This Is What It’s Like To Have Sex After Being Raped: One Woman’s Story
Eleven months after I was raped, I laid in bed with a childhood friend talking and flirting. Then he turned to me and asked: “So, is this going to happen?”
My body stopped functioning: My chest constricted; my shoulders curled forward; my breathing slowed, and nearly stopped. My muscles became rigid and my jaw tightened. To put it neatly, I froze, deer in the headlights. Any attraction I had been feeling towards him moments before was wiped clean off my radar.
“I guess you should go home,” I said to him.
That was the first of many times I was in bed with a man I wouldn’t sleep with, though I wanted to. I realised I was at least as afraid of my panic response as I was of what he might try to do. I was trying to avoid the panic, to fight my body.
Re-Building My Sexual Confidence
After my rape, and about the same time I was fortunate enough to start seeing a therapist, I began reading up on recovery from sexual assault. I wanted to learn more about PTSD, which I was diagnosed with, and hear stories from other people who had come out on the other end of the mess I was in.
But I noticed something that struck me as strange: For the most part, research on, stories about and discussions of sexual violence didn’t touch on one of the most significant struggles I was dealing with — sex after rape.
When it was included, it was usually only brought up in fairly conservative ways: how to build trust with a significant other, how to feel safe during sex, how to feel comfortable communicating. Sure, those things were important, and I certainly needed to get back to a baseline of feeling safe in bed and communicating my needs.
But I was 20 years old and not looking to date anybody seriously. I cared as much about my sexual confidence as I did about emotional intimacy with another person; as much about reclaiming fun as preventing panic attacks; as much about casual dating as long-term relationship building. I didn’t just want to feel safe during sex, I wanted to feel pleasure — nails-tearing-the-sheets pleasure. I didn’t want to settle for the conservative sex life my rape-recovery research suggested was all that was left for me.
For me, grappling with sex after sexual assault was as much about the times I did not have sex as the times I did. Rape has lasting effects on a person’s sex life, but for some, like me, one of the biggest effects was the length of time it took for me to have sex again. I did not have sex for over 21 months after the rape. Not all rape victims go without sex for that long; some avoid it for longer. But that was a lot of months for me, a previously sexually active young woman. I was lonely and horny. I craved a man’s body on me and near me and in me.
After the rape but before I had sex again, I thought of myself as two people: terrified-of-guys-Katie and constantly-horny-Katie. It was a joke, but it was also true to my conflicted feelings.
“I don’t want to have sex,” I said breathless, hyperventilating, to the first guy I would go on to really hook up with post-rape. Our clothes were mostly on the floor or squished up under the sheets, and I had balled myself up as small as possible at the foot of the bed. Nothing was wrong, but everything was wrong. I don’t remember exactly what prompted this particular panic attack. It could have been any of my typical PTSD triggers: touching my wrists, pulling my hair, anything with teeth.
“I don’t want to have sex with you, either,” he said.
I forgot not to breathe, confused. “Of course you want to have sex,” I told him. “We were about to have sex.”
“I don’t want to have sex with you when you don’t want to have sex; why would I want to do that? That doesn’t make sense.”
I had never thought about it that way. Consenting to sex is a given; making “assumptions” about what the other person wants is, for me, a deal-breaker. Even though I felt the same way as this guy, I had never been able to put those feelings into words. Not only was consent necessary; it was also a prerequisite for my own interest in any sexual encounter. If my partner didn’t want to sleep with me, not only would we stop, but my interest would disappear, too. (Consequently, when I am propositioned, I say no, more often than not. But we are much more likely to have sex if it is my idea.)
One time, a man I was sleeping with wrapped his rough fingers around my right wrist — one of my primary triggers — and I froze. Every one of my muscles contracted. I yanked my hand away. He froze, too, confused. “I don’t like that,” I said, waving my wrist so he knew what I was talking about. “Sorry,” I said, some of the old shame creeping back.
“You don’t have to be sorry,” he said. “I have to learn not to do that.” We both smiled and got back to it.
It’s conversations like these that have made the biggest difference in my own recovery. Yes, I’ve spoken with other people struggling with similar issues, but there’s nothing like a positive, real-life experience to prove to myself that sex can be safe, comfortable, shame-free and hot.
My Advice To Other Women
Everybody walks into a sexual interaction with their own histories — some may be more violent than others, but nobody is really spared. We all struggle with self-esteem, or body image, or trauma. Sexual violence victims may have particularly complicated sexual pasts and presents, but hearing from others struggling with the same exact challenges as me has made me feel better about my own issues. Some people call issues like mine baggage; since they are inevitable and ordinary, I just think of them as part of being human.
This is the message that I wish I could send to all people struggling with sexual assault or sexual harassment or even old-fashioned (and new-fashioned) sexism: “You are not alone.” These struggles are isolating and their effects are far-reaching, a combination that proves frustrating, draining and sometimes downright dangerous. But the truth is, these issues affect all women, and many men, in some capacity. Why are we so quiet when the influence of these events is so ubiquitous?
There is a growing dialogue about the prevalence of sexual violence — just look at the #MeToo movement. But we haven’t discussed the complicated impact of sexual violence on individuals in a widespread, meaningful conversation. It’s time to start having those conversations.
If you or a loved one, have been sexually assaulted, you can contact the toll-free Survivors’ Support Service on *134*1994*1#. This service is anonymous and will direct you to your nearest hospital, clinic, survivors shelter, and Thuthuzela Care Centres.