Assault affects every day

By Grace Senior

I first experienced sexual assault at 16 years old, and I stayed in the relationship for almost two years after the fact. I didn’t realize I had been experiencing sexual assault until three months after the relationship ended, and even then I had no idea how to handle it.

I did not know how to tell the people I was close to that I didn’t want them to hug me or even pat me on the shoulder; sometimes those well-meaning gestures brought up the fear and emotional damage assault left me with. I searched for stories of other survivors to see if I could find any way to help others understand my lack of desire for intimacy.

When the Me Too era took off, I was sure I’d see more advocacy for understanding intimacy after trauma, but, despite all the good that has come from the conversation, there are still gaping holes surrounding  the healing process. So much of what I have seen in regards to helping women heal after sexual assault has to do with returning to their previous comfort. Plenty of advice stresses returning to a regular sex life as if nothing happened.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting or not wanting sex, but we need to talk about the day-to-day encounters that leave us panicking and reliving our worst fears.  Trauma lingers for a long time after assault and invades everyday encounters. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, one in six women are sexually assaulted, and 94 percent of sexual assault survivors experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some symptoms include being easily frightened, being on guard for danger, being irritable, having angry outbursts or aggressive behavior, and experiencing overwhelming guilt or shame, according to the Mayo Clinic.

These symptoms hit home and impact daily life, but PTSD is rarely included in the conversation about sexual assault. I did not know that trauma shows itself in non-sexual situations. I had a plan for what to say if I was in a romantic situation and became uncomfortable, but I never thought I would need to say something in nonromantic situations. The impact of assault rarely stops at sex and affects every relationship.

Not long after I told one of my best friends what happened, she asked if she could hug me. That question hit me so hard. She was letting me know I was in control of my body and that it was OK not to want intimacy. For so long, it felt like asking not to be touched made me seem abrasive, unaffectionate, or as though I didn’t trust that person.

It is possible to accept someone’s love without physicality. It is important to be able to show love without touch. Asking if a loved one wants to be touched shows you care about them. Intimacy after sexual assault is hard to navigate, but continuing this conversation will help.