Content Note: Sexual Violence
If you had asked me a few years ago if I thought I could ever be in a healthy relationship, I would have politely said no and then excused myself from the conversation to go cry in the bathroom. But today, six years after escaping an abusive relationship in which I was repeatedly raped, I am now married to an amazing man and have a healthy, wonderful marriage.
A few years ago, when I attempted to start dating again, I told my Dad that I was facing a lot of difficulties because of what had happened to me. His response: "Don’t worry, a lot of girls don’t want to have sex before they’re married." It surprised me that even after our many conversations, his understanding of my abuse was that it primarily centered on issues surrounding sex.
Sure, concerns about physical intimacy were part of what I was dealing with, but the knot of trauma I was trying to untie was so much more complicated than he—and many people in my life—imagined. After my abuse, even a small, affectionate touch, like a hug, could bring back memories of violence. And given the mental manipulation I had experienced, even simple, normal requests felt like calculating control.
I lived in a state of constantly heightened vigilance, which made gentle, rational arguments feel like they approximated abuse. I thought I wasn’t worth hearing, so I became shut down, closed off, and difficult to talk to. I couldn’t believe that I was worthy of love, so I wouldn’t allow myself to love fully.
One of my best friends was sexually abused when she was a child, and she would tell me when we were growing up how she believed no one would ever really love her because of it. This never made a grain of sense to me until I experienced sexual abuse as well. Assault does not constrain itself to the realm of sexuality—it’s pervasive. It can mess with every part of your life.
These issues became more and more present as my relationship with my now-husband, Brian, became more serious and accelerated toward marriage. For instance, if he asked me to text him when I got safely to a friend’s house after driving late at night, I got suspicious and upset, doubting his intentions, assuming this was a way to control me instead of a sincere gesture of concern for my well-being.
The smallest quarrels felt like they were about to escalate to violence, and I would shy away from touch when we were having a disagreement. I treated him, a man who never had and never would raise a finger to hurt me, as if he were about to turn into a monster. My actions and reactions hurt the man I loved and prevented us from deepening our bond. My desire for nourishing our relationship led me to realize that I needed to address the trauma I had unsuccessfully tried to box up in my mind.
The path to healthy relationships isn’t always easy, but the work is worth it.
This is primarily because we have to come face-to-face with the experience and reality of our abuse. When survivors dig up the past in order to lay down a foundation for a happier future, we often face heightened symptoms like hypervigilance, intrusive images and thoughts, flashbacks, and avoidance behaviors, and I was no exception.
It took years of hard conversations, agonizing counseling sessions, and difficult decisions to identify my issues, lessen reactions, and leave unhealthy coping behaviors behind, but every step of that journey was worth it to be where I am today. Choosing to face the reality of the trauma that you have experienced is one of the most uncomfortable processes you can choose to enter into—but the payoff can be immense.
Kristen Paruginog, founder of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit that works to provide help and healing to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, also stresses the importance of focusing on yourself and your healing after surviving sexual violence. "There are so many different avenues that people could use to find themselves again," she says. Kristen believes that it is vital to focus on loving yourself first, a challenge for so many of us.
"Getting into a relationship means that you are giving yourself to somebody else, and you can’t give to other people if you can’t give to yourself first. Have fun, rely on your friends, love on them, let them love you back, and fill yourself up." She encourages all of us to find healthy friends and groups to explore new lives with as we heal.
Many survivors wonder, as I did, if the possibility of a thriving, long-term relationship is even on the table for them. "The prospects of building a bright, healthy relationship post-trauma are huge," says trauma specialist Bill Bray, MA, LPC. But he stresses the importance of seeking out therapy (and potentially couples’ therapy), along with education resources to facilitate the building of a promising relationship.
There’s a ripple of effect of sexual trauma in our relationships.
As my father asked me years ago, many people wonder why sexual assault affects more than "just" sex in a survivor’s life. Deanna Ward, LMFT, a trauma-informed EMDR clinician, explains it this way: "It isn’t really about sex. It’s about control, it’s about a lack of choice… it can be about humiliation, and sometimes making the victim experience self-loathing and disgust in themselves because of what they were made to do. It is a violation in the worst way. It affects trust of others, it affects vulnerability, and often can affect both physical and emotional intimacy."
How can survivors overcome these issues? One specific strategy is to become empowered in your communication—simply by being honest. "Communicate with your partner," Ward says. "Don’t be ashamed to share how you feel with them. Know that an appropriate partner will always be considerate of this and never use it against you."
And there are strategies for helping us regain our sex lives too.
When entering into physical intimacy with a new partner, Ward recommends above all taking things slowly. For many rape survivors, the mere prospect of having sex can trigger panic attacks, as well as fear, mistrust, and confusion. Ward emphasizes the importance of emotional intimacy and open communication.
"Let your partner know that you may react with fear or panic, or you may ask them to stop what they are doing. It could take some time to get the full enjoyment of having sex in a safe way," she says.
Ward also reiterates the truth that a safe partner will be considerate of where you are in your journey. Though the violence of sexual trauma oftentimes causes any act regarding sex to be viewed with confusion at best, a patient and gentle relationship can foster physical intimacy as a means of beautiful connection instead of a trigger for terror.
Human beings are resilient—symptoms of sexual assault don’t have to be a lifelong sentence.
I can attest to the truth in Ward’s words. Empowered communication was one of the most powerful tools that I was able to wield against my trauma. At first, I was scared to say what I meant, but as Ward says, when you are with the right person, they’ll never use your words to shame you—they’ll just listen. As I became more vocal and honest with Brian, we were able to pinpoint the heart of why I would often respond to small arguments the way I did, address the issue, and move through our story even stronger.
When later crossing the threshold of physical intimacy together, all of the fear and anxiety I had anticipated would be waiting for me had dissipated in the presence of a loving, respectful, and well-established relationship. Today, I still deal with issues revolving around my trauma, but partially because of this improved communication, my issues are markedly better than they were even a year or two ago.
And EMDR can help with this too.
One symptom of PTSD that can interfere with intimate relationships is re-experiencing trauma, such as flashbacks. "Some sexual trauma survivors can experience panic attacks during lovemaking with a romantic partner due to a trauma-related cue," Bray says. There are many potential triggers for a PTSD flashback, but sex is among them, and the experience can be frightening for both partners. Thankfully, it is also one that can be worked through.
To help manage this issue, Bray suggests two specific trauma related therapies: Somatic Experiencing (SE) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Both SE and EMDR have been shown to help reduce PTSD triggers and symptoms resulting from sexual trauma.
EMDR in particular has been instrumental in my own healing. For years, shame and self-blame was one of the biggest obstacles in my way toward recovery. I never had a moment of hesitation showing compassion and understanding toward anyone else, but when it came to my own story, I was judgmental, impatient, and harsh. Through EMDR sessions, I was able to identify real story behind what had happened to me: that the blame rested fully in the hands of my rapist, rather than an event I deserved or had brought upon myself. As I learned to stop blaming myself, I could become truly vulnerable with my husband.
Abuse is infinitely unfair.
It forces, us, the survivors, to make an awful choice: We can either expend exhausting quantities of energy resolving our issues or sit with unresolved trauma time bombs that can go off basically whenever, harming our relationships and ourselves. For a very long time, I was enraged by this injustice; some days, I still am. But I had to make the decision to stay there in my trauma and wallow, or wade into the muck that was contaminating my relationship and begin the process of uprooting it. With the help of counselors, friends, and my supportive and loving partner, I ended up choosing the latter.
Human beings are resilient. Symptoms of sexual assault don’t have to be a lifelong sentence—whatever you have experienced or endured, there is hope for every aspect of your future, including your relationships, and it is infinitely worth the fight.
I was fortunate in that counseling was able to be a part of my journey, but the cost can be prohibitive for some. Many cities and counties offer discounted counseling to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence or free group therapy. If you want to look for tangible help in your own path toward healing, this collection of local and national resources may be of assistance.
Jo Beckwith is a Colorado girl with a heart for fellow trauma survivors. After years of struggling with PTSD, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder, she began publicly speaking out about her experiences in 2017. Jo spends her time advocating for and helping fellow survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence, and educating supporters on how to best help their loved ones deal with the aftermath of trauma. To stay up to date with her latest videos and articles, subscribe to her YouTube channel, visit her site, or check her out on Facebook and Instagram.