There's no one-size-fits-all way to navigate the aftermath of trauma, especially when it comes to dating after a sexual assault. The mental, emotional, and physical side effects of surviving this experience can make dating, relationships, sex, and intimacy particularly daunting. That said, there's hope.
If you’ve experienced sexual assault, you’re not alone: One American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. An assault isn’t something that has to define you, nor does it mean you’re broken sexually or emotionally, explains Jenni Skyler, PhD, a certified sex therapist, sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist for AdamEve.com. Still, it's normal if the memory of the incident is hard to shake.
“Whenever I have a new sexual encounter, the assault is at the forefront of my mind,” explains Jenna, a 19-year-old survivor. “It’s made me very anxious in new sexual scenarios. I’ll be wanting to go further with somebody and then, all of a sudden, I will remember what happened in the past, and I feel really disgusted and I want to go home. And that's what I do.”
Reactions such as disgust, discomfort, anxiety or shame are not uncommon. That’s what makes having strategies to deal with these responses so important — they give you legitimate ways to work through your interactions while also minimizing fear and stress. The key? Knowing what makes you feel safe, respected, in control, and confident.
A great step toward healing is to find a therapist who's right for you, particularly one whose focus is on sexual trauma. Experts explain that with a therapist at your side, you’ll be better equipped to handle the dating world in a way that’s personalized to your experiences.
“I have, like, bubble wrap around myself when talking to men,” explains Kat, a 23-year-old survivor. She says therapy has made all the difference in working through the mental health impact of her assault. “I was afraid to even tell my therapist what had happened. And then once I did, I was really happy I told her. She gave me a whole new perspective on it, and she told me I didn't deserve it.” It may seem obvious, but sometimes it helps just hearing you’re not alone and that you did nothing wrong.
That said, readiness is very subjective. There’s no one straightforward answer for when to start dating again, Skyler explains. “If you can trust yourself in the company of a date, as well as trust yourself to enjoy sex while also articulating any boundaries you need, then that is a good sign of readiness.” You might be wondering what it really means to trust yourself, though. And admittedly, it can be hard to gauge whether or not you’ll enjoy dating and sex again, especially if you haven’t given it a try since your assault.
Unfortunately, there are no concrete answers to these questions, as everyone is different. Skyler recommends activities like reading books about recovery, being around supportive friends or fellow survivors, finding the right therapist, and more to help you reconnect with yourself and your desires.
“I also like joining empowering classes like Zumba or other dancing that gives a person permission to be in their body and reclaim it for themselves,” Skyler says. “Feeling empowered from the inside out is essential. You can ‘feel’ when that happens for yourself.”
If you think you’re ready to date, one of the best strategies you can implement is planning ahead. Janet Brito, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sexologist, recommends tactics like outlining your date from start to finish and creating a "yes, no, maybe" list (for example, yes, I want to kiss; no, I don’t want to hug; maybe I would hold hands if I feel comfortable in the moment) and sharing it with your date before you meet up or before you get physical.
You can also let a partner know your preferred schedule for the date, Brito explains, such as what time you’d like to be home, what fun activities you’d like to do, how you’d like to travel to and from the location, and more. You may feel more comfortable with an explicit timeline that ensures the date is surprise-free. This way, you can fully prepare for any potential obstacles.
For your own peace of mind, you can even create a safety plan with friends by letting them know where you’re going and with whom. Share your location with them via phone, and have a safe word that you’ll send in a text if you feel uncomfortable. Set guidelines beforehand so they know exactly what to do if they receive the safe word text: They can immediately pick you up, call your phone, or even contact the police.
When it comes to anything sexual, boundaries can help establish comfort. “You should be speaking of boundaries not when in the bedroom, but rather ahead of time,” Skyler explains. You do not need to convey this in the context of sexual assault. Instead, feel free to say these are simply your personal needs. If your date questions those boundaries for any reason, you may want to reconsider taking things to the bedroom.
If you want to bring up your assault, however, experts suggest waiting until you’re super comfortable in a situation (perhaps when you find your relationship getting serious). Opening up about a traumatic experience may be difficult, especially if the relationship is still relatively new. For this reason, it’s helpful to come up with a script that you know works for you.
“A sample script could be: ‘I want to tell you something important about my past. I survived [fill in the blank]. This was very hard on me and I embraced my healing as an opportunity to grow and be resilient in my body, mind, and spirit. I want you to know that I need to go slow sexually and emotionally, and I have some activities and places on my body that require certain boundaries,'" Skyler suggests.
You can also focus on a two-way dialogue, rather than a one-way announcement. You don’t need to lead a conversation with the details of your experience, but when you feel comfortable, disclosure is important in a healthy relationship.
“What helped me, personally, was opening up the conversation by asking the other person about their boundaries,” explains Finley, a 20-year-old survivor. “With this strategy, you will feel safer opening up because you're not just throwing this information at the person. Now you're exchanging information, and it gives you an opening to speak your mind after them.”
Also, keep in mind you don’t need to reveal everything right away. “Go at your own pace,” says Brito. “Gather as much info as you need before you decide to open up more.” For example, you can ask yourself the following before getting physically or emotionally vulnerable: Do you and this person share similar values? Does this person do what they say they will? Do they respect your needs?
According to both experts and survivors, these breakthrough conversations may be easier to handle when you have the help of a professional. “I think sexual assault can be something that a lot of people go through and don't even realize it,” Kat explains. “And ever since then, I always tell my friends to go to therapy. I'm pretty vocal about it, because it’s really helped me work through what happened.”
If therapy isn't within your budget, there are plenty of free resources out there to help you work through your trauma, including free therapy and other resources at Planned Parenthood. No matter your circumstance, you are not alone.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
Experts mentioned in this story:
Jenni Skyler, PhD, a certified sex therapist, sexologist and licensed marriage and family therapist.
Janet Brito, PhD, a clinical psychologist and sexologist based in Honolulu.
Experts used in reporting:
Gigi Engle, a certified sex coach, sexologist and author of All The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life.