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Survivor Talk: Discussing Intimacy and Sex

By Lauren Cutler




“I’m a survivor. And, I don’t want to do these sexual acts.”


Sometimes this vulnerability may seem to survivors that they have created discomfort for both themselves and their partner/lover. This is not on the survivor. It can be a lot for someone to handle. Because the conversation around sexual violence is portrayed as such a taboo topic that always happens to others and not to those we love and care for, and it is not engaged with past the level of sympathy, it can be difficult for sexual partners to respond.


You could have known someone for months and months and had thoughts about you two intimately but the minute they mentioned that they’re a survivor you struggle to process the information and think “Oh, what do I say now? Do I tell them that I don’t care and I’m happy to do whatever; do I try to talk about it more deeply; do I ask more questions about what they like; do I ask them if they have any other triggers; or do I just do the same as always minus what they’ve asked me what not to do…"


A supportive reaction is essential to diminish shame and blame- feelings that survivors often accumulate after violence. As a survivor, opening up can be a stressful moment. To share such horror with a lover can put one in such a vulnerable position. How a partner reacts may reinforce this vulnerability, or, let them know that someone is present and they are listening.


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It took me over four months to tell my then-boyfriend that I was a survivor. I was scared that he would react without feeling, or just say sorry and not want to join my sexual healing journey as a pair. The anxiety of sharing the deepest and darkest part of my sexual self and identity was heightened by previous damaging relationships I had had with men. How he reacted removed this anxiety instantaneously. Not only did he feel pain for what I had suffered, but had a desire to be there for me in many different ways, for comfort, for exploration, for pleasure, and for reaffirming that I’m okay and he loves me regardless.

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Telling someone that you’re a survivor can create a lot of stress, fear, and shame. It’s terrifying to tell someone; a survivor doesn’t want their partner to not want to try anything in fear that they would hurt them or re-traumatise them. It is much more complex than that. Communicating desires, boundaries and sharing your feelings about certain acts is essential for personal and collective healing. We are not telepathic, but each survivor has their own story and their own preferences and ways of having pleasure. Sex is a topic we often avoid having at a deeper level. We do the same sexual acts in quiet, in the same order, in the same settings, and it's over. When was the last time you intimately spoke about sex in ways which allowed you to share intimately?


For a survivor, speaking about sex unprovoked is also frightening. Encouraging words and phrases can avoid judgment and shows the survivor your support as well as create an environment of ease, respect, comfort, safety, and love.


So what can you say to ensure that you are communicating in ways to ensure ease, respect, comfortability, safety, and love?


“I’m sorry this happened”

Acknowledge that the experience has affected their life. Phrases like “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you are sharing this with me,” helps to communicate empathy. You did not do the act of sexual violence to the survivor so you are not apologizing to them as if you were the perpetrator. Rather, this sentence is respectful and an act of love as you are validating their experience as well as communicating that you HEAR them.


“I’m here, you are not alone”

Remind the survivor that you are there for them and willing to listen to their story. This is the case now and in the future. Disclosing details and sharing the whole story of their experience of sexual violence may be too much at this moment, they may not feel ready to share everything with you right away. Let them know that they can tell you as little or as much as they want to at whatever speed is best for them.


“You are so strong, this doesn’t change how I think of you”

Some survivors are concerned that sharing what happened will change the way other people see them, especially a partner. Reassure them that surviving sexual violence doesn’t change the way you think or feel about them. Try not to view them as a victim but empower them by reminding them how strong they are for sharing this with you.


The sentence suggests a love for the survivor, saying that you love them no matter what.

An important part here is to not forget that the survivors' experience would have and may still impact their life, choosing to discard this part of their identity is harmful as it suggests a lack of care and emotion to their experience, as well as exemplifying that you are NOT hearing the severity of the experience. A survivor is a human who has survived horror and you are communicating their strength to them while emphasising that they are still the same to you - your partner, your love.


“Thank you for telling me”

If a survivor opens up to you, it means they trust you. Reassure them that you can be trusted and will respect their privacy.


“I appreciate you sharing such vulnerability”

The first sharing of a violent experience is such a huge act of bravery. The survivor may have been replaying how they were going to share the experience for the last hour, the last few days, the last couple weeks, since they had been dating, and even rehearsing how to share since the experience happened. Communicating your appreciation of their sharing creates an environment that allows feelings to be shared freely.

“How do you want me to support you?”

Sexual violence strips survivors of control and makes them feel violated and weak. Do not take control of the situation. It is very common for loved ones to feel so distressed on hearing about violence that they start to make decisions for the survivor and be overprotective. Make sure your feelings don't overwhelm their feelings. You are inevitably going to be angry, but make sure that you communicate that this is aimed at the perpetrator and not the survivor. Seeing you upset could make the survivor feel distressed and worry that they shouldn't have told you. Simply ask them how they want to be helped and make it clear that they are in control of the situation.



If you are in an intimate relationship, and you both want to communicate, share and explore more of your sexual practices, these are ways you could respond to your partner sharing that they are a survivor:


“What are your boundaries?”

A survivor may feel ashamed, concerned that they won’t be believed, or worried they’ll be blamed. They may want to establish certain boundaries - boundaries are so important for the survivor to navigate their sexual healing journey. Let them know that however painful and upsetting their story is, you are there with them and are ready to receive their words with respect and support.


“Is there anything you don’t like/don’t want to do?”

There may be certain sexual acts that trigger a survivor. A particular act that impacted them the most, meaning that the idea of performing it again, even with a current partner, creates stress, anxiety, and fear. Hear them. Listen to them. Establish that you want to make sure they feel safe. Leave any “why” questions or investigations behind - if they want to share why, they will. Supporting this person is important, not understanding the intricacies of trauma and why they won’t perform a sexual act that you may enjoy.


“You can tell me if it becomes too much at any point”

Reassuring your partner that whatever we are doing can stop whenever is okay. You are in this experience together, and if one of you is not enjoying, not connecting to or not wanting to continue with the experience, that’s okay. Although they may have been really into the act initially, this can change, sometimes without warning and instantly. Establishing that it's okay to stop, move slowly, and take a break is always okay, and is advised to become part of your sexual practices.


“Let me know if you want to explore anything, freely and without pressure” | “Is there anything that you would like to try slowly?”

As a survivor progresses through their sexual healing, they may have a desire to start trying certain sexual activities. However, this can be scary. If they have not engaged in certain acts, the idea of it may cause them high levels of anxiety and fear, potentially fear that they may not be ‘good’ at it, not enjoy it, or it may set a trigger off. By asking them openly, that at any point they wish to try something new, tell them that’s okay and you would love to be part of that with them. Engaging in sexual acts is an experience. By framing the trying of sexual acts as an experience to do together creates a sense of safety. By reinforcing that this can be done at a slow pace removes a feeling of urgency and a need to engage in the act quickly and in a rushed manner.


This removes the pressure to engage in something that is scary for the survivor, to experience sexual actions in passionate, enjoyable, safe, and intimate ways, pressure needs to be removed. By saying the act can be ‘explored’ suggests ease of stopping the ‘exploration’ when it becomes too much, or when the point between comfortability and discomfort becomes entangled.

 

Survivors are stronger than you know and being a part of their sexual healing may be tough at times, but if it is tough for you, imagine how tough it is for them. By being there to support, respect, create environments of safety, and love helps to empower the survivor. Partners of survivors play a part in our healing journeys, and we can be an extra strength for survivors. How will you play your part?


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Inspired readings:

How to Support a Survivor | The Survivors Trust


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