Love After Rape: Being the Partner of a Sexual Assault Survivor

(Trigger Warning)

Learning His Girlfriend’s Secret

When his girlfriend, Marina*, told him that she had been raped in high school, Tim’s* first reaction was that he didn’t know how to respond.

Shock quickly became anger at what the rapist had done to her.  He was even more furious after learning that her mom hadn’t believed she had been sexually assaulted.

After listening to her story, Tim wanted to be supportive but wasn’t quite sure how.

Why Sexual Acts Sometimes Felt Like Sexual Assault for Her

Knowing what happened to her, Tim finally understood why Marina was uncomfortable during sex. He realized that when he was with her, she was still partly in bed with her rapist.

Marina would often shiver uncontrollably – pulling her knees together to close herself off from him or clench the blankets and cry silently if he tried to kiss her lower than her ribs.

She was not shaking with pleasure.

She was shaking with fear.

She couldn’t be soothed.

Tim didn’t want to accidentally re-traumatize her.  He knew that survivors are often triggered or even have a flashback when they do sexual things.

The line between sex and sexual violence is often blurred regardless of the good intention of the partner.

How He Learned to Help Her Feel Comfortable in Bed

In the beginning, Tim wasn’t sure how to talk about the traumatic rape.  At the same time, he also knew he couldn’t ignore something that was still hurting her. 

Tim and Marina knew to make their relationship successful, they would have to work through the sexual trauma together.

The most important thing was creating an environment where Marina felt safe.  He made it explicitly clear to her that she could always say “stop”, “no”, “I don’t like this” or “I’m not in the mood, even if she had agreed to do it before.

They had to unite their minds and desire first before uniting their bodies.  It didn’t matter if they were both experiencing anal sex for the first time or if they were engaging in more conventional missionary style, they had to agree.

Tim and Marina also had frank conversations about their sexual interests and limits while fully clothed and not being sexual. Knowing that he wouldn’t try something “in the moment” helped Marina feel more in control of the situation. Tim realized that there are many ways to be intimate and that they were still able to connect in a way that was not spontaneous.

The need to talk openly about sex was particularly heightened when he discovered that she had never achieved an orgasm during sex. She had never been able to calm her mind enough to settle down and actually enjoy having sex, even though she had been with many partners of both genders.

Instead, she would fake orgasms and just try and focus on the sexual pleasure of others so that they wouldn’t realize she wasn’t enjoying herself.

Once Tim and Marina talked about how she wanted to be touched, she could experience pleasure too. It was the first time she had ever experienced being honest in the bedroom.

It was important to not feel like they owed each other any sexual favors while still wanting to make each other feel good.  To create a comfortable and non-judgmental space in bed, Tim and Marina decided to stop during sex whenever she says that she isn’t going to orgasm – or equally – if he ever feels the same way.  

Where They Are Now

Tim and Marina are still together.  Because she had the courage to tell him early on in their relationship, they been able to grow closer together emotionally and physically.  He admires her immensely for speaking up.

Tim is happy to report that Marina has become comfortable enough to have an orgasm during sex. Because of their open conversation about boundaries, they have even achieved something that is difficult for many couples: simultaneous orgasms.

Looking back on the day Marina told him,  Tim still doesn’t know what to say to say if he went back.  But he knows one thing he wished he had said – “I will never judge you.”

Are You Also the Partner of a Survivor?

1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men in the US are sexually assaulted.   Long after the sexual violence has ended, survivors often continue to feel the impact of the trauma on their lives.  And so do the people who love them.

Despite this, as a society we don’t talk about the challenges involved and how both the survivor and partner can work through sexual trauma together.

But it is possible and people are doing it.  As Tim’s personal story shows, having an understanding sexual relationship based on trust and communication can have a big impact on the healing process for a survivor.

To learn more, we recommend these resources:

*Names were changed to protect the privacy of Marina and Tim.