Content warning: This is a piece on a topic related to abuse. It has no graphic descriptions of abuse, but discussing advice on intimacy may still trigger memories of negative past experiences. Be kind to yourself—if you’re not up for reading this text today, bookmark it for a later date.
Although there are many resources on how to report and overcome sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, intimacy after abuse is a topic that is rarely discussed in mainstream media. In this article you will find a few coping mechanisms that may help you think about and approach this difficult experience with a bit more confidence and comfort.
1. Learn your limits and set your own boundaries.
Some parts of your body may be off limits to others for the time being, and that’s perfectly fine. Take time to understand your own comfort level.
Some limits may change depending on your current mental state. Understand that on days when you feel more tired, anxious, or vulnerable, your comfort zone may be more restrictive.
2. Choose a partner that you trust.
Does this person know when you’re uncomfortable? Are they aware that the absence of “no” doesn’t mean “yes?” Do you feel comfortable explaining to them what is in your comfort zone? You don’t have to tell them what happened with any past abuse, but they should understand that they shouldn’t test your boundaries.
Establish a “safe word”—and don’t hesitate to use it. The word should be unrelated to the action so it can be understood no matter the tone. Instead of “no” or “stop,” try something like “Tetris” or “raspberry” instead.
3. Create a stress-free atmosphere.
Pick a location that makes you feel good and set a mood that’s right for you. A relaxing playlist could help.
Use a form of protection that will give you the most peace of mind. Talk it over with your partner if it’s one that requires their action.
Know that you don’t have to go through with any sexual activity, no matter how far along you are.
4. Recognize that a good partner will not pressure you. Ever.
A good partner will wait until you are ready, and if not, they aren’t the right fit for you. You should never feel obligated to engage emotionally or do anything physical with anyone.
At the same time, recognize that your partner has their own personal history going into this experience. Something that may be okay for you might be upsetting for them, so try to be mindful of their boundaries too rather than focusing solely on your own.
5. Don’t try to “get it over with.”
Resuming intimacy after trauma is challenging and might take time. This can be frustrating. But rushing to resume “normal” habits or behavior could lead to more emotional damage. The process may seem like it’s “one step forward, two steps back” rather than a straight line—and that’s okay too.
6. Your reaction doesn’t minimize your experience.
Emotions might not hit until a few days, weeks, or even months afterwards. Know that you aren’t alone. Try to set up a support system that you can rely on free of judgement: a friend, family member, therapist, or even a text or phone hotline.
If you’re living in the USA, RAINN runs the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) and offers advice and information via their website. You can find more hotlines here or check the online resources at Safe Horizon, ULifeline (for college students), and Safe Helpline (for people in the defence forces). HelpPRO has a searchable directory of therapists in the US.
Childhelp hotline offers support for children in abusive households in the US and Canada. A directory of Canadian rape crisis and women’s centers can be found on the CASAC website and ReachOut offer sexual assault support in Australia.
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support, and the Trevor Project (1–866–488–7386) offers a suicide hotline for gay and questioning youth. A list of hotlines in Europe can be found here. Befrienders provide non-judgemental support to prevent suicide worldwide.