Getting back to intimacy after sexual assault
When she was in her early twenties, Sasha* was raped by a friend of a friend who forced himself on her as she lay half asleep on the sofa at her mate’s student house.
The next day, Sasha’s boyfriend arrived in the same city to start the same university as her. The two of them had planned for this to be the start of the next stage of their relationship together, and were excited at the prospect of no longer having to do long distance.
But because of what happened, Sasha suddenly found she was no longer able to have an intimate relationship with the man she had been dating for nearly two years.
“A week passed and I still didn’t want to have sex with him,” says Sasha. “He was busy with fresher’s week, so didn’t really suspect anything, but two weeks in he clocked on.” Sasha finally broke down and explained what had happened. She had been too scared to tell him sooner, worried she would ruin his first week at university.
After being told, Sasha’s boyfriend was confused about where this left them, and their sexual relationship. “I just had to tell him I trusted him, but that the thought of being intimate was terrifying to me,” says Sasha. “It was a good five to six months until we started having sex again.”
One in five women aged 16 to 59 have experienced some form of sexual violence since they were 16. Approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales per year. Given how much sexual assault goes unreported, both these figures are likely to be much higher.
Intimacy can often be hard for women who haven’t been raped or sexually assaulted, thanks to pressures from society on how we must look, act, and behave in the bedroom, let alone for those who suddenly find themselves in a position where it is difficult to separate sex from trauma.
How can they regain trust with themselves and others again? How can they even contemplate going to their gynaecologist, or going for a smear test, let alone have sex again?
Answering the latter question was the reason why Pavan Amara started the My Body Pack Project in 2014, when she realised doctors and health professionals aren’t actually given any specific training in dealing with women who may have experienced sexual assault.
“When I set up the project I had spoken to my own GP about this and explained what the issues were. For a lot of women there is so much going on psychologically as well as physiologically, so it’s not really just a case of offering a double appointment and a soothing voice,” says Pavan.
Unfortunately, at the moment, that’s all NHS health services are able to offer, as currently staff aren’t given any extra training on treating those who have been victims of sexual assault. My Body Back’s first clinic is in London, and a second, in Scotland, has just opened.
The project not only offers specialist services like cervical screening and a maternity clinic to fill the gap in service provision, but also runs Café V in London, a quarterly session to help women learn to love their bodies after sexual violence, and which tackles things such as masturbation, and how to enjoy sex with your partner again.
“Obviously sexual violence is using sex as a weapon, so sex then becomes intertwined with violence,” says Pavan, and she recalls speaking to women who had problems not just with sex but even with, for example, cleaning themselves in the shower, or touching themselves intimately. “I remember speaking to one woman who said her vagina felt like a ‘war zone’ after she was raped,” she adds. “This really summed up what a lot of women feel after sexual violence.”
In fact, even learning to enjoy masturbation can be hard, let alone engaging in a sexual relationship with a partner. “Masturbation was something a lot of women said they wanted to try because they wanted to find out on their own terms again what they enjoyed, but they were scared of initiating flashbacks,” Pavan says.
Other women may have issues with orgasm, and feel guilty if they do climax as they convince themselves that if their traumatic experience was really that bad, then they should never enjoy sex again.
These implications of guilt, and skewed punishment and reward systems go deeper in some instances. Someone may, for example, have sexual fantasies involving being dominated sexually prior to being raped. After being raped, they might convince themselves it was their own fault as they had previously fantasised about such a situation.
In Sasha’s case, the guilt manifested as starting to question whether or not she’d actually been raped, to the extent where she wondered if she had simply cheated on her boyfriend.
“My boyfriend wanted to know all the details, to get it all out, but I didn’t want to relive it because I felt like I had cheated,” says Sasha. “I felt like I had allowed it to happen and because it happened just before the start of our new life together, I felt like the future had been tainted.”
So what can you do to enjoy intimacy again? Is it a case of time being a good healer, or can you actively take steps to feel comfortable sexually again?
“The most important thing,” says Pavan, “is not to put any pressure on yourself at all. Being ready to engage in sexual activity again depends on so many things.”
Firstly, one of the biggest barriers to overcome is how you even go about explaining to your current, or a new, partner what you have been through. “You can avoid telling your partner about everything, but explain that it still affects you and sometimes if you say you need to stop, then you mean you need to stop,” says Pavan.
Women may feel under pressure to get back to normal straight away, especially if they are in a relationship. But the most important thing is to put yourself first, and take things very slowly.
Because of this, Pavan empathises the importance of really learning to be comfortable with your body again, before being comfortable sharing your body with someone else. “One of the tips we give to women at Café V is to enjoy having a shower and making it a really sensual, good experience,” she says.
The women who come to Café V are told to use showering as an opportunity to figure out which parts of their body they like being touched and how it makes them feel. The next time they shower, they are told to experiment with different pressures of touch, and evaluate what they enjoy and what they don’t.
“If you set time aside to do that it has a huge impact, because many women who haven’t experienced any violence haven’t given themselves that time,” says Pavan. “Again, I think that’s because of patriarchal myths.”
Pavan and her team at Café V also advise women to take themselves out on a date every week. “Go out and do something you really enjoy, then go home and have a bath, light candles, masturbate,” says Pavan. “Don’t put yourself under any pressure, just listen to your body.”
For Sasha, it was this focus on what felt right for her and when that ultimately helped her back into a happy and reciprocal sexual relationship with her boyfriend. “For my boyfriend and I it was about being ok with having my body out, and him touching it,” she says.
“For a long time he would always ask ‘is this ok’ before touching me or doing anything,” Sasha adds. “I thought this was bad at the time because nothing was spontaneous, but I also needed it to be that way.
“Gradually, the more we had sex, I gradually build up trust in myself, and allowed myself to be ‘vulnerable’ again.”
*Name has been changed