Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

I was 18 when a man raped me. It’s an age when many are just beginning to explore sex, and the trauma of assault stunted my sexual development for years. Initially, I completely avoided sex. When I did start to have sex, I was triggered to the point of panic attacks. I wasn’t sure what to tell partners, or how much. I felt isolated, unsure if anybody else was going through the same trauma.

Then I started talking with friends and acquaintances who also have histories of sexual trauma and I discovered that many survivors encounter similar difficulties when it comes to post-assault sex. I began to feel slightly less alone.

But not every story of recovery is the same.

Reclaiming a sexual identity

Ashley was sexually assaulted when she was in high school. Over the next several years, she struggled to build an enjoyable, meaningful sex life. Like many assault survivors, sometimes partners treated her like she was broken, or assumed that she wasn’t interested in sex. Many partners treated her as “somebody they needed to be careful with,” she explains over the phone. As someone who considers herself particularly sex-positive, this was frustrating for her.

Mia experienced conflicting pressure from her community and her partners. “Specifically in the black community, women are expected to get up and keep going,” Mia says. But when Mia defied the image of a “battered woman,” some of her partners projected their own stereotypes on her. Those partners’ beliefs didn’t “allow victims to be strong people who are okay,” Mia says. Some even insisted that something must be wrong with her if she didn’t seem affected by her experience of assault. Ultimately, Mia feels that “allowing people to be wounded is important, but woundedness shouldn’t be a requirement.”

Shannon also felt boxed into a narrative after her rape; partners have assumed she was reduced to this single trauma story. “A lot of guys have only been able to focus on that,” she says, “But I’m not only this one situation.”

Challenges and changes to sex

Sex used to feel like a romantic connection to share with the right person to Christie. But after a man raped her at a party, she found herself dissociating — feeling disconnected from her body — and even further disconnected from her partner.

Janet was repeatedly assaulted by a man that snuck up behind her, and afterwards didn’t want her partner to approach her from behind. A man assaulted Kelley at night, so she prefers sex earlier in the day. Plus, she says, “My assault was very aggressive and manual, and so for a long time I was more comfortable having intercourse as opposed to manual stimulation.” Triggers like these may fade with time, worsen, or stick around.

Many survivors avoid sex following their assaults, and the reasons behind abstaining are complex. Alicia didn’t want anything to do with sex or pleasure for years after experiencing assault. “When I started feeling strong attraction, started wanting to do things with different people, I felt a lot of guilt,” Alicia says, “like it was a thing that I wasn’t allowed to explore because this other thing had happened to me … that I was inviting for it to happen again.”

Sexual assault may impact survivors’ preferences or understanding of their sexuality. Mia found it easier to be intimate with somebody of the same gender after a man raped her. “Since then [the assault] I haven’t been able to feel as intimately close with men as with women,” she says.

Similarly, Jairus is exploring the possibility he is asexual, and how that might be related to his history of assault.

Defining consent

Assault “definitely made me more concerned about the power dynamics behind [sex],” Ashley says. “I wanted to be 100 percent in control of sexual experiences after the assault.”

She began to prefer approaching partners rather than the other way around.

Sexual assault changed Jess’s perspective on when to speak up in a sexual encounter, versus when to go by “signals” or according to what she felt expectations were. “It’s the little things I never would have noticed, that I thought would be romantic or cute, in the past — like if a guy just took my face and kissed me — and now it’s like, don’t kiss me without asking if you can.” Jess noticed a change from a tendency toward nonverbal communication toward a preference for verbal communication.

While communication and consent are important, Mia found that sometimes a partner’s worries could get in the way of intimacy. She says of some of her partners, “They’re so concerned about my reaction and history, about what might happen, [that] we can’t get there.”

Communication with partners

Mia found that in today’s climate, dating involves conversations where assault comes up naturally, and can be a segue into talking about how it affects sex.

But not everybody finds those conversations easy. Janet says that while her husband was supportive of her legal actions against the man who assaulted her, they didn’t discuss the impact of the assaults on their sex life together — even though it ultimately had an effect. “It was hard on him that I just sort of lost interest,” she says. Looking back, she does “think we should have talked about it.”

Sex itself is often challenging for many people to talk about, so discussing the intersection of sex and sexual assault can mean confronting stigma on multiple fronts, and therefore seem impossible to broach. Many survivors choose not to disclose their histories at all.

And conversations don’t always have the desired effect. Partners may try to rush survivors, as Alicia experienced. “People are okay to talk about it once or twice and then want you to get over it,” she says. One of Alicia’s partners said since he felt he was a safe person, Alicia should feel safe, too. “But if I’m talking to you about not feeling safe, then clearly I don’t feel safe,” she continues.

But, the scariest thing for many survivors is that there’s no guarantee that communication will solve all issues. When Jess told her sexual partner, a trusted friend, about her assault, he wasn’t responsive, and pushed her head down when they were hooking up. After she told him that was triggering, he didn’t listen, and instead turned violent. “It cut so much more deep because it was somebody I explained everything to,” Jess says.

But many survivors find those conversations worth it. Ashley says, “If you can’t talk about your assault or rape, it’s harder to talk about sex in general.” Talking about sexual assault can lead to more open conversations, which can in turn lead to more gratifying sex.

What has helped

There’s a lot partners can do to help — and many are. After a few dates, Jairus told the man that would later become his husband about the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Jairus says that later, “He texted me and said ‘I understand that with someone with your background you may have difficulty with sex, and if it takes a month, a year, 10 years to have sex, I’m willing to wait.’” Jairus said this kind of communication helped him build a healthy sexual relationship with his now-husband.

Friends and therapy can help too, whether or not a partner is involved. Kelley says, “I was in group therapy for survivors of assault, and so I had the opportunity to discuss [sex] with eight other women.” Kelley found the experience particularly helpful in normalizing what she was going through. Jess found social support similarly helpful, and she thinks her current healthy relationship was made possible through the support of her friends, who made it their priority to educate themselves about sexual assault.

Though social support in and out of a relationship can help, in the end, regaining a satisfying sex life is an internal struggle. Kelley says that, “Ultimately, it needed to come from a place within rather than from the reassurance of a partner.”

Editor’s note: The Lily has chosen to protect the identities of those in this story by not using their full names.

Powerful men who prey on girls know what they’re doing. But they fail to understand what happens after.

Monica Lewinsky is showing us that those girls grow into strong women

She accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault years ago. Now she’s fighting foreclosure and decades of being doubted.

Kathleen Willey is one of three Clinton accusers who campaigned for Donald Trump