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Thirst Trap

Dating after sexual assault

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Thirst Trap

Editor’s Note: Thirst Trap is a weekly column on dating and relationships in college.

It took me six months to kiss someone after I was assaulted. And I love kissing. But that’s sort of the thing about sexual assault: it changes things, complicates things, especially as they pertain to relationships and sex.

Because of these complications, it may seem like dating a survivor would present some unique challenges. It does, but as much as people might assume, it also doesn’t. If you are walking on eggshells with a survivor of sexual assault, stop. Be considerate, not careful. Dating a survivor is just like dating anyone else. They deserve respect and understanding. Hopefully you aim to respect and understand anyone you pursue a relationship with, regardless of their trauma. 

Survivors do not need you to coddle them, baby them, or treat them like a porcelain doll. Survivors are survivors — not victims. You’re not a hero for dating a survivor. 

In fact, the best thing you can do to support a survivor is to empower them. Sexual assault is motivated by the perpetrator’s desire for power and control. Somebody made a choice that was not theirs to make. It is important to not replicate that kind of control over a survivor.

“Sexual assault can change the way people see themselves, others, and the world,” Dr. Emily Dworkin, a licensed clinical psychologist and an acting assistant professor at the UW School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors, said. “For example, it can lead people to believe that no one can be trusted, including in dating situations.” 

“Survivors may worry that no one will be able to understand their experiences, or that all their future romantic partners will see them as dirty or damaged. These kinds of distorted thoughts, when not addressed, can make it difficult to feel comfortable in romantic relationships.”

The main thing is effort. You are not a therapist; you cannot snap your fingers and change your partner's worldview, but you can try to understand them. Unfortunately, we cannot look into someone else’s mind. We have to talk about it.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but like in any relationship, communication is key. Instead of well-intentioned, blind attempts at support, ask what your partner wants. Respect your partner’s rightful power. What you think is a great idea might actually be a terrible idea in the context of your partner’s lived experience. 

“It’s important to put the control in survivors’ hands when dealing with a trigger,” Dworkin said. “It’s ideal to have conversations about how survivors want to handle triggers before the trigger happens, but of course, that can’t always happen.”

Maybe your partner wants you physically close to them as they handle an intrusive memory, or maybe they want you on the other side of the room. You don’t know until you ask. Again, this sort of proactive communication should hopefully occur in all your relationships. You might be with someone who has been assaulted without knowing it. 

The responsibility to initiate this kind of ongoing dialogue is even stronger due to avoidance symptoms that commonly accompany a traumatic event. 

“Sexual assault survivors sometimes feel an urge to avoid things that remind them of the assault because these reminders bring up negative emotions and thoughts,” Dworkin said. “Sex and intimacy can become reminders of the assault, so survivors may feel avoidant of sex. Other survivors may use sex as a way to cope with negative emotions, and so may have sex more than they did before a result.” 

Enjoying sex, something so closely related to a survivor’s trauma, can be difficult. Obviously. Approximately 60% of women who experience sexual abuse or assault will experience some kind of sexual dysfunction. With communication, a partner eager to initiate can be helpful; with sex, it is quite a different story.

“Although gradually facing [a survivor’s] triggers can be an important part of healing for many survivors, it’s only helpful if it’s something that survivors have voluntarily chosen to do without being pressured into it,” Dworkin said. 

When it comes to sex, make sure you honor your partner’s agency over their body. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, you should honor that agency of all your partners. 

“I recommend focusing first and foremost on whether sex is both safe and enthusiastically and mutually wanted by those involved,” Dworkin said. “Having ongoing conversations about what you and your partner want and don’t want is important no matter whether you have a history of assault.”

I didn’t kiss anyone for six months, but when I did, it was my choice. No, the kiss itself was not special, or even good. (Unpopular opinion: He could have used a little more tongue.) Making a choice, having control over my body, that wasn’t special either. That was my right. 

Reach columnist Hannah Krieg at Twitter: @Hannah_krieg

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