Here's What It's Really Like to Date After Surviving a Sexual Assault

Here's What It's Really Like to Date After Surviving a Sexual Assault
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

In the fall of 2009, Lucy* awoke to find her best friend working his hand down her pants while she slept. She was 19 years old and in her sophomore year of college, and she'd invited her (now former) best friend Robbie* to come over and drink cheap beer. He was the only other person she knew from her hometown, a friend from high school who had become one of her closest confidantes when they both enrolled at a large, out-of-state university.

Late one night, the two of them were hanging out when Lucy suggested Robbie sleep on her couch, as he had done on countless evenings they spent talking until it got too late to walk home. The two of them never slept in the same bed, and she thought it was clear the friendship was platonic. She fell asleep that night feeling safe, alone in her room.

"I woke up to him touching me," Lucy told Mic. "He was hiding next to my bed. It took me a while to process what was going on, and I tried to move a little so it would stop. I thought if I was awake it would stop." 

It didn't. Eventually, confused and panicked, Lucy sat up, asked Robbie what he was doing and told him to leave. She grabbed a curling iron off her dresser — the nearest blunt object she could find — and prepared to defend herself, when she had a sudden realization: She had vague recollections of this happening before. It was just the first time she'd been conscious enough to make it stop.

Lucy waited a few days to tell her boyfriend about the assault, unsure if she should say anything at all. "The whole situation was so confusing," she said. "My best friend had just sexually assaulted me."

When she did tell her boyfriend John* what happened, he was understanding and supportive. They continued to fly back and forth to see each other at least once a month, but Lucy just wasn't interested in having sex with him. 

According to the counselor she started seeing at the campus health center, Lucy was also experiencing acute symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder: Her body was constantly tensed up, her eyes frequently full of tears, and she'd essentially cut off all contact with men, save for her relatives, a few male professors and John.

Still, their relationship was doing OK, despite everything. Lucy, however, was not. "I just couldn't do it anymore," she said. "I just didn't know how to be a girlfriend and take care of myself. I had to figure me out."

They broke up, and Lucy tried to do whatever she could to heal and move on. Mostly, that meant waiting. 

As the public dialogue about affirmative consent and sexual assault has grown louder, it's forced attention to issues that should have been under scrutiny long ago. But the conversation about sexual assault tends to overlook the myriad unique struggles survivors face as they try to build or maintain relationships in the wake of an assault. Inevitably, sexual assault complicates most everything for at least a time — including survivors' sex lives. 

And yet, as reporter Tracy Clark-Flory wrote for Refinery29 earlier this year, we tend to stay silent about the question of physical intimacy after sexual assault because "we're too afraid to mention rape and pleasure in the same sentence," even when we're talking about the possibility of experiencing pleasure with a sexual partner after an assault.

"Relative to [other] battles, discussions about sexual pleasure can seem kind of small," Clark-Flory wrote. "And, survivor advocates have faced some difficulty getting the general public to understand that sexual assault is about power and violence, which inherently makes many people uncomfortable connecting rape to healthy sex lives. As [one survivor said], though, 'For victims, it's not that separate; one is going to impact the other.'"

Sexual assault complicates most everything for at least a time — including survivors' sex lives. 

That was certainly true for Lucy, who avoided sex almost entirely after her assault. After she broke up with John, she didn't become intimate with anyone else for another two years, and she still struggled to feel comfortable with her sexuality. 

According to sex therapist Wendy Maltz, author of The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse, many rape victims do experience a natural aversion to sex for a time, while others experience exactly the opposite. Some might not feel any change at all. Maltz told Mic all responses are perfectly normal — there is no "right" or "wrong." 

"Rather than something fun and pleasurable, sex can become associated with the trauma they experienced — the feeling of being out of control and violated," she said. "The whole way of envisioning sex and thinking about it can shift. Periods of promiscuity are normal. So are periods of celibacy." 

For some survivors, pursuing physical intimacy shortly after an assault can seem like a positive way to regain control over their bodies. But while many survivors are indeed readily able to reclaim their sexuality through consensual sex, others use it as a potentially destructive coping mechanism. 

"Some victims are able to really distinguish and say, 'That was rape, and this sex is what I want to experience,'" Maltz said. "You can also have survivors who say, 'I'm damaged goods. It doesn't matter what partner I have, I'm going to go out and have sex on my terms. I'm going to be the one in control.' But that's more a reaction formation than a real claiming of one's power, and it often backfires later on."

Marcel Wayne Anderson, who was brutally sexually assaulted while being held hostage by an unknown attacker in 2011, learned that the hard way. Following a long physical recovery after his attack, Anderson told Mic, he cycled in and out of unhealthy relationships built solely on sex, which ultimately left him unable to grapple with his deeper issues.

"I wanted to be sexually involved with women just to take something I could get, but I didn't want to be emotionally involved," he said. "My focus was to retaliate [just by having sex]." 

Avoiding even more negative associations with sex often requires counseling, Maltz advised, as well as a near-endless supply of patience. "You need a certain amount of time to recover from experiences of assault — time where you reclaim your body and process your feelings, so you can re-approach sex slowly, tuning into what makes you comfortable," she said.

"If you're just using yourself as an object, I don't see that working well. But it can be a way of differentiating sex from rape, and having sex in a way that feels like it has more mutual respect and consent. Everyone is different." 

"You need a certain amount of time to recover from experiences of assault — time where you reclaim your body and process your feelings." 

Of course, the issue isn't just sex. The struggles survivors face after sexual assault can spell doom for a preexisting relationship, as happened with Lucy. Complications from PTSD, lingering emotional distress and feelings of worthlessness and self-blame can often leave survivors genuinely unable to connect with anyone, least of all potential partners they might not be able to trust. 

"Dating can be a really vulnerable process anyway, but when you add a layer of complication from the trauma, everything that would go wrong probably will," Jenny Horton, a 32-year-old graduate student and rape survivor, told Mic.

Horton was raped by a stranger during a 2009 home invasion. Like Lucy, she broke up with her then-partner within months of the attack, leaving her desperate to be close to someone new when she was still recovering from the attack. She says she learned quickly — and painfully — how hard it can be to find a partner when you're an emotional open wound.

"Say you go out on a few dates and hook up and they never call," Horton said. "Maybe that would hurt your feelings anyway, but when you're that raw, it's just a huge blow. It's hard to know how open you need to be with people when you're so hurt."

There's also the obvious issue of trust. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, approximately 4 out of 5 rape survivors know their attackers, which can lead to intense feelings of betrayal and mistrust toward current or potential partners. The same feelings can also arise for survivors of rape by people they don't know, like Horton and Anderson. 

Anderson said that before his assault, he didn't dwell much on trust; now it's one of his primary concerns. 

"[Dating] definitely has been a cautious process for me. It's been baby steps over the last four years," he said. "I have maybe gone out on a date or two and conversed with someone of the opposite sex, but it would be very difficult for me to go to their house or bring them back to mine. I'm always protective of myself and discerning my atmosphere."

Some survivors can extend their feelings of mistrust to themselves, which manifests itself in them doubting their taste in partners and convincing themselves they don't deserve meaningful or loving relationships. Sarah Ogden Trotta, a clinician and scholar on issues of sexual violence at the University of Pennsylvania, told Mic it's one of the most pervasive and damaging survivor narratives she's seen. 

"At the time of an assault, a person was violently told that they don't deserve a voice in what happens to their body," Trotta said. "We can know logically that this is false and unfair, but there's very often a piece of this message that becomes internalized by survivors — when something is screamed in your face, you can't help but hear it."

Getting past that feeling takes time and a whole lot of effort, but it is certainly achievable. Pursuing new and healthy relationships is indeed a healthy, normal, even critical part of survivors' recovery, but often one that can only occur with the help of talking, time and eventually, the right partner.

"I wish someone would've said, 'It's OK that you want to be with people and be sexual, but this is a vulnerable time and you need to be careful with your heart,'" Horton said. "If you're open with the wrong person, it can be a much more intense hurt when you're already dealing with some deep, deep pain." 

What Horton and other survivors have found, though, is that dating after sexual assault can make a person much more discerning about their sex partners. It isn't quite a silver lining, but rather a reflex learned in recovery to allow rape victims to be able to trust themselves, and others, again.

"It's OK that you want to be with people and be sexual, but this is a vulnerable time and you need to be careful with your heart."

In Lucy's case, she said she's not quite sure she would've been able to move as far past her assault as she has without the help of her current partner, who she describes as "very sensitive and gentle." They started dating only after she had spent time "recalibrating to have the highest possible standards" for a boyfriend, but before she was able to work through some residual trauma. Some of the trauma may never fully go away. Still, it doesn't have to dominate her life or her relationships.

"I feel like a lot of it is just always going to be a part of me," Lucy said. "I feel like all the things that happened to me, that I could not escape for so long, are part of my past now. There are still things that will trigger me. But [my partner] can just accept that, and know that this is just how it is."

He was only able to learn that acceptance because Lucy learned it first. She, like other survivors, has had to stay patient with herself to get to a place where she can stand to be patient with someone else. She knows that sometimes she will still wake up to nightmares about the assault, but it won't happen every time she closes her eyes; she also knows the feeling of someone touching her in her sleep is likely a phantom sensation, because she's learned how to trust again.

It's been six years since that warm September night that Lucy discovered her best friend assaulting her in her sleep. She doesn't know if she'll ever be able to sleep on the outside of the bed or with her bedroom door open. But about a year ago, when she was still all on her own, she stopped barricading it closed every night.

Editor's note: For more information about sexual assault, refer to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. If you need to speak confidentially and securely about sexual assault, contact RAINN's free online helpline or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 (U.S.) or 

*First names and pseudonyms have been used to allow subjects to speak freely about sensitive topics. 

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Jenny Kutner

Jenny Kutner is a senior reporter at Mic, covering feminism, reproductive justice and sexual violence. She is a native Texan based in New York. Send tips or friendly messages to jenny@mic.com.

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