Reclaiming My Sex Life: Enjoying Sex Again After Experiencing Sexual Assault (featuring Dr. Kate Balestrieri)

*Trigger warning: this article contains in-depth discussions involving rape, sexual violence, PTSD, and trauma. Please read at your own discretion.

For some sexual assault survivors, the details of the worst day of their lives are burned into their memories. They remember the day, the hour, what they were wearing, what they had to eat that day...for me, those details are a mirage. Sometimes I swear I was wearing jeans and a band tee, other days I remember wearing shorts and a sweater.

Trauma distorts things like that, sometimes.

My Story

I remember arriving at his house...I came in the door like I always did, greeted the dog, said hello to his mother, and went upstairs to his bedroom.

It felt like a normal day, but it wasn’t. 
Somewhere between making out and having sex (which we had done a few times before), he decided to take something from me. Something I wouldn’t get back until over a decade later.

It was the first time I’d ever had anal sex. There was no condom, no lubrication, no consent.

The pain seared through me but at the same time, I felt like I couldn’t feel anything. At first, I was in shock. I tried to pull away a few times, but each time was met with a shove towards the pillow. I tried to make a noise to tell him to stop, but nothing came out. I couldn’t understand why nothing came out. Inside, I was screaming.

Eventually, I stopped trying - I became lifeless. He kissed me after as if everything was fine.  I, like so many other women, fell into the notion that because I didn’t say “no”, it wasn’t rape. I thought that it didn’t matter that I was struggling to get free or crying as he finished. For years, I hated myself for not being able to form the word “no.”

I convinced myself it would have changed things, even though I knew it wouldn’t have.

Consent is not this blurred line - it either is or it isn’t, you either have it or you don’t. And he knew he didn’t have my consent - he just didn’t care.

For 5 more months after that day, we had “consensual” sex that was driven by fear, panic, flashbacks, and manipulation. He became so controlling that he dictated when I showered, and when I shaved, and what I ate. My eyes were always lowered and my frame became hollow. I couldn’t see out of it, I couldn’t see what it was doing to me or that it wasn’t healthy - it’s just the way it was.

For years after it was over, I would experience flashbacks every time someone put their hand on my shoulder or anytime I thought I heard my abuser’s name. I lived for almost a decade after my sexual assault with a crippling eating disorder that stemmed from months of emotional abuse endured at the hands of an egotistical, cruel boy who thought he knew what it was to be a man.

I would become paralyzed with fear anytime a lover wanted to try any “from behind” sex position, let alone bring up the idea of anal sex. Even well into my best relationships, my safest relationships, the idea was off the table. 

It became this horrible, terrible, scary thing that made my skin crawl.

The Psychological Aftermath of Sexual Trauma

The aftermath of sexual trauma is an extremely unique, personal, and very, very overwhelming experience.There are a few things I want to look (from a psychological standpoint) before we get into reclaiming your sex life.

Memory Distortion 
Traumatic memories, like all memories, are prone to distortion as we get further away from the experience. There is growing evidence, from both field and lab studies, that proves just how memory distortion happens.

Take this scenario as an example…
A police officer is running down an alley, chasing a perpetrator who has a gun. The perp turns on him, brandishing the gun at the officer, who is now very close to the shooter.

When recalling those moments, when his life is at risk, it is extremely unlikely the officer will be able to recall in great detail things that were not important to his immediate survival of the situation. What color the shooter’s hair was, what shoes he was wearing or if he had any facial hair...those details become blurred.

The brain hones in on the things that are most important in those situations - for example, the hands that were holding a gun that could have ended the officer’s life. 

At the same time, his brain may have zeroed in on things that felt important at the time, like if the perpetrator was left or right-handed, the smell of his cologne, or where the dumpster in the alley was positioned. These things will remain extremely easy to remember, maybe for the rest of his life. 

This is how the brain was designed to work in stressful situations.

When we experience fear, our prefrontal cortex (which is used for planning and complex behaviors) is no longer in charge. The fear circuitry in our brain (specifically the amygdala) kicks in, which alters the abilities of our hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain that plays an important role in the consolidation of information (converting short term memory into long-term memory). 

According to this 2015 study, memory distortion for traumatic events (such as near-death experiences or sexual trauma, as examples) tend to follow a very specific pattern: memory amplification, re-experiencing the event, information melding and flashbacks/PTSD symptoms.

Memory Amplification
This happens because people tend to remember “more” trauma than what they experienced as a result of their brain honing in on the most threatening parts of the experience. 

Re-experiencing
This is what happens when symptoms associated with PTSD crop up, such as intrusive thoughts and images that can also be prone to memory amplification. 

Information Melding
This is when the information gathered during the event melds together with the information gathered (either intentionally or unintentionally) after the event.

For example, during my own sexual assault, I wasn’t focused on my abuser’s bedsheets...but in the following moments after the attack, I was staring at them, trying to process what happened.

As details of something horrible were replaying in my head, I was staring at white bed sheets with blue leaves on them. I was aware that the game console on his shelf was still on and I remember the green-glow of the “start” screen reflecting against the walls of his bedroom.

These details became melded with the assault experience. This is oftentimes how we can attach fear-based memories to things that were present at a traumatic time in our lives. 

Flashbacks and PTSD
Regardless of your age, your gender, or your sexual identity at the time of your assault or after, the impact of sexual violence reaches far beyond the moment.

Events and experiences (such as sexual trauma) are commonly re-experienced by survivors through flashbacks and sometimes even nightmares.

Reclaiming My Sex Life (10 Years Later)

I can’t tell you how to get from the place where everything feels hollow, shameful and horrible to the place where you’re lying next to a partner you trust, breathing in their scent as you let out a sigh of relief after experiencing something you never thought you would again...but I can tell you how I got there. 

Coming to terms with what happened...
Whether you decide to tell a friend about what you experienced, a doctor, a therapist, a police officer, or a complete stranger at a support group meeting - there is strength in community. 

There is an unbelievable strength in having someone who understands what has happened to you. Most importantly, talking with someone about what happened allows you to process what happened on your own terms, in your own way, with the support of other people when you need it.

I sought out therapy (and tried this for a few years). 
Going through therapy wasn’t something I had ever intended on doing but after years of being in and out of various counselor’s offices, I can say without a doubt that the world would be a healthier, happier place if everyone had a good therapist. 

First, opening up to a therapist about what happened to me wasn’t easy. It was maybe 2 years after the event that I told a therapist about it and a few more months after that when I finally felt comfortable talking to them about it during our sessions. 

Over the years, I have had multiple therapists (due to moving around), and not every one of them was as easy to talk to about it, so I didn’t. But the ones I could talk to, I tried to keep in touch with over video sessions. 

I also tackled my eating disorder throughout these years in therapy, as the traumatic event was the beginning and the triggers for both my PTSD and eating disorders were many times the same things. 

It was so helpful for me, in my path to reclaiming my sex life, to find a therapist I felt comfortable with, even if it took a few different therapists and a few years to find.

I entered a healthy relationship and that really changed things. 
Relationships, after that, just felt different. Even with my first love, who I went back to after breaking up with my abuser, things didn’t feel quite right. I eventually told him, but he was the only other romantic interest I ever talked to about my trauma until I met my now-husband during the second year of college, nearly 4 years later. 

Finding healthy relationships (even a healthy platonic friendship) can allow you to feel safe and comfortable with other people again. 

The idea of anal sex became much less scary when I started to read erotica and watch porn.
Eventually, I felt like I could play with the idea of anal sex again. I read about it in erotica stories and, when I felt like I was ready, I began to watch it in porn. Reading about it felt okay, as I could go at my own pace and simply close the tab if I started to feel nervous. 

Watching it, on the other hand, was more of a gamble and more than a few times made me stumble into a panic-attack or flashback. After recovering from that, I would go months without watching or even letting myself think of it again - until I felt ready to give it another try. 

I considered this to be like my own personal exposure-therapy. 

I took my time with the idea of trying it again.
Eventually, after watching it in porn, I began to wonder about what it’d be like to experience it again, this time in a positive, safe environment. I started to think about it and slowly thinking turned to fantasies and I was able to replace “fear” with “arousal” when thinking about the act. 

I started to talk about it out loud with my partner.
Next came dirty talk. Adding the idea of anal sex into sexting or dirty talk took it a step further - from the screen or my imagination into “real life”, even though it hadn’t actually happened yet. 

During this time, my partner was very aware that this was only something we talked about and not something I was ready to try - and more importantly, he fully supported that, which made me feel like I was in control of when (and if) this happened. 

I sat with the idea for a while (a long while).
The fact that I had a loving partner who supported my need for these boundaries and cared deeply for my mental health and happiness, checking in on me when I felt nervous about the idea of consoling me after a flashback began to make me feel as though trying it again someday wasn’t some impossible mission. 

Maybe I could experience anal sex in a way that wasn’t scary and painful and in a way that made me feel satisfied and happy, not afraid, and hopeless. 

When it finally happened, it felt...incredible. 
The second time in my entire life that I ever had anal sex it was over 10 years after my sexual assault. 

During the experience, I felt relief. 
I felt normal. I even felt a bit of pleasure.

After the experience, a wave of tears that just never seemed to end. An emotional let-go, total freedom from every fear I had about the idea, bliss, happiness, and immense relief flooded my system. 

It’s like we had rewritten what it meant to have this kind of sex.

Q&A With Sex Therapist and Psychologist Dr. Kate Balestrieri: How Do I Get From Here to There?

There is no “one story fits all” quote or anecdote that I can point to and say: this is what it was like and this is how you survive. And the things I have to say can’t make you feel safe.

I’m standing here with you, but we all have scars that are unique and distinct in their own ways because it’s a painfully personal and isolating thing to experience. 

In order to really understand the building blocks that need to be put into place so we, as survivors, can move forward into healthy, happy relationships where we feel safe to express and venture into every corner of our sexuality, I had the pleasure of interviewing psychologist and sex therapist Dr. Kate Balestrieri.


Meet Dr. Kate: 
Dr. Kate Balestrieri is the Founder of Modern Intimacy and she is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Sex Addiction Therapist, and PACT Couples’ Therapist. 

Approximately 14 years ago, she developed the Revive & Thrive course to help women heal from sexual trauma. This is a program that blends education about the myriad impacts of trauma and resilience, with peer support and Trauma Sensitive Yoga, for a holistic mind, body, and relational approach to healing. She offers this program online, and in person, in her private practice Los Angeles and Miami.


How does the impact of sexual trauma affect my ability to date, find love, or even enjoy a healthy sex life? 

Dr. Kate says:When someone endures a sexual trauma, the way they see the world may change. Fear, control, or suspicion may predicate their every encounter. 

They may feel their sexuality has been weaponized or objectified, and as if they are not seen as a whole person. All of these insidious implications can make dating, forming love, or experiencing sexual pleasure an arduous or seemingly unattainable endeavor.”

How can I get from that point to being empowered by, not afraid of, sexual intimacy?

Dr. Kate says: “Sexual trauma robs a woman of an integrative, safe and liberated experience between her mind, body and her sexuality; during the traumatic event and often for quite some time after. Rediscovering and reclaiming your sexuality is a process that begins with being willing to examine how this has impacted each domain in your life and navigating a path forward on your own terms. 

Each woman’s course will look different, but there are a few consistent themes that, while not inclusive, can help each woman think about how to return to a fully satisfying sexual self, with time. 

  • Identity - A sexual assault or trauma can shake the core of a survivor’s identity. As healing continues, how a survivor sees herself may take on several iterations. 

    This is often shaped by earlier messages about gender roles, worth, and whether she believes or endures the additional trauma of victim-blaming or slut-shaming, should she choose to disclose the sexual trauma. Moving through messages of shame, blame, helplessness, worthlessness, toward those which allow for a safe, holistic, and self-defined femininity, will help traumatized women feel more comfortable in her sexual skin in the future.
  • Support - In the wake of sexual trauma, it is imperative that women find a core group of others they can lean on and trust. That is a daunting task for many people, without the additional fears that can accompany a sexual trauma. Having at least one person to lean on, who can be a support through the dark days, challenge the self-doubt, offer levity, and a tether to the authentic woman under the pain is key. 

    Healing is not a linear path, and having support will buffer the ups and downs of the stepwise journey ahead.
  • Establishing trust -  More often than not, sexual assault occurs within the context of a relationship with someone known to the survivor. This can be an especially difficult aspect of feeling safe with sexual intimacy with future partners. 

    Many survivors doubt themselves after an assault. They believe they missed something, or otherwise assume responsibility for what happened to them, feeling unsure of whether they can trust their own bodies, voices, judgment, intuition, or boundaries. 
  • Boundaries -  Healing from trauma often involves establishing and sustaining new boundaries, but it is not always clear what those boundaries ought to be, for how long, and in what contexts. 

    Women who practice assertive boundary setting within themselves, with family, friends, coworkers, and in sexual contexts are really practicing self-care. Though not a guarantee against future trauma, a healthy boundary practice (emotionally, physically, sexually, financially, with food and time) can give women a set of tools within which to practice a safe “no,” and the empowerment and confidence to exercise a robust “yes!”
  • Power - Following a sexual trauma, sexuality can become a feared wellspring of energy within. Many women disconnect from their sexuality, overtly or covertly, in an effort to remain safe from future pain, shame, or targeting. 

    “If I just shut off my sexuality, perhaps I won’t get hurt again”, is a frequent unconscious narrative that plagues sexual assault survivors. 

    Conversely, some women rush into a sexual fervor, as if to unconsciously say, “I can’t be hurt by sexuality, see how much I love it!” 

    Either strategy, one that removes power from the sexual self and one that engulfs its grandiosity, leaves a sexual trauma survivor without a calibrated and authentic relationship to their sexual power. 

    Feeling okay with both power and vulnerability are requisites for any sexually satisfying experience. A reparative relationship with a trusted sexual partner can do wonders.
  • Embodiment - Sexual trauma impacts the mind, body, and soul. Healing must include all three as well. By default, the survival mechanisms of the brain encourage compartmentalization during a traumatic event, keeping cognitive, emotional, and physiological narratives of the trauma from resolving in an integrated manner. 

    While helpful, for some, during the traumatic event, this compartmentalization can thwart healing efforts, if all aspects are not addressed. When a woman can be fully present in her mind, body, and spirit, she can be fully present in her sexuality, unlocking a level of pleasure unparalleled.”

How can I help my sexuality flourish and thrive after a traumatic sexual experience?

Dr. Kate says:Get in touch with a definition for sexy that works for you. Perhaps try some classes that will provide a safe and non-triggering space for you to experiment with how to breathe, move, dress, and awaken your sexuality. 

Separate yourself from the messages, thoughts, and judgments about sex you received from family, friends, culture, or religious groups and define a healthy sex life based on your values, and yours alone. Your values may include some themes you learned before, but only if YOU say so. Shed others’ scrutiny, raised eyebrows, or ideas about how you should or should not be sexual if it does not align authentically for you.”

Digging into the more physical parts of experiencing sexual trauma...how do I experience the intimacy of sex without it triggering a negative reaction? 

Dr. Kate says:PTSD can lead people toward sexual avoidance, sexual anorexia, sexual compulsivity, and performance-based interactions. PTSD can thwart someone’s ability to be present sexually, feel safe, feel loved, reach out, etc. 

And untreated PTSD can lead to pain during sex, due to hypervigilance or somatic rigidity, numbness, and an inability to or difficulty in achieving orgasms, among other issues. Getting help for PTSD can help you on your way back to a thriving sex life, with more ease, safety, and pleasure.

[As for combating flashbacks in the heat of the moment], practicing grounding exercises, taking a break, breathing exercises, etc. are key to help you stay in the moment, and in your body, whether or not you choose to continue being sexual. 

In some moments, a flashback may ruin your mood. Honor yourself if you want to stop. If you choose to discuss it with your partner, that is up to you. If you choose not to, that is also your choice.

If you choose to continue with sex, do so because you want to be sexual, not because you feel bad about disappointing your partner. Be sure that in those moments, you take care of you in the best way you know how to, so your body learns that you will take care of it, and you can continue to reinforce a trust in yourself, which fosters long-term resilience.”

You Are Not Alone

Being a survivor of sexual assault doesn’t immediately make you feel strong like all the survivors you see sharing their stories across social media.

Don’t get me wrong...I am one of those people. Here I am, standing on my digital soapbox, screaming at the masses about how I’m no longer that afraid, bulimic, self-harming shell of a person that my abuser turned me into. 

But I have put 10 years between myself and my assault. 

Those years were full of pain, fear, agony, shame, and embarrassment. They were also full of therapy, self-discovery and eventually self-love. For a long time (and sometimes now even still), I wonder if this really did happen to me. It feels like a movie I concocted in my head, a script that was written with someone else’s memories. 

And I know my journey with trauma isn’t over yet. I’m merely at a place right now, right here, where I feel comfortable sharing my experience and can see relatively clearly around and beyond it. 

People who are shouting from their platforms about being “survivors” and being “strong”...these people are are not here to slap some “#metoo” slogan on your pain. 

These people (myself included) are here to serve as a reminder to you that at some point in your life you will surpass this awful thing that happened to you. It may never fully leave you, but it won’t be what defines you. And more importantly, you, as a sexual being, have so much more to experience outside of your trauma. 

If you or someone you know needs someone to talk to about their sexual assault, click here to chat with someone from the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline or feel free to reach out to me on Twitter.