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How to navigate sexual spaces after a traumatic experience

African youth speaks

How to navigate sexual spaces after a traumatic experience

Sadly, sexual violence against women and young girls is still all too common in our countries, communities and cultures. More must be done to educate civil society on navigating sexual consent after a sexually traumatic experience, say Nqabisa Faku and Kayla Beare.

Sexual abuse is a global human rights issue that predominantly affects women and young girls. In March the World Health Organisation revealed that one in three women will experience sexual violence.

‘Sexual trauma’ describes any negative sexual encounter that is unwanted and non-consensual from a partner, family member, friend, colleague, or stranger. It is often a single event or an ongoing experience of physical, emotional, and psychological harm towards the victim.

There are different types of sexual abuse and violence which include but are not limited to rape, child sexual abuse, intimate partner violence, sexual and street harassment.

Since sexual violence against women and young girls is prevalent in our countries, communities and cultures, more must be done to educate civil society on navigating sexual consent after a sexually traumatic experience. 

For many survivors, their sexual trauma can have lingering effects on their life. Sexual intimacy, in particular, for many survivors can involve a traumatic re-experiencing of feelings of vulnerability, physiological distress, and a disconnect between the mind and body.

This stems from dissociating themselves from the overwhelming sexual situation to maintain equilibrium (i.e., by not thinking about, or feeling in regard to the traumatic experience).

Even within the context of a loving, caring, and consensual relationship, intrusive physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms might appear.

These may involve increased distress with sexual touch, feelings of shame with reaching sexual arousal during sexual activity, distrusting sexual partners, confusing intimacy with abuse, and avoiding or limiting the enjoyment of any sexual activity.

Disclosing traumatic experience

Survivors can differ on when and with whom they feel comfortable disclosing their traumatic past in intimate relationships. There are various reasons for this.

Sharing a story of sexual trauma is never easy and requires the other person to listen with compassion. A TEDx Talk titled “Healing vs Retaliation: Surviving Trauma and Sexual Abuse” by Peter and Adenike Harris is a remarkable story of a father who let his daughter lead and walked with her for as long as it took for them to heal and deepen their relationship.

Adenike experienced ongoing sexual abuse from the tender age of 14 to 22. At the age of 14 years old, her stepfather sexually violated her with sexual touching. Then, when she was 16 years old, she was raped by him, and the sexual violation continued until she was 22 years of age. She expressed that she “often struggled with depression and feelings of unworthiness and dating was so difficult. I would often run into men who would ask me: ‘When will you be able to get over your abuse? When will you be able to just forget about it; let it go?’ ”

She continued by saying, “Some men wouldn’t even continue talking to me after I explained my past to them but what they failed to understand is: Healing cannot be rushed.”

From this account, survivors need partners who will educate themselves on the effects of sexual abuse and violence and build intimacy with them through patience, understanding, nurture, support, affection, devotion, and passion. Navigating sexual consent with a survivor can help develop a deep connection that will facilitate trust, feeling cared for, loved and respected. 

Sexual consent

Sexual consent is an ongoing process of communicating sexual boundaries and negotiating any sexual activity with someone before, during and after engaging in sexual behaviour.

That means, every time you choose to engage in any sexual activity, consent must be given regardless of the number of times or instances you gave your consent to engage in sexual activity or activities.

Obtaining sexual consent is beautiful because it clearly manifests mutual respect and understanding. The power dynamics between individuals who willingly want to engage in any sexual activity with one another are equalised.

Examples of an equal power dynamic include having a conversation with someone you want to engage in sexual activities with about your sexual boundaries, what you enjoy, and how withdrawing consent will be conveyed during sex. Another example is when your partner prioritises your safety, comfort, and pleasure during sex.

Knowing one’s sexual boundaries before engaging in any sexual activity is vital. You cannot communicate your boundaries to your partner if you do not know them yourself. Choosing to engage in sexual activity or activities with someone who will treat you and your past trauma with sensitivity is crucial.

Communication about sexual activity or activities is always important to create a safe and comfortable space for a survivor. Below are some ways a survivor can go about communicating their sexual boundaries with their sexual partner before, during and after sexual activity or activities: 

Before: A creative and fun way to communicate sexual boundaries before engaging in sexual activity or activities with someone is through role-playing.

Role-playing can empower you by getting in touch with your sexuality and can be a great way to initiate sex endearingly. While you feel sexy, you can negotiate roles and tell your partner what makes you feel good or uncomfortable. Communicating your sexual boundaries before engaging in sexual activity is helpful because these kinds of conversations can be difficult to have when you are already in a sexual space.

During: Communication during sex can be difficult for anyone. However, if you feel like your partner is not respecting your boundaries or doing something you do not like, try to let them know as soon as you feel uncomfortable.

Regardless of whether or not you told them that you are a survivor of sexual trauma, your sexual partner should be aware that any indication of discomfort, anxiety or a panic response is reason enough to stop the sexual activity or activities. At this point, checking in with one another is necessary. 

Also, please be patient and gentle with yourself. There may be boundaries that you did not know you had, but that suddenly arise when you start to engage in sexual behaviour. Your body may respond in ways that your mind does not. 

If you struggle with physiological responses like a lack of physical arousal or difficulty experiencing orgasm, it is best to acknowledge and accept that this is a response that your body has had. This response may change over time or with some intervention if you decide to act upon it. 

After: Take talking about the sex after you had it as an opportunity to communicate your feelings and discuss any concerns you have around your boundaries while it is still at the forefront of your sexual partner’s mind. Also, you could tell your partner if they did something that you were not comfortable with or made you feel unsafe or sore so that they know. 

Creating a safe environment

Partners of sexual trauma survivors should make it a priority to educate themselves on the effects of sexual abuse and violence to create a safe environment for a survivor.

Moreover, couples therapy for survivors and their partners can help create a relational space for healing, learning and empowerment for both parties.

An experienced couple’s therapist can help provide the support and care to navigate each other’s sexual boundaries, discuss matters openly and process the impact of the trauma on the relationship, and equip both parties with the tools to form a healthy foundation and facilitate healing for the survivor.

Particularly for the partner, they may experience secondary trauma: Feelings of guilt or shame, powerlessness, and pain because of seeing a loved one experience trauma. For them, the therapeutic space can provide some much-needed support.

The long-term effect of therapy can manifest in security around safety, intimacy, sex, and trust, all of which are crucial components of a happy and healthy relationship. 

Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks.

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