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RIPLEY: Sex after trauma

A survivor’s insight on sex after sexual assault

The worst trauma I experienced was not when one of my ex-boyfriend’s fraternity brothers tried to rape me at a date function. The worst trauma I experienced was seven months later, when I had a trigger while having sex with my ex-boyfriend, and he left.

For those of you who may not know what a trigger is, it’s something that makes you remember your traumatic event, in a way that you feel like it’s happening to you all over again. You are disconnected from the here and now. You feel scared, your heart races, sometimes you feel like you can’t move or breathe.

My ex-boyfriend (I’ll call him John) couldn’t handle seeing me in such a state. When I have a trigger, I usually just need someone to sit with me for a little while. John did the opposite: he got up, got dressed, and walked out the door. He told me he couldn’t comfort me when he was the one who made me upset. But he didn’t understand that he wasn’t to blame; the person who inflicted my initial trauma was. That’s hard to comprehend when the perpetrator isn’t in your life anymore — when you’re only tortured by your memories.

That summer I went to therapy and talked through what had happened with John. My therapist suggested I take precautions in the future — namely, telling someone before I have sex with him about my assault, and what my triggers might be.

I know she’s right. But I have never done that.

Like many others, a lot of my sexual experiences in college have been casual. I’ve always thought there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’m a big advocate of sexual freedom, and for some, the choice to have casual sex is part of that. But casual encounters might not be best for people who have had trauma. Any kind of consensual sex with anyone can be difficult after you’ve suffered a traumatic sexual experience, but when you meet someone at a party or at the bar and then go home together, there usually isn’t a whole lot of talking that happens before you start taking your clothes off. There’s an unspoken rule that there is no room for disclosing baggage like that.

Because of the lingering effects of John’s abandonment, I couldn’t let go of the feeling that I was damaged. I didn’t want to amplify that feeling by putting a disclaimer on myself — “be sure you handle me with care, otherwise I’ll break again.” It just doesn’t feel right to take someone home with me, knowing all we want from each other is sex, and sit him down to give him a spiel about my trauma. My experience tells me he’d probably just walk away right there. John was someone whom I cared about and who (I thought) cared about me, and he didn’t even stay to comfort me. Someone who has no personal attachment to me whatsoever — why would he even bother?

You might say to me: why don’t you just wait until you’re in a steady relationship? And that’s valid. When sex is difficult because of traumas or fears, it’s probably best to do it with someone you know you can really trust. But I didn’t go that route because I wanted to return to a sense of normalcy. Taking a guy home from the party because I wanted to was part of my normal. After my trauma I continued to do it in order to convince myself that I was healed — that my past didn’t have to inhibit me.

But it does inhibit me. It’s hard to accept that. Even if you can get to a point where you can say and believe it’s not your fault, you still have to sleep with the lights on sometimes. You still have to take only a certain route home. And you still have to consciously remind yourself of the here and now, when the guy with a face like Adam Levine and abs like Hugh Jackman is taking your shirt off. You still have to spend so much energy suppressing your bad memories and anchoring yourself to the present, in a moment where all you want to do is lie back and let go.

Where does this leave us, in a community where the rate of sexual trauma is far too high, and in a culture where casual sexual encounters are so commonplace — even pressured upon us by friend groups? Well, I have always believed you should do what you want to do, free of judgment or pressure from anyone else. Sometimes it’s hard to tease out your authentic desires from cultural standards, but to the extent you are capable of knowing yourself, listen to that instinct. And most importantly, in taking the liberty of doing what you want to do, take care that you don’t harm anyone — and that includes yourself. For survivors of trauma, this means waiting until you’re ready. And for those who haven’t survived trauma, it means being more aware of the fragility of your partners’ sexual selves. None of the men I took home with me had any power or responsibility to fix me. But they did have a responsibility to communicate — to check in every step of the way — because that’s what you owe anybody you share that level of intimacy with, no matter what their history is.

And if something goes wrong, remember that it isn’t your fault, just as it wasn’t mine. It’s hard to understand, but in the here and now, all I need you to do is stay.

Katherine Ripley is a fourth-year in the College and was the 125th executive editor of The Cavalier Daily.