Sexual violence can cause significant trauma and short and long-term physical, emotional and sexual wellbeing issues.
It is a major experience which can change your view of the world. It can make it difficult to trust anyone, even yourself, or relate to people in the way you used to. It can affect your confidence and self-esteem which are important aspects of healthy relationships. It can make you feel uncomfortable about any physical or emotional contact with anyone, and affect how you feel about sex and intimacy. This can affect your relationships with other people, including your friends, intimate partner, children and wider family. It can result in isolation from friends and family or make it difficult for you to make new friends and relationships.
You may not have told anyone about the sexual violence, including your partner (if you have one). If you do tell family, friends, partners and others, they may be shocked and distressed for you and want to help in any way they can. But they may have their own difficulties, such as not knowing what to say or even believing things about sexual violence that are unhelpful.
Friends and family members may react in unexpected ways. Your family and friends may not know how to handle the situation. They may find you difficult, for example, if you are irritable or withdrawn. They may have unrealistic ideas about how long it might take you to ‘recover’. They also may need some help themselves to cope with their own feelings and be strong enough to support you.
Even people who are well meaning may not understand your situation or what you are going through. People generally do not know very much about rape or sexual assault. What they see on TV or in newspapers may not help.
Relationships can be further complicated if the person who sexually assaulted you is a family member/intimate partner. Other family members may be reluctant to support you or cause ‘upset’ in the family or find it hard to believe that someone they know/love could do this.
How sexual violence can affect intimate relationships
Sexual violence is, more often than not, committed by someone known to the survivor. This can be a partner or ex-partner and can happen in the context of an intimate relationship. This can be very confusing. It is important to remember that you always have the right to say no to sex, whether or not you have previously had consensual sex with someone. Forced sex within marriage or an intimate relationship, whether a heterosexual or same-sex relationship, is still a crime.
After sexual violence you may have difficulty with trust, intimacy and sex, immediately after the abuse or many years later. Some people react by avoiding intimacy and sexual activity. Some find that they no longer enjoy sex in the way they used to. Some react by having more sex or rushing into sex because they think that that’s what people want from them or to prove something to themselves.
Your friends and family might feel confused by or judge your reaction. Some common reactions are:
- Avoiding or being afraid of sex
- Seeing sex as an obligation
- Negative feelings such as anger, disgust, or guilt with touch
- Having difficulty becoming aroused or feeling anything
- Feeling emotionally distant or not present during sex
- Experiencing intrusive or disturbing sexual thoughts and images
- Having flashbacks during sex
- Engaging in compulsive, inappropriate or harmful sexual behaviour
- Difficulty establishing or maintaining an intimate relationship
- Pain or difficulty with orgasm
You may have previously been assaulted by someone you knew and trusted, and this may also affect how your present relationship develops.
There may be ongoing medical issues to do with sexually transmitted infection (STI). If it is an infection which flares up, it can remind you of the assault or make you anxious about a current or future sexual partner rejecting you. You may not want to tell an intimate partner about the STI, but if you do not, this could affect their sexual health.
What you can do - self-care tips for survivors
There are things you can do to help you feel better about yourself, to build up your own sense of self-esteem and control. These are described in our page on coping after sexual violence.
It is important to think about who you tell about the abuse and to make sure that it is someone you can trust. If possible, it may help to have a network of people who you trust around you.
It is important to take care of yourself first. You are not responsible for how other people feel. They need to find their own ways of coping – you cannot fix it for them. It can help if they understand more about what you are going through. You can tell them that they can contact us for information and support for themselves.
Being able to be honest with yourself and with others can help you feel more in control.This is hard but a lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings, hurt feelings and a loss of intimacy. For example, a partner may feel rejected and unloved. Being able to tell a partner that it is not about them but the emotions and memories that sex or intimacy brings up for you, may help you both and your relationship.
When someone uses sex to hurt you, it can be hard to feel con!dent that sex can be good. The passing of time and positive sexual experiences by yourself or with a partner may help. In your sexual relationships, it is important to feel that you are in control. This means being able to go at your own pace and trying to be open and honest about what you want and need. You may not want any sexual contact and it is important to talk to your partner about this or to negotiate the level of intimacy you are comfortable with. This communication may not be easy, but it is important that your partner understands how you feel, so that you can deal with it together.
You could think of the different forms of physical contact that you are comfortable with and, when you are ready, build on this gradually. Some survivors experience flashbacks during sex. If you are able to speak to your partner about your experience of sexual violence, it may be possible to explain about flashbacks and agree in advance what you want if this happens. If you experience flashbacks during sex, it is OK to take time out from the sexual side of your relationship to work through these memories. Your partner should respect your choice and support you. If you are unable to tell your partner about the abuse, it may still be possible to talk about what you are or are not comfortable with sexually.
With a new partner, it can help to take control of planning the time you spend with them. Think about what helps you feel OK. You do not have to be alone with someone unless you want to be. You can set your own limits, including how much intimacy you can cope with. It will help if you can explain your reasons so that they can support you and not feel rejected or that you are not interested in the relationship.
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