“Sexual assault is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can go through,” might just be the understatement of 2018. Let’s look at the facts: 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. Rape is the most under-reported crime, and 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police (National Sexual Violence Resource Center).
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you might think the trauma is long behind you. The scary truth is there’s no expiration date on trauma — you may find a sexually abusive experience from 15 years ago is still haunting you; and for many survivors, the power and prevalence of movements like #MeToo can bubble up significant sexual traumas not yet acknowledged.
Recovering from sexual abuse is difficult, especially if you don’t have access to professional guidance along the journey to healing.
One of the most commonly shared experiences for those recovering from sexual trauma is the tension between a fear of intimacy and a deep longing to feel fully embraced in an intimate partnership.
Whatever stage in the process, trauma need not keep you permanently single! This guide is designed to help survivors of sexual assault make constructive steps to dating healthfully. Please note these steps may not be in chronological order. Execute whatever steps are most helpful within the context of your trauma.
1. Heal First, Date Later
Your trauma is not your fault, no matter what the voices in your head might tell you.
That said, even though you aren’t responsible for what happened to you, you are responsible for your healing.
After sexual assault, many, if not most people, respond by suppressing their feelings, never getting help, and avoiding the pain. Avoidance is only a temporary coping mechanism, not a long-term strategy. The more you avoid the pain, the worse it’s going to feel when your psyche or body eventually forces you to confront it.
Survivors of sexual assault often find themselves single for years with a long history of ‘almost relationships’ without really understanding why. When it comes to our love lives, fear and pain must be addressed. Otherwise, trauma will eventually sabotage every romantic relationship that comes along.
In other cases, survivors jump from relationship to relationship hoping that finding “the one” will finally put them at ease. But the truth is, we can’t establish lasting love (or true intimacy) until we are at peace enough with past trauma that the swings of strong emotion and commitment can be weathered healthfully. Until then, relationships are at best superficial, and at worst emotionally disastrous.
Healing is going to be different for everyone. Some people thrive in talk-therapy, others prefer more alternative therapies like hypnosis, reiki, or acupuncture. Whatever route you choose, the most important thing is that you are committing to your wellness, not just searching for a relationship to ‘fix’ it.
2. Get a Massage
This might sound a bit weird, but after sexual assault, many shut down in response to any kind of intimate touch. Fear of intimacy is often one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome. But physical intimacy is a hugely important part of any relationship, so before you start dating again, you’ll want to re-familiarize yourself with physical contact.
Getting a massage provides a safe and relaxing way to familiarize yourself with intimate touch (and nudity) again.
If you’re more of a crunchy/granola type, getting a massage can have an added benefit. In Eastern medicine, it’s believed that trauma is stored within your body. One of the best ways to release stagnant emotions locked in your muscles is through massage!
3. Prioritize Safety
After trauma, the creation and enforcement of boundaries is paramount. Survivors pushed too far from their comfort zone while dating experience panic attacks, regressed healing, and/or heightened depression and anxiety. In other words, relapse.
To avoid this, safety should be the main priority for every single date.
That means choosing public, well-lit locations, sharing your location with a friend, and taking your sweet time before becoming sexually intimate with a love interest.
I also recommend a very thoughtful approach to consuming substances, and would argue refraining from using substances altogether is the safer choice. After sexual assault, feeling in-control with a clear mind is a major cornerstone of healthy healing. It might seem like 1-2 drinks would calm anxiety, but alcohol also has the potential to make you feel disoriented and panicky.
4. Have an Anxiety Toolkit
For many, anxiety is an unavoidable bi-product of dating, at least at first. I’ve known people who have given up dating altogether because the anxiety was simply too much to bear.
If this sounds familiar, ask yourself: “Is my anxiety a form of self-sabotage because I’m still afraid of intimacy?” If the answer is yes, continue with healing work (see point #1).
Dating anxiety can be caused by sexual assault, or other traumas (such as heart-break, rejection, divorce, etc…). No matter what, those who experience this type of anxiety need a pre-date toolkit prepared to head-off any potential issues.
This might mean going to a yoga class to center yourself before a date, texting your friend during, or writing yourself a letter explaining why you deserve love and intimacy. Another suggestion, try meditation! There are excellent guided meditations online designed specifically for pre-date jitters.
Basically, pinpoint 2-3 activities or behaviors that help you feel powerful and stable and religiously perform those activities in preparation for your date. This is really about personal care, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Cultivate the relationship with yourself that you hope to develop with another person. This is your anxiety toolkit.
5. Move Slowly
When you finally find someone you feel comfortable around, you might be tempted to jump in with both feet first, arms high in the air! But, wait… there is room for healthy hesitation here. Just because you feel great one day, doesn’t mean you are able to see the full emotional picture; you might still have a lot of healing to do before you can enter fully into a sexual and emotional partnership.
You also don’t want to ruin a good thing by jumping into a sexually intimate relationship, only to end up getting triggered and re-traumatizing yourself. Before you make any decisions, keep in mind that you are still in a healing, vulnerable place and should move forward accordingly. It might even be a good idea to consult with a therapist before becoming sexually intimate.
6. Delete the Dating Apps
Dating apps are typically not your friend when re-entering the dating world after sexual assault. It can feel overwhelming and even trigger trauma when you’re suddenly bombarded by likes and messages from potential romantic interests. You have no control over what messages will be sent to you, some of which will likely be aggressive and sexual in nature.
Plus, there isn’t a great deal of vetting you can do before meeting someone, which could end up triggering your anxiety, or worse putting you in an unsafe situation. Keep in mind, dating apps have no barrier for entry; literally anyone can join and they don’t necessarily have to provide real information.
When you start dating again, dip your toe back in the water with more traditional ways of meeting people. Ask your friends to set you up, work with a matchmaker, or reach out to that old friend you were always secretly interested in.
7. Practice Zero Tolerance for Red Flags
“That seems fishy, but maybe I’m just being paranoid. I should be open-minded and less judgmental.”
You aren’t being paranoid or judgmental, you are being a mature adult who prioritizes their own safety over being liked.
If something seems off, it probably is. And at this point, it’s better to close the door on someone nice than to end up accidentally dating someone abusive and blaming yourself later for not seeing the red flags.
When Should You Talk to Your Partner about Sexual Assault?
This is kind of a tricky question to answer. It really depends on how comfortable you feel and how emotionally intimate you are with your partner. Sharing your sexual assault story too soon could end up being too intense for your partner, especially if they are dealing with their own trauma.
That being said, it may be something important to share if you want to have a truly intimate emotional partnership. Timing is key, don’t rush it. Share when you sense it’s the right and natural point in the relationship to have that conversation.
When to share also depends on where you are in the healing journey. If you’re still in a raw and vulnerable state, sharing this information with a new partner could be overwhelming for you personally, which does not aid your healing.
Alternatively, if you are in an advanced place with your healing, letting your partner know about an experiences that has shaped you and what you are working on personally, can be liberating. Please note that however and whenever you share, it’s important that your partner is not made to feel responsible for your emotional healing. It’s great to feel supported by your partner, but everyone’s healing is ultimately their own responsibility and it’s never fair to put that pressure on another person.
Learn more about Professional Matchmaker, Isabella Beham, here.