Columns / Discourse / January 22, 2020

Pillowtalk: Patience in the slow process of healing

I was sexually assaulted over the summer and although I’ve made considerable strides in taking care of myself emotionally, being intimate and having sex is really difficult for me. Prior to being assaulted, I felt like my sex drive was normal and when I said, “I need to get laid,” I meant it. But, now I feel like I talk about it and think I want it but everything just feels kind of numb. It feels like I’m saying those things just to say the same things my friends are saying. What are your suggestions for reclaiming my body and trying to get myself to a place where I can enjoy being intimate again?


First, I’d like to say that you’re doing really well. Recognizing the ways an assault changed you is an important step in moving forward, and it sounds like you’re being honest with yourself about the reality of your situation. I’m proud of you.

I’d also like to say that what you’re experiencing is very common among assault survivors, and everyone has their own story of how they reclaimed their body and their sexuality. There’s no textbook answer or quick solution for things like this. There is an important first step, however: decenter your body and your sexuality in terms of your self worth.

In order to slowly, patiently and effectively rebuild your relationship with your body, you have to strengthen other aspects of your self concept. If you feel like you need to be sexually comfortable in order to be yourself, you’re going to run into problems really quickly. Too much pressure on yourself to heal will only make healing more frustrating and more difficult.

Then, start working on your relationship to your body non-sexually. Think of all the things it does for you. Take a bio class, if you can, or watch some biology crash course videos. Write a love letter to your cells, your bones, your skin and your stomach.

Spend some time every day giving thanks to the millions of chemical processes that keep you alive, that allow you to perceive beauty, that let you taste good food, that let you hug your friends. Learn to love your body for what it does for you, not what it does for others.

Try masturbating more thoughtfully. Take it slow, start with a massage, be mindful of what feels good and what doesn’t. Don’t think of orgasm as the goal, just start to learn your body and its reactions. Sometimes assault can change our touchmap – the places on our body that feel good and feel bad to touch.

Talk to yourself while you do it, and stick to the things that feel good and feel comfortable. Try to avoid body parts, actions and fantasies that feel similar to the assault. You never have to be comfortable with those again, but you can try, eventually. Again, take it slow, don’t push yourself. This isn’t a matter of life and death.

Buy clothes and underwear that you like, and take selfies and nudes for yourself. Don’t show them to others, they’re yours. If you like them, why? If you don’t like them, why not? Try to get used to seeing your body and tolerating it, then try seeing your body and liking it.

It might help to try sexting before you try physical intimacy. If there are positions and activities that are dissociated from your assault, start with those. Work your way up, or don’t. Use toys that provide a different sensation than what you associate with your assault.

If you’re ready to try partnered intimacy, pick someone you trust and are comfortable around, not a random hookup. Talk about your boundaries really clearly; again, it’s okay to be uncomfortable being touched in certain places or ways, or being spoken to with certain words or tones. It’s okay if you are never comfortable with these things again.

If you have a hard time saying no, establish a safeword. Or, you can ask your partner to continually check in, and if you stop responding verbally, they need to stop what they’re doing. Find someone patient and in control of their libido.

Some of these things might help, and some might not. Sex therapists are amazing, and you should look into sex therapist resources even if you can’t afford to see them; some keep their worksheets and articles accessible to the public online, and there are lots of books out there that handle sexual healing after an assault.

Remember, it’s a slow process, and it hasn’t even been a year. Be patient with yourself. It’s okay to not have sex for a long time, or ever again. Your sexuality and your relationship with your body will never be the same, but they will heal in new ways. Look forward to the evolution of your sexuality, if you can, and talk to people about it. Many have come before you, and many will come after; you don’t have to do this alone.


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Elleri Scriver

Tags:  advice Recovery sex sex therapy sexual assault

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