Being a Supportive Partner to a Survivor of Sexual Violence
Six Simple Suggestions
One out of every six women and girls and one in 33 men and boys have experienced sexual violence. If you find yourself in a relationship with someone with a history of surviving sexual violence, it can be hard to know how to be a supportive partner, whether the trauma is recent or in the distant past. Here are some ways you can help empower and support your romantic partner through their healing. I spoke with Deb Singh of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/ Multicultural Women Against Rape for some suggestions.
Awareness and acceptance
It is helpful to know the range of potential effects of sexual violence, such as depression, anxiety, loss of desire, and challenges with intimacy, control, trust and boundaries. Survivors might feel guilt and shame, confusion, sadness, loneliness, anger and/or fear. They might experience nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks of the violent event(s). Sometimes they experience memory loss and sometimes they block out their emotions such as pain or anger. Survivors also sometimes block out pleasure and joy and can dissociate from their body during sexual pleasure. This is a range and any particular person may experience one or many of these symptoms either right away or many years later.
Accept your partner for who they are and how they are coping with what they have gone through, without judging or comparing how you or others may have reacted to the same scenario. We all have our own histories and complicated relationships with sex and our bodies, therefore we do not all respond the same way. It is also important to be compassionate but to not pity or patronize your partner. Support their healing in ways that they request without taking away their agency and strength.
Your partner is more than their trauma
It is important to be aware of your partner’s trauma but to not let the effects of the violence (re)define them or your relationship. Follow your partner’s lead on how much they want to discuss details of the event(s) and its impacts. While sex will never look exactly the same again as it did before the violence, it can certainly still be exciting and intimate through and after the healing process. They might need a break from certain kinds of sex, especially if they have recently remembered or experienced a certain type of trauma. They may also desire more sex. Again, everyone is different.
Triggers and flashbacks
As in all aspects of relationships, communication is key. Ask your partner what their triggers are - things that remind them of the violence. It could be certain kinds of sexual activities, certain words, locations or even positions. Ask your partner what is most helpful for you to do or say if they are triggered or have a flashback to a moment of violence. They might want you to tell them if you see that they are having a flashback. You can ask if they would respond positively in that moment to saying something such as “I know it feels real to you, and you are here with me now.”
Listen with all your senses
Listen with your ears and also your eyes and touch. Pay attention to your gut. Sometimes a partner will be unable to communicate that they are uncomfortable or wish to stop. You can listen to not only what they say but also how they respond to your touch with movement and sound or lack thereof. It is important to not make decisions for them but you can reflect back what you see. If they seem uncomfortable, you can say something like, “You seem tense. Would you like me to stop?” or “You don’t look like you are feeling pleasure. What can I do differently?”
Survivors of sexual violence had their choice and power taken away during the incident(s). It is thus important that a survivor be in control of their choices and their healing process. Don’t assume what your partner wants or does not want to do based on their history. Even asking if they want a hug is important. Some folks want no physical touch while others crave it. Check in regularly, especially after a recent trauma or flashback or new sexual exploration. It may seem tedious, but it is really important to get consent for different stages of sexual activity - and you can make it sexy! Giving your partner choice at multiple points of connection rather than just once at the beginning can help them feel more empowered and help you to feel confident that your partner is making conscious choices all the way through rather than acquiescing to or enduring the interaction.
Take care of yourself and know your limitations
Seek your own therapy and talk about your experience with friends whom your partner has given permission for you to disclose. It is important to have other outlets to process your own experience. If you share too much with your partner, you risk compromising your partner’s openness to talk about their emotions and healing with you as they may start to withhold their feelings in order to protect you from that information. It is generally OK however for you to share with your partner any feelings of sadness, anger or pain about their abuse. Come up with some strategies of what will help you when there is a request for sexual contact or when sex stops mid-session. Recognize and respect your own limits as well. No matter how much you want to, you cannot take away their pain or “fix” them. Do not overextend yourself and also give yourself a break when you make a mistake. You cannot be your partner’s sole source of support. Remember that you are human too.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to goodforher.com