Dear Roe, I was sexually assaulted four years ago, and afterwards didn’t have sex for about a year. These days, I’m doing a lot better emotionally.
However, compared to my friends I have a lot more casual sex than they do. I didn’t think anything of it until one of them asked was it a side-effect of being assaulted. Now I’m worried that my assault may have messed up my idea of sex, and that my sexual interactions are being affected by that.
I don’t know if I can trust my judgment when it comes to sex, and feel very confused.
Sexuality is a glorious, complicated, multi-faceted thing – for everybody. Whatever way your sexuality manifests and unfurls and evolves, it will be about so much more than your assault. Because you are not defined by that.
Lots of people have things in their life that make their experience of sexuality confusing, and many people have sex without examining or fully understanding their motivations. But due to your assault, you and other people are more likely to pay attention to your sexual behaviour, and seek out evidence of dysfunction. The trope of sexual abuse survivors being hyper-sexual can often be a form of victim-blaming, and ignores that lots of people enjoy frequent casual sex, for a myriad of distinct reasons.
For some survivors of sexual violence, casual sex can offer a way of having consensual experiences that are in their control, and thus different from their assault. And that can be okay. Many people, not just survivors, find casual sex empowering, particularly if they, for whatever reason, have previously felt disconnected from their body or sexuality. And as long as you are respectful of your partner and they’re also enjoying themselves, having casual sex to reconnect with yourself and your sexuality is no less valid a reason than any other.
Essentially, what makes the difference between sex that is empowering, and sex that negatively affects your sense of well-being, are your motivations and how it makes you feel. Be honest about the reasons you’re having casual sex, and look out for any red flags. Are you doing it because it’s the only way you can feel valued? Are you using sex to avoid emotional intimacy? Are you having sex with people who make you feel unsafe or disrespected, or don’t prioritise your pleasure? Are you emotionally hurting or disrespecting your partners?
And, importantly: are you enjoying the interactions you’re having?
If you are enjoying your sex life and are only concerned because you’re more active than your friends, stop worrying. Comparing numbers of sexual partners only results in judgment, and reveals nothing about a person’s relationship with the act itself. As you have experienced, many people who have troubled, complicated or unhealthy relationships with sex often avoid it. Others may experience negative feelings towards sex within the confines of a committed, monogamous relationship. And so numbers mean nothing.
We just unfortunately live in a society where women are judged if their number is deemed to be “too high”. That’s society’s dysfunctional relationship with sex – not yours.
However, if you do think that the casual sex you are having may be impacting you negatively, I’d encourage you to step back from partnered sex for now, and explore your sexuality and self-esteem on your own. I’m not suggesting this because casual sex is a problem, but because it’s often harder to examine a behaviour while still engaging in it. Often, we don’t realise our reliance on activities, substances or coping mechanisms until we try to do without them. Taking a break may allow you to think about what it’s bringing to your life and whether it’s something you want and enjoy, or if it has turned into something you depend on, even though it might not be good for you right now.
I would also encourage you to talk to a therapist. Again, not because I think you having sex is inherently a problem that needs to be solved, but because surviving sexual assault is huge, and it could be helpful to talk about it. A good therapist can also help you tease out questions like this about your relationship with your sexuality, as that relationship evolves.
Therapy can be invaluable for helping people navigate trauma and its aftermath, but it isn’t just about that. It’s also about mental health maintenance; helping people become aware of the patterns and dynamics in their lives, and developing and maintaining healthy coping mechanisms and relationships - with others, and yourself. You say you have doubts about your judgement, and these could come from some unresolved feelings or it could just be you responding to the judgement of your friends. Either way, speaking with a therapist and working on regaining that trust in yourself seems like a great place to start.
You’ve been through and survived sexual assault; you now deserve to feel supported and safe and happy. And if, upon reflection, you decide that the sex you’re currently having is fun and empowering, my best advice is to just keep enjoying yourself. You have survived. Now you get to thrive.
Roe McDermott is a writer and Fulbright scholar with an MA in sexuality studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in gendered and sexual citizenship at the Open University and Oxford
If you have a problem or query you would like her to answer, you can submit it anonymously at irishtimes.com/dearroe