Whether you’ve recently experienced sexual assault or you’ve been retraumatized by rhetoric in the media, it often feels insurmountably hard to reclaim your identity and sexuality. In the immediate aftermath of assault, whatever that looks like — receiving medical attention, undergoing a forensic examination or rape kit, reporting to the police, or some or all or none of the above — survivors are all too often left to reassemble their lives without support. Cosmopolitan.com spoke with sex therapist Vanessa Marin and university sex educator Dr. Laura McGuire about the strategies they recommend to the survivors with whom they work.
1. Feel all your feelings without shame.
When survivors first come to Dr. McGuire for after sexual assault, one of the first messages she gives them is that they get to feel angry, sad, numb, or afraid — whatever comes naturally. “Everyone has a right to feel, claim, and process their experience in their own way,” she says. “Whatever your different reactions are, however they fluctuate, all of that is genuinely OK.” There is no “right” way to react to trauma.
2. But if one of your feelings is that what happened was your fault, try to replace that with compassion for yourself.
Dr. McGuire sees a lot of victim-blaming among the students she speaks with: victim-blaming of themselves. “They go, ‘Well, I know [the assault] was wrong, but I shouldn’t have continued dating this person, or been in that situation.” Instead, ask yourself how you would care for your closest friend if she told you that she had been assaulted and then strive to show yourself that same compassion.
3. Seek professional help as soon as you feel up to it.
As Dr. McGuire points out, you can seek professional help short of diving into intensive therapy. “A lot of times with any kind of trauma, the first thing our brain does is it says, ‘Let’s avoid this and not think about it and stuff all our feelings down,’” she says. “That’s a survival method, because if you did stop and think about it, you would break down … Whatever you have to do to survive is OK and necessary at that time.” When you want to connect with a therapist who specializes in healing after sexual abuse, AASECT is a good resource for finding one. If you’re not ready for face-to-face talking, you can call a hotline — anti-sexual-violence organization RAINN offers both an online hotline and a telephone one at 1 (800) 656-4673 — to (anonymously, if you want) talk through whatever is going through your head with a trained operator. (If you are feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255 or online.)
4. If you have a partner, consider going to therapy together;
your partner should consider going individually, as well. Marin says that often survivors don’t seek professional help until years after being assaulted and not until they’re experiencing problems in their intimate relationships. Because it’s likely that both survivor and partner are struggling, it’s helpful for them to go to therapy together — and both can go separately too. “A lot of times my work with partners has been educating them and saying, ‘Yes, this is a really common response, a lot of other women respond that way too,’ or, ‘This thing that happens between the two of you truly is about the abuse, it’s not about her not trusting you or not being attracted to you,’” Marin says. Therapy can help your partner understand you and your needs as a survivor, as well as help them take care of themselves.
5. Call on family and friends — but choose your sources of support carefully.
Marin and Dr. McGuire agree that self-isolation hurts survivors, but it’s possible that not everyone who loves you is going to be able to give you the support you need. “The friends and family thing is always super tricky,” Dr. McGuire. “On one hand, that could be the best support, because they know you in and out, and they might really understand what kind of support you need, what kind of words you need to hear.” On the other hand, however, even well-meaning friends or family members who aren’t informed about sexual violence could also make you feel as if what happened was your fault, either by saying as much or by asking probing questions (remember, you don’t owe anyone more details than you’re willing to give). “If you do have friends and family who already work in advocacy or already are passionate about these issues, you know they’re going to be a safe place for you to share this,” Dr. McGuire says, “but be very, very mindful about who you’re sharing it with, and if they’re really going to support you and get you help.”
6. Listen to your own thoughts.
When you’re ready to begin sifting through your thoughts, Dr. McGuire recommends “any kind of mindfulness thing where you’re going to stop and practice really listening to what’s going on in your mind,” such as journaling or meditation. If you’re used to pushing down unpleasant thoughts, it may feel scary to pay attention to them — but you don’t have to deal with them alone. Once you’re capturing them, you can take another look at them with a professional. “That’s something you can bring to an educator or counselor, so you have more of an idea of what is actually bothering you and what is getting in the way of you moving forward,” Dr. McGuire says. As you continue, you’ll get more comfortable sitting with and working through negative emotions instead of repressing them.
7. Read a book that helps you get to know your body again.
“A lot of times, people don’t feel comfortable in their bodies anymore, and it’s a place of a lot of sad memories,” Dr. McGuire says, and a workbook with physical and mental exercises can help. Books such as The Survivor’s Guide to Sex and The Sexual Healing Journey offer activities to help you recognize patterns that may be harming you and replace them with ones that will serve you — especially helpful when talking with another person face-to-face seems overwhelming.
8. Make a list of your triggers.
One of the most important — but difficult — things a survivor can do to heal is identify which of their experiences have triggered memories of sexual violence and identify patterns. Maybe you were triggered when someone used a specific phrase or when you were in a particular sexual position. “A really big one is a lot of women will get very triggered if they can’t look their partner in the eyes — for example, if they’re having sex in doggy style and they can’t see their partner, it could feel really overwhelming,” Marin says. “Other times, there could be really specific words. If your abuser called you a certain pet name or told you to do something, hearing your partner use the same words can be really scary as well.” Making a trigger list doesn’t mean that the things on it will be off the table forever, but they might be for a while. Saying, “These things don’t feel safe to me right now” — and then not doing them — can help survivors recover a sense of agency.
9. Don’t try to ignore your feelings if you’re triggered.
“The biggest surprise that comes up for people is that triggering happens in the first place,” Marin says. You don’t have to hate something to feel triggered by it. Doing something if you have anything less than a clear desire to do it can lead to a sense of violation. Yes, feeling triggered when you’re with a partner you love can be agonizing to both you and your partner. It might not make sense to either of you that you feel so threatened when you know you’re in a safe place. “There’s a disconnect between what your brain mentally understands and how your body reacts,” says Marin. And when you ignore how your body is reacting, she adds, you risk damaging the trust you have in yourself.
10. Make a “safe” list too.
“What are the activities or acts that are fine to you?” asks Marin. “Maybe you’ve never had an issue with your partner going down on you or giving you a back massage.” Compile these in a list that you keep with your trigger list as a physical reminder of the many things you still feel comfortable with and enjoy. You can also jot down ideas for what to do when you’re triggered that may or may not be sexual: if you find yourself feeling panicked during sex, you’ll immediately have options for how to respond — whether that’s getting a shoulder rub, moving from the bedroom to a different room, or taking a walk with your partner or alone. Whatever is going to return you to a feeling of security can go on that list.
11. You deserve pleasure.
Pursue it. Yes, healing after sexual assault means feeling agency and emotional connection during intimacy, but it also means feeling good. Masturbation can help you reacquaint yourself with what turns you on; during partnered sex, emphasize activities that give you pleasure, whether that means asking your partner to use a sex toy on you or give you oral sex.
12. Practice saying “no.”
Saying “no” is a healing exercise both in and out of the bedroom. “Especially being women, we’re socialized not to say no — we’re supposed to be accommodating,” Marin says. “Practice politely but firmly saying no in whatever context you can.” Don’t limit this to high-stakes contexts. Maybe a friend has requested a big favor or a coworker has asked you (again) to cover her shift: Saying “no” without apology helps you build confidence that the boundaries you set will be respected.
13. Do all the things that make you feel happy and at peace.
Self-care is different for everyone: It could mean cooking beautiful meals for yourself, taking long walks, or playing music you love. So often, healing after assault focuses on the negative: What are your triggers? What can’t you do now that you could before? “Now it’s important for you to treat yourself incredibly well, to repeatedly send your body and your spirit the message that you’re worthy,” Marin says. Celebrate yourself as a whole person and not just as someone who has experienced sexual violence.
14. Celebrate good sexual experiences.
“Even if it’s just something as small as kissing that doesn’t feel triggering and that does feel safe,” Marin says you should be proud and consider it a win.
15. Remember that while you may face triggers for the rest of your life, this doesn’t mean you’re broken.
Progress in healing after sexual assault is not linear and not easy to measure. It can be frustrating to do all of the “right” things — to go to therapy, to practice self-care, to identify what makes you feel safe and unsafe — and still feel bad. But the truth is, you probably are going to be triggered at times for the rest of your life. “That can be a really sad thing to hear, but I think it’s also really important to set reasonable expectations for yourself,” Marin says. “Being sexually assaulted is probably the most traumatizing thing that a person can go through. Getting triggered every once in a while isn’t a sign that you haven’t healed, or you haven’t ‘progressed’ enough. Perfection is not the goal.” The most important thing is remembering that you are not broken. “Yes, a really awful thing happened to you,” Marin says. “But you’re still a whole, beautiful, incredible, deserving, worthy person.” Fill your life with people who help you remember that and experiences that reaffirm it.