Talia was 25 when she was sexually assaulted by an ex-partner. Now 28, she says the impact on her life was both significant and immediate. “It affected so many areas of my life,” she tells me.
“My mental health suffered, I didn’t trust anyone, I became really withdrawn for a while. I pushed friends away… I was a mess.”
Some of these symptoms passed. But one area that Talia found particularly difficult to navigate, even three years on from the assault, was sex.
Before the assault, Talia had “loved” sex. “I was adventurous, I was outgoing, I loved my body,” she says. “That all changed.”
Where once she’d been confident, happy and joyful, Talia found herself withdrawing from sex. “It was really hard!” she says. “I was single, and I really wanted to date. I really, really wanted to meet someone. But every time I got close to somebody my sex drive just… died. I had no desire whatsoever, and feeling guilty about it meant that I’d often end up engaging in sex acts I basically had no interest in. That obviously didn’t make me feel good.”
“And then there were the flashbacks.”
Psychosexual counsellor and lecturer Cate Campbell says this is not uncommon.
“Sexual trauma can affect someone’s sex life in so many ways,” she says. “Some people don’t remember the trauma, then one day something happens to trigger flashbacks and they’re into full blown PTSD. Or they think they’re over it and that happens.”
Others deal with it differently – Campbell says that some people with sexual trauma deal with it by being very sexual, “having lots of sexual relationships or being very sexually adventurous”. In many of these cases, survivors then find they have difficulties in closer relationships. “They’re fine with fairly anonymous sex, but when it comes to real intimacy they find that very difficult,” Campbell explains. “Particularly if they were abused by someone they know.”
“The most important thing to remember is that these kinds of experiences impact different people in different ways,” says Meg-John Barker, a consultant and author of Enjoy Sex. “There’s no right or wrong reaction; the vital thing is to allow the person who has survived the trauma to experience it the way they experience it.”
Some people, Barker says, will “retreat into themselves”, needing lots of alone time; others may need more support than usual. “Some people may need to avoid sex entirely for some time, others may want more sex – or different kinds of sex – perhaps to experience themselves as sexual beings again, to feel more in control of sex, or as a form of healing.”
So how does someone with sexual trauma start to enjoy sex again? It’s key, Campbell says, to not put pressure on yourself. “Do whatever you feel like doing. Don’t feel as if you should be swinging from the chandeliers if you don’t want to, don’t feel as if you owe it to someone else to be a particular way sexually. If you don’t want to do it, don’t do it.”
Honesty is important: “if you’re honest, you stand more chance of being able to do what it is you feel like doing,” she says. “If you don’t want an orgasm or penetrative sex or whatever it is, don’t do it. Do whatever is comfortable for you”.
So, too, is therapy; Campbell recommends seeing an expert in psychosexual issues, as well as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy. EMDR uses eye movements to help clients process memories, thoughts and feelings they find distressing; the EMDR Institute says that this can “transform” the meaning of painful events.
As for partners? Campbell stresses how important it is that you “let [the survivor] take control”.
“Let them tell you what they want,” she says. “And don’t be surprised if they’re ever triggered, or if something all of a sudden puts them off. Try to encourage them to be honest about that and find ways to adapt what you do so that it’s less triggering.”
Campbell also suggests that partners become actively involved in therapy. “You need to be prepared to support them if they go to counselling,” she says. “Often someone will go through a period of being very distant or angry when they’re having therapy.”
“Partners can also be invited to be supported by the counsellor too, and given advice about being patient and understanding,” she adds. “Most partners are. Most partners are wonderful.”
“As far as couples are concerned, don’t believe in stories that say you have to be a particular way. Do what you feel like doing and enjoy it, instead of thinking you have to live up to an idea.” Barker also notes that partners could benefit from getting support elsewhere “rather than turning to the survivor for support”.
A combination of time, patience and therapy is what helped Talia recover.
“It took a long time, but I’m now in a relationship with a wonderful man who really understands what I went through, knows what triggers me and really just wants to look after me,” she says. “He supports my going to therapy, has his own therapist too and really gives me the space I sometimes need.”
“I feel very lucky.”