Enjoying Casual Sex After Experiencing Sexual Violence

For many people, the impact of experiencing sexual violence ripples into other parts of their sex lives and relationships. While there are many conversations about self-healing and healing within the context of a long-term relationship, fewer people talk about enjoying casual sex after experiencing violence. We connected with two sexuality experts to explore how to enjoy casual sex after experiencing violence. Here’s what they had to say.

The experience of sexual violence can impact your pleasure

According to Dr. Karen McDowell, experiencing sexual violence impacts your central nervous system in a way that may cause your pain and pleasure, threat, and safety wires to cross. “Even when you consciously decide to engage in casual sex, your amygdala—the part of the brain that sounds the alarm when it senses a threat—may misinterpret what’s happening and engage the fight-flight-or-freeze chemical response.” 

Everyone responds and heals differently

There’s no one “right” way to heal or respond after experiencing sexual violence. You may find yourself being hypersexual, shutting down, or anything in between. Additionally, where you are in your healing process and the resources and support that you have access to may change your response over time. 

For sex educator, artist, and activist Haley Hansen, her experience has changed drastically over the course of her healing journey.

“…my relationship towards casual sex after my assault was more dangerous than it was before. Everyone copes in different ways and at that time I was trying to survive. I depended on drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. I did not practice safer sex[…]

During my healing process and crisis intervention training, my views and practice have changed drastically. I prefer sober sex. I use barrier methods. I care about my sexual health and well-being in a different way. I value myself differently. I need to have constant communication and consent throughout any activity.”

There are many ways to get external support

While trauma-informed therapy is the gold-standard, it’s not accessible to everyone. 

Hansen recommends RAINN, a free, anonymous resource for you to speak freely without being judged for how you decide to navigate your space after assault. 

Engaging your support system can be critical as well, says Dr. McDowell. “These might be in-person relationships, but you can also find meaningful and intimate friendships online, in chats, support groups, or social media communities. It can make all the difference in the world to have people who can cheer you on, keep your spirits high, and help you see the humor and joy on the rocky journey of healing.” Hansen maintains one such space on her Instagram where she speaks openly, vulnerably, and transparently about how she navigates sex, communication, and the healing process after assault. 

For a sense of shared reality, Hansen recommends reading books around trauma and healing. “[This] has also helped a lot to know that you are not alone and there are a wide variety of ways to heal and it is okay to do what you need to do.” She recommends The Body Keeps the Score for the science behind trauma and Milk & Honey for art and poetry.

If you are in a place to work with a therapist Dr. McDowell recommends finding someone who has specific training in trauma therapy. “I recommend EMDR, which is a relatively newer treatment modality that has shown incredible results, but there are other types of trauma therapy as well.” 

Focus on your self-love and pleasure

Dr. McDowell recommends masturbation and self-pleasure as ways to get back in touch with your body. “Masturbation is by definition sexual in nature, but I think self-pleasure can extend past that. Mindful sensory activities, like massage, fabrics, and textures, foods and aromas, wonderful music, or anything that engages your mind and body in self-pleasure.” 

Hansen agrees. “Learning to love myself played a vital role in my healing. I had to learn how I wanted to be touched and what that looked like for me.” One tool she uses regularly—both solo and with partners—is a body map. “I do body maps of zones where I am okay being touched and zones that still hold trauma. I evaluate this every time I want to love myself. I then will incorporate this into casual sex… Sometimes, I will do the body map with partner(s) as a form of intimate foreplay because we are exploring safer zones on our bodies.”

You decide what to call yourself…

There’s a lot of debate in advocacy spaces around the correct language to use—victim versus survivor. Hansen encourages you to choose for yourself. And yes, it’s ok if this changes.

…and if or when to share with casual sex partners.

There aren’t clear-cut guidelines for how or when to talk to a casual partner about trauma. It’s really up to you and your partner(s). 

Hansen says she doesn’t bring it up initially since it can be heavy and she doesn’t know how the other person will hold her trauma. People with whom she has multiple encounters of casual sex know. “It came to a point where we were ready to have that conversation and go on a more intimate level.” 

If you decide to talk to a sex partner about out, Dr. McDowell says to consider what you want out of the disclosure and why you’re telling them.  This can help prepare you for the conversation and feel in control during it. Do you want to prepare them for possible incongruent reactions? Do you need to them to avoid certain words, maneuvers, or energy styles? Are you asking for support, and if so, what does that support look like?” 

You may also find it supportive to practice having the conversation with safe, familiar people. “Many assault survivors report experiencing a sort of communication block – they’ll be having an important conversation and they suddenly can’t find the words to express what they want to say. Some describe it like a fog, and others describe it more like a physical object,” Dr. McDowell says. Practicing can help uncover any blocks before having such a conversation with new sex partners. 

Name it to tame it

If you feel ready for casual sex but a feeling a bit apprehensive, Dr. McDowell says to say it out loud! “ Tell someone – tell your cat, tell your reflection, tell your sister or your friend, Say the words, “I’d like to get laid!” or “I’d love to f$#* that cutie over there!” or whatever feels right for you. Saying it out loud is the first step to making some magic happen.”

Your agency matters

From the term you claim for yourself to telling partners, both Hansen and Dr. McDowell stress that you get to define everything on your own terms. Your personal narrative is yours to control. You have the right to privacy and boundaries—and exploring and discovering what those look like for you, situation-to-situation. Though your assault is part of you, it does not define you. 

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