Dating After Sexual Assault
Exploring romantic relationships after experiencing sexual trauma can be difficult. Here, we offer advice for opening up and moving on.
Sexual assault refers to sexual acts or behaviors that occur without consent. This could mean anything from unwanted sexual touching to posting revenge porn. Although sexual assault takes many different forms, one thing is clear: experiencing sexual assault can have long-term effects on a person’s mental, physical, and emotional health. In this article, we’ll focus specifically on how surviving sexual assault can impact a person’s dating life.
Dating after sexual assault
For teens and young adults who are recovering from sexual assault, it can be difficult to imagine dating or exploring intimate relationships. You may have the desire to seek companionship from a nurturing and supportive partner, but trust issues and a fear of intimacy are holding you back.
If this sounds familiar, know that you’re not alone.
Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that over half of women and nearly one-third of men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their life. Women and racial and ethnic minority groups are more likely to experience sexual violence, and nearly half of transgender people and bisexual women will fall victim to sexual violence in their lifetime.
Whether you’re a survivor of sexual assault or dating someone who has confided in you about their trauma, it’s important to understand that the experience affects everyone differently. Below are all the normal reactions that a person might have when exploring romantic or sexual relationships after trauma.
- Feelings of shame, embarrassment, or worthlessness
- Difficulty trusting romantic or sexual partners
- Feelings of guilt or distress related to sexual response, interests, or fantasies
- Having panic attacks or flashbacks during sexual activity
- Discomfort with touching certain parts of the body
- Low libido or disinterest in sex altogether
- Sexually compulsive behaviors
Advice for dating after sexual trauma
While we don’t have a manual for dating after sexual trauma, there are several suggestions to help you begin the process.
Move at your own pace
When sexual assault trauma goes untreated, it can lead to the development of mental health disorders and unhealthy coping behaviors. People with trauma are also more likely to experience the physical symptoms of trauma — such feeling jumpy, difficulty concentrating, and sleep troubles. Before you begin dating, it’s important to prioritize your own mental health so that you’re better prepared to share yourself with others.
Show yourself compassion and grace
Dating today is tough. There are bad first dates, ghosting instead of goodbyes, and more dating apps than you can count; now add in a history of sexual assault and all of the associated emotions. Whether you’ve already started dating or you’re still thinking about it, remember to show yourself grace. It’s ok to turn down a date, take a break if you decide you’re not ready, or continue to focus on healing.
Date on your terms
Meeting someone new can be scary. In order to help you feel more comfortable with new relationships, find ways to date on your own terms. For example, suggest meeting at a public place or planning the date yourself. You can also create a safety plan so that a friend or family member knows where you’ll be and how to reach you.
Communicate your needs
There's no need to share your trauma up front (unless you want to), but it is important to set boundaries. You can present these boundaries as your dating rules or personal preferences, and use them as a way to ensure that you're comfortable with the pace of the relationship. This might mean meeting in public places, moving slowly with intimacy, or requesting that they refrain from showing up unannounced.
How to share your history of sexual trauma
Choosing to share that you're a survivor of sexual assault is a personal choice. It’s your story to tell and only you can decide when, where, and how to share it. That said, it may be a good idea to discuss your history of sexual assault before you become intimate with a new partner.
Disclosing your past will likely be a difficult conversation, so it can be helpful to think about what you’d like to say in advance. If you need some help getting started, we’ve shared an example script below:
“I really enjoy spending time with you and I’m looking forward to continuing to explore our relationship. In order to move forward, I want to be open with you about something that happened in my past.
I’m nervous about being so vulnerable, so it would mean a lot if you could respond with kindness and empathy.
I’m a survivor of sexual assault.
- You can share as much or as little information as you want.
- You can also share where you are in your healing journey.
I’m telling you this because I want to have an open and honest relationship that is built on mutual trust and respect. I also want you to know that because of this trauma, I may need to move slowly — both emotionally and physically — and I hope that you can now better understand my reasoning.”
Some other points to keep in mind as you prepare to share your history with a dating partner:
- Only share what you feel comfortable with
- You’re not obligated to answer uncomfortable or invasive questions
- Their reaction is a reflection of them
Therapy for dealing with sexual assault
Working with a trauma-informed therapist is essential to helping a person process their trauma and improve their overall mental health. Several forms of treatment that have proven effective for addressing trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following sexual assault, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Prolonged exposure (PE)
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
How can Charlie Health help?
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or other forms of trauma, please know that support is available.
Charlie Health offers virtual mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families experiencing mental health crises. Our intensive outpatient program (IOP) combines trauma-informed therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and psychiatric support (if needed) to help you build resilience, start healing, and cultivate meaningful relationships. No matter where you are in your mental health journey, we're here to help you start feeling better.
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