How to Reclaim Sex After Rape

Rape is bad enough, but many survivors suffer a second misery. “What if sex is ruined for me? What if my rapist has made it impossible for me to be close to someone? What if I can never have a happy relationship again?”

I worked for years as a licensed psychotherapist and treated hundreds of rape survivors. The majority were women, which is the primary audience I’ll be discussing today. And to clarify, childhood sexual abuse and rape as an adult often lead to two separate sexual outcomes. Women who experience no sexual abuse as a child but then experience sexual assault in their teens or in adulthood often have their established view of sex shattered. It becomes associated with pain and terror and helplessness. That population often finds it difficult to connect sexually after the event.

It feels like the rapist has stolen sex from you for the rest of your life. That’s a whole new violation.

After we worked through the initial shock of the event, most of my female clients expressed fear about the future. Not just about rape happening again, but about what kind of life they could live from now on. And many of them were in relationships when their sexual assault occurred, so their sexual behavior changed abruptly, leading to disruption for their partner. This created even more guilt for the woman because her partner who hadn’t done anything wrong was now suffering because of “something that happened to me.” This made the fallout for the rape seem like her fault.

That’s guilt that a rape survivor does not need.

It’s an understatement to say that relationships are important to women. In my experience as a therapist, female depression comes primarily from feeling either unloved or feeling useless to the people you love. A woman who experiences rape is challenged on both fronts because she is terrified to receive physical love and also feels crushing guilt for not being able to meet her partner’s sexual needs. This is one major reason rape can lead to depression for women.

Sounds like a huge burden? It is. But there’s a way through it. I’ve worked with hundreds of sexual assault survivors and helped them reclaim their joy in loving sexual relationships. It can happen, but you’ve got to be intentional about fixing it.

In fact, a woman’s sex life can actually be better after she heals from sexual trauma than before the trauma happened. This is entirely dependent upon her taking a proactive and intentional approach to emotional partner engagement, communication, and understanding her natural sex drive.

There are three steps to reclaiming sexual joy after rape.

Step one is to understand why rape happens. Because the female sex drive is typically emotion-driven, female assault survivors usually ask, “What did I do to inspire the rapist to assault me?” In the woman’s mind, she must have led him on somehow and created emotional intimacy that inspired his lust. After all, that’s the only reason she would ever have inappropriate sexual desires. This is also why women tend to blame female rape victims. The standard female view is that arousal comes from emotional intimacy, so the woman must have done something to inspire the rapist.

But that’s not how male sexuality works. Men are visually stimulated creatures. A man can see two rocks together that reminds him of breasts and BAM, instant arousal. His brain starts scrolling through the list of acceptable means of relieving the sexual tension. This is standard for men, and in a loving relationship he will think of his partner first, go find them, and engage in sexual relations to relieve the tension.

But when a person has severely broken attachment, they may not see other people as people. Instead, they view other people as objects. The severity of this problem operates on a sliding scale from “I want to earn approval from these objects so they don’t hurt me” to “I’m going to exploit these objects to get my own pleasure.” When a person rapes, they’re just moving an object. It’s nothing more than that in their mind. They may feel a rush as they subdue their victim, but the victim is not a person in their eyes. They’re an object to be acted upon.

Rape, therefore, is masturbation with an object.

This sounds horrifying. And it is. To view another person that way allows monstrous behaviors. Most women can’t wrap their head around this view at all, and when they try, they feel sick. That’s a healthy response from a healthy person.

But realizing this dark truth is exactly how women can start to recover from rape. It helps them realize that the rape was not personal. That helps relieve their cycle of self-blame for inspiring lust in the attacker and making him feel that she wanted his attention. He didn’t rape because he felt emotionally connected to her. He raped because he viewed her as an object. It wasn’t her fault.

Most women who experience rape only recover when they accept that the rape was actually nothing personal, because the attacker was incapable of loving attachment and did not view them or anyone else as a human and only as an object. Most are shocked, then relieved. It’s the piece they needed to stop feeling like it was their fault.

I have never met a woman with sexual trauma who didn’t believe it was somehow her fault. Part of this is also the need to believe she can prevent it in the future. Admitting it’s beyond her power is worse than feeling guilty. When she realized it happened because broken people view other people as objects, it becomes easier to apply boundaries and feel safe that it won’t happen again. That can help stop the mental storm around, “How can I stay safe? How can I make sure this doesn’t happen again?” That in turn can help relieve symptoms of PTSD.

Step two is to understand the female biological response to rape. It’s been well documented that women often orgasm or even self-lubricate during rape. Their body’s response disgusts and confuses many female survivors. They feel betrayed by their body. They wonder if part of them liked it, if that’s why their attacker chose them because something was wrong with them. They may feel like they betrayed their current partner or that they even had an affair through rape.

The oxytocin release that accompanies female orgasm can even make some female survivors feel emotionally connected to their rapist. That neurotransmitter forcibly bonds her to the person who hurt her and makes her feel confused about how she wants to respond to the crime.

If you’re a female survivor who experienced arousal or orgasm during rape, be aware that this does not mean you are a bad person. When it comes to rape, the female body is designed to:

  1. Minimize the damage.
  2. Make the best of a bad situation.

What are sex organs for? Procreation. Your body is a life-giving machine, meant to sustain the human race through every tragedy. During the European Dark Ages, Viking raiders would take female captives back to places like Denmark and Sweden and use them as slaves. Those female slaves had to adjust to their new surroundings, and there was no birth control available. They’d get pregnant and needed to care for the resulting offspring.

It makes sense that your body wants to lubricate so you don’t tear. Orgasm increases the odds of pregnancy by placing your cervix nearer to the deposit of semen. And the oxytocin release makes you more likely to stay close to the person who impregnated you so that he might care for the resulting child and increase its odds of survival.

Understanding this process is a huge relief for many female rape survivors. Your body didn’t betray you, you didn’t enjoy the rape, and you aren’t a dirty woman. Your body was trying to make the best of a horrible situation. Something terrible was going to happen and you couldn’t stop it, but your body was ready to at least redeem the minimum good.

Your body is programmed to do what it did. You are not a bad person. You are just normal.

This awareness often helps decrease the guilt on the female survivor’s mind.

But after rape, and even after understanding the first two steps, sex can seem terrifying. Your brain now associates sexual intimacy with violence and helplessness. What can you do to break that association?

It’s easier than you think. And it doesn’t usually require years of reconditioning.

Step three to fix sexual trauma is to make sure you have a loving partner you can trust. They need to respect you and your boundaries. And you’re going to need to tell them at least the surface details of what happened. You don’t need to give a moment-by-moment description, but they need to know you experienced sexual trauma. Explaining that allows you to perform the following exercise with them.

Have your partner undress to just their underwear and lie down flat on their back. You undress to just your underwear and straddle their knees. Slide yourself up at your own pace until your clothed crotches touch. Your partner’s job is to not use their hands, and in fact you may discuss pinning their hands down so you feel a greater sense of control. You can kiss and rub together, but keep the underwear on. And you initiate every touch. Your partner’s job is to stay passive and only respond to your initiations.

Here’s the key: Every so often, you say, “Stop.” Everyone stops moving. It’s like a grown-up game of Red Light Green Light. Your partner needs to freeze completely. You may move an inch away and disconnect the crotch contact. Or you may stay close and just freeze. Whatever you need to do.

And you don’t just say “Stop” when you’re feeling uncomfortable. Say it when you feel good, too. Establish to your brain that you have total control, and that your partner is trustworthy enough to STOP. This helps your brain re-learn that sex is not about helpless terror. You have control because your partner shares that control with you. It’s based on trust and love, not who has the power.

The goal of this activity is not for anyone to achieve orgasm. Warn your partner in advance that they will not be achieving a full climax from this experience. The point is to build trust and rewire your mental association about sex. This process is called systematic desensitization, which is a fancy way of saying, “Doing something scary over and over until your brain learns that thing isn’t scary.” Once your brain realizes that sex with this trusted partner is safe, your fear response will diminish and you can enjoy yourself again.

You can reclaim your sex life

Over the years, I’ve taught this method to a lot of female rape survivors. Some of them had experienced two or more unconnected assaults and suffered PTSD episodes when they tried to have sex with partners. Many turned to alcohol and drugs to numb their brain enough to endure sex. Most could not orgasm.

This method helped even the most traumatized women return to sexual health. They were able to connect with a committed partner whom they trusted and could experience sexual joy again. They were even able to orgasm. Because this activity adds an element of emotional intimacy and communication, which improves the experience. That’s why many women who practice this method eventually report greater sexual satisfaction than they had before the assault. The sex gets better because it has to. They don’t have mindless sex, but they can have intentional and loving sex.

And yes, the mindless sex can come back eventually. Give it a few months, a year, or even a couple of years depending on the severity of the trauma. Every time you have this healthy sex, your brain rewires its association. It’s a numbers game until you overcome the initial trauma. And the impact is powerful. This level of intimate trust and connection can heal the association with sex and give female survivors a shot at a fulfilling and guilt-free sexual relationship.

Sex after rape doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. You can enjoy yourself. You need a partner you can trust to stop when you say stop. Then you need to prove to yourself over and over that they really will stop. Teach your brain to stop being afraid.

Take as much time as you need. This is not a burden to your partner, because they’ll thank you in the long run. And you can both have fun while you heal. Because you’re both having sex while you’re doing it! Neither one of you may climax during the first few times, but you’re sharing intimacy. That will make your relationship stronger in the long-term than any orgasm could.

And I’ll tell you one more secret. Most women start this process believing it will never work. But by the third or fourth time, they’re fighting to hold back their orgasms. Then the underwear fly off. I’d tell my clients to do this exercise and resist having full intercourse for at least a month, and in two or three weeks they’d come in blushing and admitting they couldn’t help themselves. The emotional intimacy and the safe feelings this exercise creates in the relationship are a powerful aphrodisiac. Love becomes more powerful than fear.

If you’ve experienced rape, you don’t have to live with guilt or sexual loss anymore. Don’t let anyone rob you of your joy. Take the time and learn to enjoy sex again.

With the right approach, it can be better than ever.

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