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How survivors of sexual assault find pleasure in sex again

Shailene Woodley, centre, plays a single mother who practises celibacy and tentatively reconsiders her own sexuality years after a violent assault in HBO’s critically acclaimed mini-series Big Little Lies.

"Before the assault, I had an incredible sex drive," says Ellie, a 30-year-old woman who lives in Toronto. (She asked that her full name not be used.) "I was adventurous, found joy in intimacy and viewed sex as a great way to get to know a partner."

"Everything changed," she says, after she was raped four years ago. Her sex life became a source of indomitable anxiety. "I started having panic attacks any time I tried to be intimate," she says. "The things that I used to enjoy now left me in tears." Eventually she stopped wanting to have sex at all. "The thought of being physically intimate filled me with dread, so I just avoided it."

Another survivor, Samantha, 24, describes her sex life as currently "non-existent." She says that being raped "… took away the excitement of the experience of sex and replaced it with something to be afraid of."

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The assault diminished her self-confidence, which added "to the difficulties of wanting to have sex with someone." She fears that even consensual sex with her trusted partner might trigger bad memories. "I don't want to cry or freak out. I just avoid the situation entirely," she says, noting that the medication she now takes for PTSD and night terrors may also be factors in her decreased enthusiasm toward sex. (She is currently in therapy.)

The prevalence of sexual-assault reporting in the news of late can remind many people of their worst experiences with consent and sex. The almost daily reported revelations can cause people – whether survivors, partners of survivors or even people with no history of trauma but who are rightfully cautious – to freshly consider potential dangers that can undermine a sense of trust in any sexual exchange.

But good sex after trauma does exist. Ellie is one of more than a dozen sexual-assault survivors who told The Globe and Mail that her sex life, once diminished, is now thriving. Ellie says the nine months she spent in therapy were essential to "the sex drive I felt I'd lost forever."

"Instead of letting this experience continue to destroy my sexual identity, I was able to take ownership … and begin to move beyond it," she says. "I don't think rape is something one ever really gets over. But … I'm thrilled to say that my sex life is almost back to normal."

Understandably, it can take time. In his 2014 book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk wrote that "When our senses become muffled, we no longer feel fully alive."

Trauma, van der Kolk says, affects the mind and emotions as well as the immune system and one's ability to feel trust and security. A noted researcher into the effects of post-traumautic stress disorder, van der Kolk also writes that it is common for trauma survivors to feel disassociated from their bodies.

"The past is impressed not only on their minds … but also on the very core of their beings: in the safety of their bodies," he wrote of those who have experienced sexual assault. For many, this complicates the possibility of a satisfying sex life, even with consensual, desired partners.

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The celibacy strategy may be familiar to fans of the book and television series Big Little Lies, in which one single mother tentatively reconsiders her own sexuality years after a violent assault. It's one of several common responses for survivors, says Rae Dolman, a registered psychotherapist in Toronto who specializes in sex and relationship issues.

Others are able to have sex, but suffer from flashbacks or body memories triggered by certain kinds of touching, circumstances or environments, she says.

"Trauma manifests differently for different people," she says, noting that the post-sexual-assault healing process can be "slow work" compared to situations where sexual trauma has not occurred.

The good news is: Dolman regularly helps clients reclaim their sex lives and reach a point where intimacy is fun again. "I have clients come in who are completely disconnected from their partner, and leave with what they say is a fulfilling sex life," she says.

"I recently concluded treatment with a couple who initiated therapy due to the female partner's past sexual abuse impacting their sex life," Dolman says. "They were exploring whether or not to stay together. It took a year for them to come to any conclusions." The couple recently became engaged.

Some survivors sexually shut down after trauma, while others become hyper-sexual. Dolman says this is another normal coping mechanism – an attempt to have control or restore what has been stolen.

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Roberta Excell, 25, experienced two sexual traumas, one of which occurred during childhood and the second when she was 21. After the second assault, she withdrew socially, but became promiscuous.

"I went from having four [sexual] partners to having 22 partners in the space of 18 months," Excell says. "I was enamoured with the idea of sex, but also utterly petrified of it."

For years, Excell experienced panic attacks over sensory triggers such as smelling the brand of her attacker's cologne. She says that even consensual kissing as a teenager left her feeling "panicked, fearful and utterly out of control."

Excell went through a stage of chosen celibacy while undergoing cognitive behavioural therapy.

"I love sex, but I've been through a lot. I have to be gentle on myself," she says. "It doesn't mean I'll never have sex again. It just means maybe I won't have sex right now, and that's okay. That really is normal."

Toronto-based sensual body worker Robyn Red helps clients – equally divided between men and women, she notes – to recover from sexual trauma. She offers various types of therapy, some physical, such as Reiki and tantric massage, others verbal. Much of it is designed to help clients rebuild their relationship to their bodies.

"For some, [celibacy] is an okay bargain for a while," she says. "I tend to meet people at the point where that stops being fine."

Red says she usually meets clients several years after they've had a traumatic experience, not right away. The time in between leaves what she calls a "calcified" kind of pain.

"With this kind of healing, you need to go deep into your own underground and face things that are scary to face," says Red, who also notes that the healing process takes time and can be emotionally laborious. "You need to be willing to work with shame and sexuality, which typically people don't really do." As with Dolman, Red acknowledges that the process is not always easy. But there is triumph to be found. "There's often a sense of, 'Oh! I'm here again!'" she says. "[Clients] become more present in their lives. They start seeing colours more clearly. People will often come to the conclusion that they know themselves better than they've ever known themselves."

The focus on active consent, an important element of many sex therapies, sometimes leads trauma survivors to BDSM play (bondage and discipline/dominance and submission), where ongoing enthusiastic consent and communication are paramount.

According to a woman named Sandra, 39, the combination of BDSM and therapy helped her fully recover from an assault that took place 20 years ago.

"There is a rewriting that occurs somatically, with respect to the physical acts of violence I've experienced," says Sandra, who regularly engages in BDSM and role-playing with her partner. "We've re-enacted my rape in a way that made me feel safe and in power the entire time. We play a 'game' where I say no, and am heard, and we stop. … Consent is the default, regardless of what we are doing. We got to that point with an absolutely huge amount of communication."

"My sex life is amazing," says Mandi, a 35-year-old mother of two from Austin, Tex., who endured intimate partner violence and rape during her teenage years and early 20s. "I do still get nightmares," she says. "But they aren't as vivid or emotional as they were. More like a bad black-and-white TV show with poor reception."

Mandi sought therapy after a particularly distressing flashback during sex, when her current partner's advance triggered a memory of a long-ago assault. She says that regular group counselling and twice-weekly eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy helped "get the poison out." (EMDR is a psychotherapy technique that repeatedly activates opposite sides of the brain to release emotional experiences trapped within the nervous system.)

Now, Mandi says, "I have complete trust in my partner. I am completely open to try new things. We've experimented with bondage, which is something I could have never imagined a few years ago."

Dolman and Red both say that the healing process is helped by the presence of a strong support network, or "secure attachments."

"Recovery happens best when survivors find allies in their partners," says Dolman, who often sees couples in her practice together. (Red's practice tends to focus on the individual.) It should be noted, though, that support does not have to come from a romantic partner. Survivors can, and do, recover on their own. (Some join Facebook groups to connect with others who've had similar experiences.) Whether or not one desires an emotional element to sex, it is possible to enjoy it again.

"I am 56 now," says Margot Curtis, who sought therapy after a number of sexual assaults that began when she was 15. "My advice to survivors is to seek help, sooner than later. Mentally, we believe there is no way out of the prison we are living in, but that is a lie." Curtis says that due to trauma, it took her a long time to be able to have an orgasm.

"Getting past guilt, self-loathing and having zero self-esteem is difficult," she says. "But it can be done. I have an amazing sex life."

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