According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, around one in three women and one in six men in the US will experience some form of contact sexual violence during their lifetime. People who have been sexually assaulted are more than capable of being in healthy and fulfilling relationships, but if your partner has experienced sexual violence, you may be lost on how to support them
Obviously, every person is different, as is their relationship to sexual assault. INSIDER consulted with psychologists and relationship experts to come up with the best pieces of advice for being in a relationship with someone who’s been sexually assaulted.
Don’t press your partner for details of the assault
Some people will want to share the details of their experience. For others, talking about the trauma may feel like reliving it.
“After a sexual assault, it can be re-traumatizing for the person to recall the experience in detail. Your partner may experience flashbacks of the assault as a result of PTSD. This may cause unwanted emotional reactions and further harm your partner,” licensed clinical social worker LaQuista Erinna told INSIDER.
Allow your partner to share as much as they want and make it clear that you’re willing to listen, but don’t push them to give details of the sexual assault.
Never put pressure on your partner to have sex
It goes without saying that you should never pressure any person to have sex at any time, but survivors of sexual assault may need more care when it comes to how and when you initiate sex.
“Sexual desire and sexual arousal can be difficult to achieve for someone who has been sexually assaulted, and it can take time for the survivor to feel comfortable sexually again,” psychotherapist and clinical traumatologist Silva Neves told INSIDER.
Giving your partner the time and space they need to feel comfortable with sexual intimacy is essential. Allow them to set the pace and don’t try to pressure them into physical contact before they’re ready. Talk to them about how they’d feel comfortable with you initiating sexual contact and keep that dialogue open.
Focus on incorporating consent into all aspects of your relationship
It’s crucial for all couples to talk about healthy boundaries both in and out of the bedroom, but having open conversations about consent is especially important when someone in a relationship has been affected by sexual assault.
“Your partner has had an experience of their boundaries being violated, and it’s important for you to emphasize that boundaries will be honored in your relationship. This may seem obvious to you, but it can be so powerful for your partner,” licensed sex therapist Vanessa Marin told INSIDER.
Talk about how you say “yes” and “no” to each other, and if your partner already knows there are certain things that don’t feel safe or good to them. It’s also important to understand that consent can be withdrawn at any moment and needs to be re-given in each new instance of intimacy.
Recognize that physical closeness of any kind might be challenging for a survivor
It’s understandable that sexual intimacy after a sexual assault may be difficult and complicated for a survivor. But other types of intimacy or closeness can also present challenges.
“It’s not just sex that can be difficult after a sexual trauma. Physical intimacy of many types can be challenging: holding hands, snuggling, hugging, even sharing the same bed. Patience, sensitivity, and clear communication are key,” clinical psychologist Forrest Talley told INSIDER.
Don’t assume that physical contact that isn’t overtly sexual will be comfortable for your partner. Instead, regularly check in with your partner about what kinds of touch make them feel safe and in control. Be aware that their preferences might change over time or even day to day.
Focus on giving your partner control over their body during sex
During a sexual assault, a person loses control over their body in a very profound way. As a result, they may feel uncomfortable with intimate activity that make them feel out of control.
“When engaging with a partner sexually after an assault, give them control. Let them make the first move, decide which positions work for them, and use verbal consent when you are escalating a sexual encounter,” sex and relationship counselor Niki Davis-Fainbloom told INSIDER.
Keeping your intentions and boundaries clear can help a survivor of sexual assault feel safe and respected.
If sexual intimacy is challenging, work on finding other ways to express love
Sex isn’t the only way to express love and desire in a relationship. If sexual intimacy is still too difficult for your partner, focus instead on finding non-physical ways to express affection for each other.
“How does the survivor feel the most loved? Is it with a touch? Hearing kind words? Having something done for them? Receiving a small gift? Or spending quality time with their partner? It is different for everyone, and you won’t know unless you have open discussions about it,” Neves told INSIDER.
Building up a non-sexual language of love and respect can help a couple dealing with the effects of sexual assault maintain a close bond even if physical intimacy is challenging.
Have a discussion about potential triggers
Sexual assault can traumatize the mind as well as the body. Some survivors may experience panic or anxiety when exposed to things that seem perfectly innocuous to their partners
“With careful, calm, and non-judgmental discussions, the partner can learn where the triggers are for the survivor. Triggers could include particular smells, parts of the body, heavy breathing, certain sounds, or specific words,” said Neves.
Triggers can be places, too. Having sex in places other than your bedroom may be a trigger or simply visiting a certain part of town can bring back harsh memories. Discuss any potential triggers with your partner and try to be sensitive to them.
Know that every day is different
No matter how long it’s been since their sexual assault, every day since will be different. Things like the news, speaking with old friends, or even anniversaries can bring up old feelings.
Just like every survivor’s experience with sexual assault is different, their feelings can also vary day to day. Again, check in with your partner and let them know that you’re there to talk — or to give them space — if they’re feeling particularly raw.
Learning about the common impacts of abuse can help you better understand your partner’s needs
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has survived sexual assault, it’s sometimes possible to misinterpret the effects of your partner’s trauma as a personal statement on your relationship.
“The best thing you can do to be a supportive partner is educate yourself about the impacts of sexual abuse. Learning about some of the common impacts of abuse can help you understand that these kinds of reactions are about the trauma your partner has been through, not about you as a person,” Marin told INSIDER.
For example, if your partner doesn’t feel much desire for sex, you may think that they’re not attracted to you. If they flinch when you touch them in certain ways, you may think that they don’t trust you. Learning about how sexual assault can impact a person with the help of a licensed mental health professional or free online resources can help you understand what your partner may be going through.
Be honest about your own concerns around sex and intimacy
If you have a partner who is a survivor of sexual assault, it’s natural to want to let them take the lead when it comes to sex and intimacy. However, you should also remember to be honest about your own needs in a judgment-free, no-pressure manner.
“It is important to consider your partner’s stage of processing the sexual assault and proceed with sensitivity. At the same time, failure to identify your needs can eventually lead to harboring resentment,” licensed professional counselor Aimee Yasin told INSIDER.
Make sure you’re communicating your willingness to work with your partner’s needs while still being open about your own concerns and feelings. Bottling up your emotions or ignoring the topic of sex altogether can ultimately work against the relationship.
Take advantage of resources for survivors and their partners
There are several different anonymous and confidential resources that offer advice and services not just to sexual assault survivors, but also for their partners.
Anyone can call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional counselor who can direct both survivors and porters to local resources or simply offer an understanding and anonymous ear. The RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE can also help anyone affected by sexual assault receive support, information, advice, or a referral.
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