be a key part of healing. Here are some specific things you can do to foster a healthy sexual relationship:
Focus on Intimacy, Not Just Sex
Intimacy involves deeply knowing and trusting someone. Survivors often have difficulty trusting people, especially if the perpetrator of abuse was a trusted individual like a close friend or family member. Spend time building intimacy with your partner. Focus on both physical and emotional intimacy. Build physical intimacy through activities like holding hands, giving massages, or just sitting together to watch a movie. Emotional intimacy can come from genuine conversations about feelings, hopes, dreams, and worries. Strong physical and emotional intimacy can lead to a healthier and more satisfying sexual relationship for both partners.
Recognize That Sex Can Be a Trigger
A trigger is something that sparks a memory and reminds people of a traumatic event. Triggers can make a survivor experience a flashback where she feels like abuse is happening again. Unfortunately, sex can be a trigger for many survivors. If you notice that your partner is beginning to shut down or experience anxiety during sex, it could mean that she no longer feels safe. Maybe her triggers include certain positions, sexual acts, places, or smells that you should avoid. Recognize that sex is an activity you will need to approach with care and understanding.
One of the keys to the success of your relationship is frequent and open communication. Discuss what is acceptable and what is off-limits when it comes to sex. Your goal here isn’t to explore past trauma in graphic detail. Your goal is to establish what will make her feel safe and comfortable. A survivor might feel like she’s ready for sexual intercourse but then changes her mind. If your partner ever says she wants to stop what you’re doing, then stop. Continuing to have sex will only damage your relationship and possibly make it more difficult to be intimate in the future.
Survivors need to build trust with their sexual partners and feel like they are in charge of their sexual experiences. Focus on ways that you can make sex a safe activity that will empower the survivor in your life and strengthen our sexuality to get healthy.