I often get asked by men how to help their partners who have experienced sexual trauma. They have questions about talking to their partners about the trauma, managing and helping with symptoms and how to have a fulfilling sex life without re-traumatising their partners.
Sexual trauma comes in many forms from childhood sexual abuse to date/partner rape, to stranger rape to sexual assault. The type of sexual trauma can predict some of the issues that the survivor develops. For example, though guilt is felt by most sexual trauma survivors, survivors of date/partner rape tend to feel far more guilt. Part of helping your partner through the aftermath of sexual trauma is being sensitive to the full spectrum of feelings and symptoms that arise as a result of it.
Many people who have experienced sexual trauma develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression. Some also develop substance abuse or dependence disorders (alcohol or drug problems) because they use the substances to try to manage their symptoms. If your partner has any of these problems, it is important that she has professional support as well as your support. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be treated effectively through a few trauma specific methods of therapy.
If your partner has already had (or is having) professional help, there is lots you can do to help.
Make time to listen to her. Listen to all that she has to say, without judgement. She doesn’t want you try to fix it. She wants to be heard and to know that you still love her. The most important thing is that there is enough time if she will be talking with you about the event. Interrupting her will, at best, make her feel that you don’t really care and at worst re-traumatise her.
Don’t try to fix things. You can’t. What you can do is to be available to her when she needs your support. If she is having trouble mobilising herself and so is getting less done in a day, offer to do some of her errands. If she is feeling unsafe at home, do things to increase her feelings of safety (install new locks, install cameras, extra security lights). Help her to find any therapy she might need. If she is dealing with the police, support her when she has appointments. Be an advocate for her at medical appointments.
Do things that remind her that you love her and find her attractive. Tell her these things. Cook for her. Cuddle her. Take her out somewhere special. Buy her some perfume. Take her away overnight. Make sure she knows that there is no pressure to have sex. By reminding her you find her attractive, you combat any thoughts she may be having that say that because she was assaulted she is damaged goods.
Make sure you have a place where you can take your feelings. While she is dealing with this, she may well have trouble listening to your upset and negative feelings about what happened to her and listening to you talk about how helpless you feel. (Many men feel helpless because they could not prevent the assault and because they feel they can do nothing to help their partners recover.)
Take things slowly. If your partner is a survivor from prior to you meeting each other, you may still need to take things slowly. She may find approaching sex difficult. Or she may be triggered and dealing with on-going trauma symptoms. Spend lots of time talking about what she enjoys sexually and what you would like to do together. Build anticipation by focusing on kissing only for a time.
Make sure to get explicit consent for everything you do with your partner. Don’t suddenly grab her as she is likely to startle. Make sure she is comfortable being touched. It may seem like this is a lot to ask, but she will appreciate your taking the time. For an overall discussion of consent, watch this video. To help you think about consent at a deeper level have a look at Betty Martin’s Wheel of Consent. The most important point to remember with sexual trauma survivors is that things can go from feeling fine to feeling awful very quickly so checking consent and being observant is incredibly important.
Create sexual time together and engage in those acts that are not triggering. Not everything will cause her to be triggered. Maybe an erotic massage will be something you can enjoy together. Perhaps oral sex is an untouched area. Take a shower together and wash her hair. Do lots of sensual things to get help her become turned on. Have the conversations that you need to in order to find out what it is OK to try and make time to try it.
Make sure your partner is engaging in basic self-care. Make sure she is eating enough and the right kind of foods. Make sure that she isn’t drinking too much as alcohol doesn’t help with the symptoms at all and in fact causes more problems. Avoid drugs. She needs sleep and rest as well. Exercise can be very helpful so consider taking her on some long walks.
Be kind to yourself. Sexual trauma has an intense impact on everyone around the survivor as well. It can trigger memories or feelings about earlier traumatic events in partners as well as triggering intense emotion because someone hurt their partner. Take care of yourself – eat well, don’t drink too much, get enough rest, get good exercise, avoid drugs.
For more information, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Book a 30 minute free session to discuss whether coaching might be useful to you. Have a look at my eBook 20 Things Not to Say to a Sexual Trauma Survivor. Look out for upcoming podcasts, blog articles and workshops as well.