How to be intimate after rape

Rape is a form of sexual violence involving the invasion of someone’s personal and physical boundaries. Justyna Muller, a Senior Counsellor at Support After Rape & Sexual Violence Leeds (SARSVL), discusses how to reconnect with your sexual self after a traumatic incident.

Many people struggle with intimacy after sexual violence

A rape victim can sometimes experience difficulties with desire and intimacy. This doesn’t necessarily mean a survivor doesn’t want intimacy. Sometimes the opposite is true, and they would really like to feel close to someone. But at the same time, being intimate can trigger fear and other reactions, which might make them want to block out desire and avoid intimacy.

The survivor might feel physical pain in different parts of their body, or a feeling of suffocation, panic, difficulty breathing, or flashbacks – vivid memories of what happened through visions, smells, sounds or body sensations. This can feel scary and confusing.

Things will improve with time

It is completely normal. This will get better with time and patience, after re-learning to be intimate with a partner who feels safe. Stressful events in the future can trigger memories though, and people might experience some challenges many years later. This is completely normal, and it doesn’t mean that it has to stay like this or there’s something wrong with you. Some survivors won’t struggle with intimacy after sexual violence, and that’s normal too. There’s no right or wrong way to be or feel.

It’s your choice whether or not to tell a partner

You don’t have to tell a partner anything or everything; it’s up to you. Do what feels safe and right for you. If you do decide to tell your partner, you could let them know you might need extra support to feel safe with them, and space to be upset when you need to.

For partners, it’s important to show care, understanding and to listen, not only for words but also for physical clues. Like if someone suddenly seems to need some space, offer them a little space, but let them know that you are still there for them. Take it easy and encourage gentle communication, but don’t ask too many questions. If you see they’re getting upset, give them space and change the subject. Remember there is no time-frame to recovery, everyone is different, and the triggers can happen suddenly many years later. But together with understanding, care and affection, you can both enjoy many intimate moments.

There is no such thing as normal sex

Who knows what normal is or feels like when it comes to sex? But it can feel pleasurable and fun. Your physical body might be triggered at times; remember these are memories and if you’re safe, bring yourself to the present moment, remind yourself where you are and that you are safe now, and that you’re in control and that it’s OK to be intimate. You can always stop, do something else, and reground yourself. This is all normal.

You are not on your own

If your intimacy had been affected after sexual violence, this is completely understandable.

Reconnect with your body, learn what makes you feel safe and what gives you pleasure. Talk to someone: call a Rape Crisis helpline, see a counsellor, or talk to a good friend or partner. There are many websites, books and forums you can connect with and talk to.

Remember there is nothing wrong with having intimacy. Have fun and enjoy yourself in the process, but remember to also accept the sad, frustrated and angry parts of yourself too, and create an outlet for intense emotions, as intimacy can often release intense feelings, both the nice and the more challenging.

If you need further support, have a look at the SARSVL or Rape Crisis websites.

Next Steps

  • Rape Crisis offers support and advice to victims of rape and sexual assault, no matter how long ago the attack was. 0808 802 99 99
  • SurvivorsUK offers advice and support to male victims of rape and sexual assault. Text on 020 3322 1860.
  • Relate is an affordable relationship and sex counselling service. 0300 100 1234
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

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Updated on 28-Mar-2018