Sexual Assault & Its Impact On Intimacy
Sexual assault, abuse, and violence can wreak havoc on the lives of victims. It can result in guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a host of other mental health issues. Unsurprisingly, it also often affects survivors’ ability to have healthy sexual and romantic relationships in the future.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost half of women in the US have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, and 1 in 5 have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. Nearly a quarter of men have experienced sexual violence. This means that a large percentage of relationships are affected by sexual assault and intimacy issues as a result. So, whether you or your partner is a survivor, what can you do to work toward healthy intimacy?
How Does Sexual Assault Impact People’s Future Relationships?
Sexual assault is one of the most personal forms of violence you can experience. It can create lasting trauma in both the body and the mind, and fundamentally alter your ability to trust, be vulnerable, and feel safe with others. This can make intimacy difficult for sexual assault survivors, even with someone you love deeply.
Survivors may have the following experiences in a relationship after being sexually assaulted:
Fear of intimacy
Because sex is an intimate act, sexual assault can violate your ability to be freely intimate with others, relationally and sexually. This can manifest in many ways, from a general fear of relationships to a fear of vulnerability within relationships.
Trauma often results in feeling a sense of hyperarousal or hypervigilance, leaving you on edge, jumpy, and easily triggered. In cases of sexual assault, this hyperarousal often surfaces during sexual encounters following the assault.
One way we cope with trauma, especially bodily trauma like sexual violence, is dissociation, or disconnecting from ourselves, our thoughts, feelings, memories, or our bodies. This can be a protective measure at the time of assault or immediately after, but it can create long-term problems if it continues.
You may experience flashbacks to the assault, especially during sex, even if it is completely consensual and within a loving relationship.
Lack of sexual desire or pleasure
You may find that because of your sexual trauma, you have low libido or trouble enjoying sex with your partner.
Sexual assault is a breach of trust. You may struggle to trust others, especially romantic partners, after experiencing it.
How Can Sexual Assault Survivors Overcome Intimacy Issues?
If the list above overwhelms you, know that you are not alone, and that healing from your trauma is possible. There are many techniques available to help you work toward healing as an individual and in your relationships. Some include:
The Active Sexual Consent Model
Many couples benefit from practicing active consent, which allows for an ongoing dialogue around sexual consent. Rather than consent being a simple “yes” or “no,” it is seen as something that can happen before, during, and after sexual intimacy. The goal is to create an atmosphere of safety and clear boundaries around what each partner feels comfortable with. This can go a long way toward overcoming the fear of intimacy that comes from sexual assault.
Integration of the Mind and Body
Often, survivors of sexual assault find ways of compartmentalizing the trauma in order to cope with it. While this may seem to work in the short term, it can actually lead to problems like depression, anxiety, and a disconnect between the mind and body. Working to reintegrate the two can help you be more present with your partner during sexual intimacy.
Releasing Yourself from Guilt and Shame
Many sexual assault survivors are racked with feelings of guilt and shame as a result of their trauma. Once you truly understand and believe that nothing that happened to you was your fault, the guilt and shame that may be preventing you from being vulnerable with your partner can begin to fall away.
According to research published by St. Catherine University, individual therapy focusing on trauma work is an important aspect of healing from sexual assault and intimacy issues. Individual therapy for the partner of a sexual assault survivor can also be beneficial.
Couples therapy is helpful in more ways than one. Not only can it can help your partner understand your trauma, it can allow for open discussion about how your relationship is impacted by the assault, and what you and your partner can do to work through any issues together.
If you or your partner has been a victim of sexual assault, Willow House offers a safe place for the treatment of a wide range of intimacy issues and the emotional trauma that underlies them. Our caring professionals use time-tested, proven clinical methods to treat the whole person and create lasting healing for the individual so they can have fulfilling intimate relationships free of past pain. Reach out today to learn more.