Experiencing and processing trauma is one of the hardest things we do as humans. Sexual trauma is an incredibly difficult thing to move past whether or not you’re in a relationship. Of course, having these conversations with sexual and romantic partners can be incredibly difficult.
Whether you’ve experienced it, or are dating someone who has, knowing how to navigate sexual trauma in relationships is an important way to make everyone feel safe and secure as you’re getting steamy.
According to a recent report from The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in three women and one in six men have experienced some form of sexual violence or trauma in their lives.
Though it can be incredibly difficult or triggering to think about, the truth is a lot of people are affected by sexual assault. Though everyone is different, knowing what sexual trauma is as well as how it affects relationships can help you and your partners best support each other as you learn more about each other.
What is sexual trauma?
As Leah Dirkse, violence prevention specialist and former Education and Training staff at Women Organized Against Rape shares, “sexual trauma can be the leftover psychological effects of enduring sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact or experiences.” It’s similar to going through something like a car accident or house fire. The effects of sexually traumatic situations can stay with you for years to come—even if you don’t know they’re there.
Sexual trauma can manifest in many ways. It can be through flashbacks or nightmares. It can also manifest as general anxiety or uneasiness around sexual or romantic encounters. These feelings of anxiety can be brought back by “triggers” or things that make the survivor remember traumatic sexual experiences.
But this is a complex issue. Sexual trauma looks different for everyone. It’s common for people that have experienced unwanted sexual contact to have their own unique set of triggers.
How Sexual Trauma Affects Relationships
Working through sexual trauma can make it difficult for someone to feel comfortable or excited about having sex. A survivor may not feel ready or secure in sharing their trauma with their partner. This can leave them feeling isolated or distant in their relationship. They might avoid conflicts and struggle to talk through issues in a mature and levelheaded way. They may be withdrawn, distant, or act solely on their emotions, without thinking about the facts of a situation.
Survivors may take a while to open up and feel supported by their partners in their relationships. Dealing with sexual trauma can make people susceptible to feeling doubt and low self-esteem. It may be more difficult to achieve a feeling of security in a relationship. Sometimes, trauma can lead survivors to engage in self-destructive behavior in an effort to try to regain a feeling of control over their lives and their emotions.
That said, there are several steps you can take to be a supportive and loving partner. Here’s what you should know:
Let them take the lead.
According to Dirske, survivors can often feel like their power or autonomy has been taken away from them. So it’s incredibly important to let them take the lead when it comes to talking about their experiences.
Though you may want to let your partner know that you are there for them and want to talk about their feelings, waiting for them to start the conversation can help them feel empowered and supported as they work through their trauma.
“During and after an assault, survivors have instinctively learned how to survive, how to keep going after a traumatic experience and take care of themselves to the best of their ability,” Dirkse says. “Listening to and trusting their instincts can be incredibly important when survivors assess how much they may want to share.”
Validate their experience.
Once they’ve opened up to you about their past, it’s important to be validating and affirming of their experiences. Let your partner know that you believe them. Reassure them whatever happened was not their fault. Let them guide the conversation, and tell them you are willing to support them in whatever ways they need.
You may be tempted to tell your partner to “live in the moment” or “just let things go.” But remember that these statements can be incredibly invalidating and harmful. Your partner deserves to process their feelings in whatever way feels natural to them, and that may take a lot of time.
If you are opening to seeing a counselor or mental health professional, working with an expert may help your partner feel supported. Professional help can also help your conversations about trauma be more productive.
Ultimately, remind your partner that you love them. Remind them that they are safe with you. Having trauma does not mean that you are a broken person. Help them find support and strength.
Griffin Wynne is a non-binary writer, artist, and plain seltzer drinker. When they’re not discussing sex in the ~digital era~ or crying to the Dixie Chicks, Griffin enjoys camping, reading, used clothes, and documentaries about cults. They’re a Capricorn King, a genderless cowgirl, and a ’70s mama who is always down for dollar oysters and road trips. Griffin uses they/them pronouns and has the same birthday as Kyle Richards.