the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Tt King

A queer survivor's guide to intimacy after sexual violence

May 7, 2018

Amidst the public recognition of the #MeToo Movement, support for survivors and their allies has blossomed nationally. I have seen amazing resources aiming to improving allyship, and I am so glad to see this literature on the rise. 

When we consider LGBTQ+ folks and discussions around intimacy after violence, there is a large gap in recognition, outreach, and support. Below, is my personal take on returning to touch after an experience of violence. Please note that this is not a one-size-fits-all guide, and what works for some people may not work for others. These are merely my takeaways from working with and for survivors on the road to healing. This is for us...

1. Sexual violence is not sex.
Some readers may think this is obvious, but it is worth restating: Sexual violence is not sex, period. The differences between violence and sex are numerous and drastic, most clearly in their treatment of consent, despite the fact that acts of sexual violence can mimic the acts of consensual intimacy between partners. Consequently, for many survivors the separation of trauma and touch can be difficult after their experience, particularly when grounding themselves in new relationships. While the body may keep score and can be triggered by consensual touch, it is possible to ground the mind in reality by repeating mantras like:“I am here, not there. This is intimacy, not violence.”

2. A relationship of consent goes beyond sex.
Whether a long-term relationship or a short-term encounter, the centrality of consent is vital for the respect and safety of all parties. Think about: offering non-verbal cues for when you want a hug, providing encouragement when your partner spends time self-caring, asking where your partner wants to grab dinner. These actions all prioritize consent in a relationship, and it is these behaviors that set the tone for consent in intimate spaces. Particularly for survivors, checking in can be a way of not only forming connections, but also of ensuring safety. “Does this feel okay?” or “Hey, would you slow down?” are ways of asking for consent and clarifying what is acceptable, which are healthy and vital parts of consensual relationships.

Additionally, for consent to be ongoing and enthusiastic, partners must understand and respect these boundaries without expectation or frustration that the relationship will one day become boundaryless. All persons have limits—survivors are not unique in this way. A relationship with consent at its center recognizes and celebrates boundaries and acknowledges the trust required to demand what one deserves.

3. Triggering happens, and it’s not a sign of failure.
For many survivors of violence, triggering occurs during ordinary, consensual events, not only intimate ones. A lack of trust does not initiate triggering, a common misconception for many. Triggering can take many forms, from emotional upset to dissociation, and these reactions mimic the body’s attempt to keep a traumatized person safe. While a powerful tool of the mind, these responses can be frustrating for many survivors and challenging for partners. But in these moments, there is often an opportunity to bring partners closer together.

When a triggering situation arises, it is important to recognize and respect its challenge, acknowledging that a partner may feel guilty for triggering a survivor and that a survivor may feel guilty for re-experiencing their trauma. The line between validation and blame can be especially thin, and while triggering can be related to tension and fear in the relationship, it is not a failure of any partner or the relationship as a whole. Rather, it is a natural part of the healing process, and sometimes even a sign that one is building trust and learning about their own boundaries with another person.  

4. Healing is not linear, and that’s okay.
After times of comfortable intimacy, it is probable and natural to shift back into periods of sensitivity or challenge. Survivors can be quick to blame themselves, thinking, I thought I was over this, when becoming triggered for the first time after a period of ease. However, this is a difficult but expected part of the healing process, and one that partners must acknowledge. While it can be jarring for all parties to experience, it’s impossible to expect traumatic symptoms to fully dissolve, especially when first returning to intimacy. Though healing is possible, triggering is another part of the process, and one best supported when partners show patience and empathy.

Intimacy after sexual violence is never clear cut or the same for every survivor. Factors of gender identity, race, and sexual orientation cannot be ignored, especially when approaching each other with care and understanding. My hope is that this article can help start difficult but necessary conversations, and validate survivors whose experiences with sexual violence remain unheard.

If you’re experiencing sexual violence, The Anti-Violence Project is available to help. Call the 24/7 bilingual (English/Spanish) hotline at 212-714-1141 or report online at avp.org

Tt King is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and senior at Boston College studying sociology and clinical social work. Tt (she/her/hers) works at the Boston College Women's Center as part of the Care Team and the Bystander Intervention Sexual Assault Prevention Program.

the voice and vision of a new generation