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Illustration by Sakina Saidi @heyimsakina

How to navigate sex after sexual trauma

words by Megan Warrender

CW: trauma/sexual assault

The process of dealing with the aftermath of sexual trauma is a long one. One that I have not yet finished – nor do I think I will ever “finish.” Sex – the way I think about it, the way I feel about it and the way I have it, is changed for me forever. Furthermore it is constantly evolving and changing, and with each step I take to heal myself mentally and physically, even momentarily my feelings still snap, like flicking a switch, if I’m touched in a certain way or a little thought weaves its way into my head for even a split second. It is completely different for everyone, and something that I have never discussed with other survivors (had never felt ready or able to, until now), therefore I could be missing the mark with my experience completely, but the direct answer to the title of this piece is actually ‘I don’t have a clue.’

How was I meant to enjoy something that is now inextricably linked to the most traumatic thing I have ever experienced? The thing that isolated me from all of my friends and family, the thing that I couldn’t talk about because I thought I had made it up, the thing that now means I suffer daily with severe PTSD. I couldn’t even think about sex, the possibility of it, or talk about it lightheartedly with friends – all of my sexual identity was stripped back to nothing. I couldn’t masturbate out of fear of the sensation, I couldn’t get to sleep without reliving the trauma. So I did the only thing I knew how: pretend it didn’t happen. Healthy – right?

After that undoubtedly didn’t work, eventually, through lots of work and passing of time, I got to know myself again, bit by bit, so that I would not be tormented by such vivid traumatic flashbacks when I finally hopped into bed with someone else. This grace period of me-time – a LOT of me time, helped me track my boundaries and see how they were changing. At first I couldn’t even think about having a sexy time with anyone, but slowly, I dipped my toe in (figuratively) just by letting my mind wander, and if it got too much I would open my eyes and do something completely different, whack on the telly and forget about it for now. If anyone who is a specialist and is reading this thinking NO NO NO then I apologise. I didn’t know how to help myself and wasn’t ready to talk to anyone about it, and this was my way of feeling like I was making progress. I learned what I liked and didn’t like, (that was different now from before), was patient with myself and yes it is nowhere near as simple as I am making it out to be right now. Kink is also something that becomes much more complicated for survivors, and it can feel impossible to shake the guilt of your desires. When I first made myself orgasm, I had to remind myself that it was something powerful, that it was my choice to do that and this person who ruined me for so long no longer holds his vice-like grip over my sexual agency.

Illustration by Sakina Saidi @heyimsakina

Navigating sex with a new partner is petrifying. Not petrifying in the same way as you are nervous about your first sexual experience, (I would have used the word petrifying when I was first trying to give 16 year old sweaty skater boi a hand job), but alas that was mere teen nerves of the unknown. I mean petrifying in the sense that I was thinking, am I going to cry or have a panic attack during sex or am I going to be sick on my partner, or most of all, is this going to be just as traumatising as my worst fears and undo all the hard work I have been doing on my way to recovery. It is going to be different for everyone, but just so you know, telling your sexual partner about your fears is going to make everything easier – I didn’t, and looking back it just made the whole thing more traumatising for me. My (now long term very caring) partner has supported me wholeheartedly in this aspect of our relationship, listening, learning, and never probing me for more information than I have wanted to give. I have a very happy, consensual, fulfilled sex life, and that makes me feel like I am the strongest person in the world.

However, sharing a bed with someone often proved to be tricky. Even now, sleepovers with friends or family members are a new thing to navigate. Making sure I know where I am, who it is sleeping next to me, and warning them incase I panic or hit them in the night. I’d like to make a formal apology to all my lankier friends for my behaviour – sharing a bed with you categorically fills me with fear when I am in a half-slumber.

I want to be sex-positive, flaunt my sexuality and own it as I see so many inspiring people on the internet doing. But I’m not there yet.

And yes, that makes me sad sometimes, it can be hard to accept, and I wonder what these last 4 years of my life would have been like if I had not been absolutely derailed by my assault.

That being said, I can’t believe how far I have come. It is possible to enjoy sex again – and that is something I thought I would never say. Boundaries are so so important, knowing your own, and making sure that the person you’re having sex with is listening and respecting those boundaries. Even now, years later, I can still panic and shut down during sex of any kind, but I try not to see that as a step in the wrong direction. It doesn’t mean I am regressing in terms of my recovery, recovery in all ways is never linear. Part of me hates that I will always have to consider these extra precautions before becoming intimate with another person, but I am doing the best I can with the immense help and support I receive from loved ones. It is easier said than done, I know.

I can’t even believe that I am writing this, reading about all the work I have done to enjoy such a basic primal human pleasure. That was taken away from me and I am still angry about it, and still sad. I am no longer scared of my sexuality, scared to masturbate or let anyone touch me, but I am still painfully angry that I had to overcome those things, and so do so many others. I thought that the worst thing about dealing with a sexual assault was the isolation and the loneliness, but now I realise that for me, the worst thing about sexual assault is realising that you’re not alone in your experience. I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I have gone through, and the fact that I read about it every day, in the news, all over the world, and as I grow up realising friends and family, and new people I meet have also suffered, is what is the most harrowing.

Here is a little thing dedicated to all my amazing supportive network of friends who have done more for me than I could have ever imagined:

Sharing a bed with your tall mate.
Sleepover with you again, one of my many lanky friends. Anonymous yet comforting TV show quietly whirs away to keep my focus – the same episode i’ve seen 40 times, while you snooze gently next to me. Your gender is irrelevant, but there is something about the way your body takes up the space next to me that catapults my mind back. Maybe while you sleep you roll onto me or vice versa, or, sometimes not even touching – but sensing the space occupied next to me, half asleep I panic, forgetting where I am and my first instinct is to get out. When I eventually come around, I remember to breathe from my stomach and focus on things in my room that are familiar. I slowly come back to myself. Often you wake up and reassure me, or sometimes you sleep through, completely unaware of the way your body sent me into a panic just by existing.

Nowadays, it is less frequent, under control more, remembering, even when I’m half asleep, that I am safe. Sometimes a little nudge or a push in bed is all I need to do to reassure myself – hearing you confusingly grumble OW reminds me who you are, one of my lovely friends, who just happens to be tall enough to remind me of the man who assaulted me, but all the same, you are one of my lovely friends – which is all I need to know in order to fall back to sleep.

See more of Sakina’s illustrations here

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