How To Date After Experiencing Sexual Assault

Hi Heather,

I’m a college student who got raped about eight months ago on campus. It was a really confusing experience because I was with a guy who I had been seeing for about five months and had a previously very comfortable and consensual relationship with, until we ended things and he decided that I didn’t matter enough anymore to listen to.
There have been a lot of complications with this, such as developing PTSD and having panic attacks and avoiding any public space where he might be, to having to convince my friends to believe me when they were very biased in his favor and confused because we had liked each other before (and consequently feeling very unsafe in friendships where I wasn’t believed, validated, or they continued to hang out with him), to not remembering anything until I started having flashbacks and panic attacks.

I’ve been to therapy since then, made my friends understand me through a lot of really painful conversations, and made them cut off contact with him and his friends, which they were happy to do once they understood, as well as telling him that he traumatized me and to stay away from me and blocking him when he’s tried to talk again. There are times when I have to share space with him or people who are friends with him, and while that’s really upsetting (especially with his female friends), I haven’t let people know who it was because I have wanted just to stay away from him and any conversation about it. I have made so much progress, but I still have really violent panic attacks and am pretty terrified of having sex.

How do I tell a sexual partner what happened – or is there a way to tell them about trauma somewhat casually or vaguely and have it be taken seriously without having to use labels or tell the whole story? Or does still having panic attacks mean that I am not ready to be with anyone again or never will be? Sometimes I think I’m ready but other times I don’t want anyone to ever touch me again, ever, and I know that I couldn’t hide a panic attack if it happened when I’m with a guy. I’m also just worried of it changing a guy’s perception of me and visualizing me as something pitiful or tragic or as someone who doesn’t want to be or should be sexual. I don’t want to be sexually broken; I just want someone to be patient and understanding about this because I don’t want to be alone or unable to be in relationships, and I don’t know how to find that within a college hookup culture.

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I can’t put into words how sorry I am that you had to go through this. I’m so impressed with the strength I can see you have just from writing this short letter. You don’t deserve to go through this and I am so sorry that you have to. I don’t know how else to express that without rambling, so let me try to give you some advice!

Will you ever be able to date again? Yes, you will, if that’s what you want. Will you ever be able to have a normal sexual life again? If that’s what you want, then again, yes. Will it take some time to get to that point? It will. Every victim of sexual abuse is different, and there is no set of rules or guidelines to follow here. I can’t tell you when your panic attacks will go away or when you will start to feel sexually “normal” again. Nobody can tell you that. But I can give you advice on how to start to get to that point.

One: keep seeing a therapist. Part of moving past the pain, fear, anger, and hurt is working out your feelings. Talking to a therapist can be extremely helpful, and it should be something you do until you feel like you don’t need to anymore. It sounds like therapy has been helpful to you so far, which is great.

Two: continue to rely on the people you love. It’s so, so important to have a support system like the one you’ve described. It’s great that you wanted to be honest with them about how you felt. It can take people a very long time to get to that point, which is fine, but having friends who know what happened can also be very helpful.

Three: do not push yourself to do anything you aren’t ready for. Take things very, very slowly. You sound like you don’t know what you’re ready for. That’s fine, but if that’s the case, then give yourself a lot of time to feel things out. Once you find someone you’re interested in, move slowly. Flirt and talk a lot before hanging out. Make it clear from day one that you want to take things slow and don’t just want to hook up so you can manage expectations. You don’t have to tell them about the abuse until you’re ready, and I suggest waiting until you feel comfortable with them to do that. You can just say, “I want to take things slow” and leave it at that. If they can’t accept that, honestly, you’re better off without them!

Four: When you find that person, be honest with them. Only do this when you feel ready to speak up, of course, but once you think something is serious, you should talk to them about it. It will help them understand you and your sex life a lot better, and it might benefit you in the end. If that person thinks you’re “broken” and doesn’t want to deal with it? Then honestly, they suck. That’s all I can say about that! Someone who is worth your time won’t act that way.

Just to sum this up, I’ll be real with you: the college hookup environment might not be the best place to meet someone who will be able to give you the emotional support you deserve in a relationship. If you aren’t finding any great prospects there, please don’t freak out. There are so many other people out there, and college is not the only place to meet them! But hey, you never know – not everyone in school just wants sex, you know? Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to meet someone, okay? You need to be able to move past this as much as possible and take things slow. You’ll be okay. Just focus on you for now.

Good luck!
Heather

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