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“I want my body back”: survivors’ stories of sex after rape

Rape survivors looking for help to cope with their bodies and sex after rape face a vacuum in the information and services available. Pavan Amara speaks to survivors who all wish they had known they weren’t the only ones.

Women taking part in a 2011 Slutwalk. Photo: Chris Brown on Flickr, via Creative Commons
Women taking part in a 2011 Slutwalk. Photo: Chris Brown on Flickr, via Creative Commons

Barbara closes her eyes while she takes a shower. The lights are already off, but she fears if she glimpses sight of her body it will “be like looking through the eyes of my rapist”. Barbara is a rape survivor. She is 18 and was regularly raped by her older brother from the ages of seven to 14. “My body is the image he must have seen. I don’t want to look through his eyes. I don’t want to go there. If I could ask for one thing, I would say, I want my body back,” she says.

Like some other rape survivors, Barbara’s experiences have affected her relationship with her body and changed the way she feels about sex. While she has found a lot of support, it has been very difficult for her to find any help regarding these specific aspects of her recovery. Barbara was one of 27 survivors who spoke to me about their feelings towards their bodies and sex after rape.

Every survivor is different – for many, thinking about their bodies or having sex again may be the last thing on their minds for months, years, or longer. Other issues take precedence when you are trying to get through every day – emotional recovery and learning coping skills, perhaps medical help for injuries, support during a long and painful court case...the list goes on.

However, one important aspect of a survivor’s journey seems to be largely overlooked. What about when we need help coping with how we feel about our bodies and sex?

Jo Heath, 43, from Derbyshire, endured abuse at the hands of her stepfather from the age of eight. The sentencing judge compared her rapist to Fred West, but he could soon be freed only 14 years into his life sentence. For Jo, the abuse has affected “every decision I have ever made regarding any sort of sex or partner”. She says her body rarely allows her to get to the stage where she feels sexual pleasure because it involves losing control - something she finds very difficult to do. “While I’m having sex I have to keep controlling my mind so I can hold it back from having a flashback. Throughout the whole process, I’m scared of these memories coming back, I’m trying to reign in the feeling of nausea. I’m trying to control so much during sex that it’s impossible to orgasm, because that’s a complete loss of control.”

Jo is aware that survivors are struggling with similar issues to hers, but “very silently”. She has been a strong advocate for survivors for many years, being open about her experiences on social networking websites and fighting hard to keep her rapist in prison. As a result, she is often contacted by other rape survivors. She adds: “It looks to me like rape survivors are having to deal with it on a very individual level and they’re being pushed into a corner where they have to talk to anyone who will listen to them. That’s because there’s nowhere else for them to go with issues around sex.”

According to last year’s Ministry of Justice figures, approximately 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales every year. The same figures suggest fewer than one in 30 women will see the rapist brought to justice, with less than a quarter of rapes reported to police resulting in a suspect being identified. Around 85 per cent of rape survivors don’t feel they can go to the police and do not report it. The picture is complicated; for many, the feelings of shame, fear and anxiety mean they never tell another soul – let alone the police – what happened. But regardless of who they tell or what they do, each survivor has an individual healing journey to navigate afterwards.

I have written this article because following rape, I tried to find services that would help me heal how I felt towards my body. I soon discovered that there were hardly any. The few I did find didn’t provide any of the depth I desperately needed. When I typed the search term “sex after rape” into the internet a handful of relevant results came up, most of which were only a page long and didn’t come close to offering me the extent of support I needed.

Counselling services were life saving, but they were offered to me during emotional crisis. As life moved forward, I no longer required emotional support and it no longer controlled me. But it still affected my body and my relationship with it.

So, I decided to interview other survivors, mainly to discover if I was the only one experiencing the after effects on my body. Some of the women are friends or acquaintances I met through rape support services over the years, others were contacted through social networking websites. I soon realised I was not alone. All of the interviewees have said rape has affected their feelings towards their bodies and sex.

Sandy, now 41, had been with her boyfriend for three years when she was raped by a close friend of hers. Three years after the attack, she developed what she thought were “signs I was going utterly loopy”. She left her partner and began having sex with “everybody I could find”. She says: “My boyfriend was very caring, but I didn’t want to have sex with him. With hindsight I can see I was subconsciously trying to drive him away because I needed space to heal.”

Sandy says she slept with “many, many, many” during an 18-month period and apart from regularly taking the contraceptive pill, sex was mostly unprotected. She adds: “To tell you how bad it was, I went to the Co-op to pick something up for dinner. I slept with the guy who served me at the till that same day and on my way out managed to get the number of a guy stacking shelves so I could call him for sex the next day. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

For Deanne, 29, two years of weekly counselling sessions helped her pull her life back together. In that time she changed her career, got a new job and began socialising with friends again. She was raped by her ex-boyfriend and two of his friends when she was 19 after she decided to leave the relationship. On her way back from work one evening three men, who happened to look similar to her rapists, stood next to her on a train carriage. One accidentally brushed her shoulder. “I started screaming and screaming hysterically in the middle of this crowded train,” she says. “A member of staff had to calm me down at the next stop, and I couldn’t explain what had happened, I didn’t know myself. I was shocked that someone touching me had caused that sort of reaction.”

The incident occurred three years after Deanne was attacked, at a point where she had “started to feel a lot better” and had not needed regular counselling services for over a year. After the incident on the train, she estimates she was “very sensitive to touch” for about three or four years. “I felt like a freak and I did call a help line to talk about it, but I don’t think the woman I spoke to understood.”

“It was ten years ago, but I still can’t look at myself down there. On some days, I avoid washing myself because it’s too much. When I try on clothes in a shop I turn my back to the mirror so I don’t see my body. It makes me shiver or quiver, one of those words, that’s the best way I can explain it.”

Sandy, quoted above, says she knows she is not “bad” for coping how she did, it was simply “what I had to do at the time”.

“I think I wanted to get myself back. To just shag and do what I did without anyone asking me why or if I was ok or acknowledging that I was raped. I say it was bad, I labelled it bad, it took me a long time to realise I wasn’t. I was very confused about who I was sexually because it was taken away from me. But I am proud of myself for having the resilience to get through it, it doesn’t matter how I did it.”

She says rape affected the way she viewed her body so deeply that it led to self-harm. “I know why I do it. I hate my body, I hate it. I can’t even talk about it, I want to though because I need to get it out of my head. I can point to the bits that I hate the most but I can’t say the body parts out loud because I’ll lose it if I do.”

There is a symmetry to the language used by the 27 interviewees – the words “alone”, “isolated”, “confused” and “lost” are mentioned again and again regarding their feelings towards sex and their bodies. Survivors often overlap thoughts and descriptive phrases despite not knowing each other, being individually interviewed and coming from different regions of the country. Women often refer to sex being connected to “a violent world” or “a world of violence”. One woman names the “bedroom” as her “battleground” and another describes her vagina as “a war zone after everything’s been taken”. On a number of occasions survivors speak of sex as following a set of instructions with no emotional attachment. Sex is compared to “following film cues”, “following cooking instructions” or simply “zoning out”. One woman is so detached from the process that she describes her boyfriend as “being more of a witness” to her own full body orgasm than she is. She explains: “I can cut off from a full body orgasm. Just like I cut off full body pain for years when I was being raped. That’s how I coped.”

Numerous interviewees use the words “weird”, “freak”, or “not normal” to describe how they feel in relation to their sexuality. Notably, a vast majority say they felt under pressure to have penetrative sex again, before they were ready to, and not just from a sexual partner but from society in general.

Three women had been physically sick after penetrative sex due to feeling too tense or becoming overwhelmed. Ironically, all three women had thought they were the only ones who had experienced this.

Sarah, 32, is a survivor from the north-west of England, who was raped for six years, beginning at the age of 12. Her first relationship was with a woman and following that with both men and women. Sarah says rape has affected how she reacts to penetrative sex and this has impacted on her relationships.

She says: “I’ve always known that’s why I haven’t been able to hold down any long-term relationships. He didn’t just take sex when he wanted, he took my body because I still don’t feel it’s mine. It’s still his, with his finger marks all over it. Physically, sex is so difficult. I am willing my muscles to relax, I am really trying not to cry, I am trying to be responsive. I know I have to reciprocate. But I can’t get my muscles to relax.” Sarah says she is often so disconnected from her sexual experiences that it is “like taking film cues”. While having sex “I was thinking ‘Ok she’s doing that, so I will too.’ I was sick in the toilet afterwards because I had been holding all that tension in my body. I have no doubt the abuse killed a part of my soul and sex is about soul.”

During her first experience with a man, she was so tense that penetration was impossible. She says: “I kept thinking ‘relax, just relax’ but I was terrified, especially when he started moving to be on top of me. When he started to do that, I couldn’t see him anymore, just limbs that could’ve belonged to [the rapist]. That’s when I wanted to get up and run, just to get out. Those first moments of penetration were the worst. After getting past that bit, my body gave up the fight and I numbed out.”

Amanda Lee, a 37-year-old survivor, discusses how she had repeatedly come up against partner reactions that made her feel “deeply disempowered”. She says: “I have been told ‘You’re using that (rape) as an excuse not to have sex’, that was by far the most hurtful.”

“That has the capacity to trigger me in the worst way. I have often been told I am too complex. I have been compared to the mythical ‘other woman’ whose sex needs are not as difficult to deal with. But I cannot fit this embodiment of sexuality that’s expected, because every day I wake up in a violent paradigm. Not only do I live in a patriarchal system, but as a result of the violent world I experienced every day for many years, that is my connection with sex. I am no longer physically present in that world, but it is still in my head.”

Amanda also discusses the two different types of orgasm she experiences - one related to the abuse, and another free from it. She continues: “I have had to deal with the shame of reliving abuse fantasies but I feel I am taking power back by using them willingly for my sexual enjoyment. If my orgasm is to do with that, then right after feeling euphoric my nervous system goes into shakedown and I feel shooting pains in my ovarian area and in my clitoris. Then the pains spread to my inner thighs, to my chest and my back again. I know that is because I feel my body is a traitor, it’s not just a thought, my body feels it too.

“The integrated orgasm is different. There is no thought and it is as much to do with my breathing and sensitivity as anything else. If I am being spoken to then it is slowly, I can feel myself relaxing, I feel safe and I am not obligated to my partner or to the orgasm. It’s very important to me there are no time constraints during this. It begins as relaxation spreading throughout my body, and then it builds and builds. It is building in a place that goes beyond my armour.”

Jo Heath, quoted earlier in this piece, says when she opened up to her partner of ten years he was supportive, but that she considered the same questions many survivors have faced. She says: “How are you meant to go into relationships announcing these things? Telling people about the huge problems you have been left with in that department? How do you tell people about flashbacks and triggers when you haven’t really known them that long?

“I have a lot of flashbacks of what happened to me, so we can be in the most loving moment and it goes from that to me thinking ‘This is vile, get off me’. I don’t want that overlap. I don’t want such a loving part of my life to be mixed with one of the most horrible, but I have no choice. I don’t want to show more rejection than I already do, I don’t want to seem colder than I already feel I am. I don’t masturbate or anything; to me, sex is dirty. I could live without it very easily.

“I have been sick after sex a few times. I have often cried during it. I don’t know what a normal lady would do but, for me, something comes into me. I don’t know what it is, but I start feeling sick. I have flashbacks that run so deep within me. I feel so confused and strange for enjoying sex after such vile images come into my head. It makes me feel vile.”

Like Amanda, the abuse has impacted on Jo’s ability to orgasm. “When I find myself on the brink of orgasm, a flashback will come into my head. So I’m at the height of this physical state, just about to orgasm, and then this hideous vile image will come into my head which repulses me. It makes my body shudder from revulsion. Both of these feelings merge and they’re both as intense as each other. I become so overwhelmed. I am climaxing and reliving the horror again and the only way my body can handle it is to be sick.”

Sandy feels the topic is rarely discussed because feelings of “shame” overwhelm survivors. “Even with me, I haven’t agreed to use my full name (in this article) because I am ashamed I am having these problems with my body and with sex. That’s bonkers, because sex was the weapon used during rape against my body. So yeah, it’s going to affect the way I view sex and my body. Of course it will. But we still can’t say that openly.”

Sandy feels she deserves support that focuses on these areas specifically. “I should be able to go to my GP and say ‘Right, this is what’s going on, I can’t cope on my own anymore,’ and that person should have somewhere they can send me. At the very least I should be able to call the Rape Crisis Centre or NAPAC (National Association for People Abused in Childhood) and they should be able to say ‘Right this is for you’. If I’d known earlier that I wasn’t the only one, that would have gone a long way.”

Sandie Bartlett is the national coordinator of Rape Crisis Scotland (RCS). The network stemmed from Glasgow’s Rape Crisis Centre, which opened in 1976 and the Edinburgh centre, which started in 1978. It now incorporates nine affiliated member centres and three associate member centres. RCS’s help line has taken a number of calls from survivors discussing sex after rape.

Sandie Bartlett says: “How we are socialised as women plays very much into why this isn’t spoken about. We are taught we’re not meant to talk about sex. Even when we do workshops, we do talk about this topic but we tend to talk about relationships in a broader sense and not sex specifically. I think there is a gap.”

She explains that because survivors have so many emotional and physical needs and require help through the criminal justice system, sexual wellbeing falls down the list because it is not an immediate necessity.

“But it is so important. Sometimes it feels like we never get to that because there are so many other things to address on top of that. But it is a woman’s right. In fact, if sexual wellbeing isn’t addressed, it can be a barrier to other things higher up the list. For example, if a woman feels like this with her sexual recovery then it can affect her emotional wellbeing. We have started this conversation, but we haven’t nearly finished it. We need to look at where we go next with this.”

Eileen, 66, a survivor from Merseyside, was raped by her father until she was 16. For her, the effects on her body and sex life have lasted a life time. Her 47 year marriage has been “put through the wringer” because her feelings about her sexuality were “left broken”.

After her experiences of marriage counselling fifteen years ago, she feels a support service focusing on survivors’ sexual healing needs to exist, and that it should be linked to relationship counselling centres.

She continues: “The kids and grand kids were older and we had time. But [the counsellor] didn’t understand. I don’t think she knew what to do. She kept avoiding what I was saying and talking about eating disorders and body image. I thought ‘I’m your mother’s age, I’m not trying to get a waist on me now.’ [My husband] tried to make our problems clearer for her and she said ‘Oh but that was when you were young, you have to think about your marriage now.’ She had no idea. We saw two other counsellors and they weren’t as bad, but they weren’t much better.”

Renee Denyer is the manager of Sh! Women’s Emporium which is the UK’s first and only women’s sex shop. It works with NHS trusts and provides sex toys for women coping with sexual difficulties. She says survivors were very welcome in the shop and could be guided through the different options by staff, if they chose that to be the right decision for them. For survivors who want to explore elements of sex again, she recommends erotic books rather than porn DVDs “because you have the power of edit”.

She says: “You can read it in your own head, and change the bits you don’t want, which gives you control. It can completely fit you and what turns you on, making sure that you bypass any triggers. You can use that to create and tap into fantasies.” She adds that for women who are ready to explore sex again, there are many choices available to them, which will suit how they’re feeling and what their body can cope with.

“Some survivors may not want to explore sex at all, but for those that do, they may want to start with a very small vibrator. The vibrations will relax nerve endings and the pleasurable feelings on your skin may make it easier not to dissociate from your body. You can use them anywhere on the body. A lot of the vibrators have different settings, so if it’s too overwhelming you can turn it down a notch.

“Some women may prefer a finger vibrator. It is designed to be used at the opening of your vagina and you slip in on your finger. That means you are getting the vibrations through your finger. It’s you touching you, rather than an object touching your skin. It all depends on what a survivor is ready for and what is best for avoiding triggers.”

The shop also sells a pink “cupcake vibrator”, which can be useful for survivors. Renee explains: “There is nothing phallic about it at all, which some survivors may want to avoid. It looks like a cupcake, which most people associate very good things with. It is used externally and is purely for clitoral stimulation. It’s good for associating your vagina, or pussy, or whatever you want to call it, with pleasure and what you want.”

For women who want to experience penetration again but feel too tense, a vibrator with ridges can be helpful to relax vaginal muscles. “Sometimes after trauma, it’s like the doors to the vagina are locked but this will help something to enter in again, with time,” Renee adds.

The shop also sells flavoured lubricants, which can help survivors if they are triggered by a particular taste, and runs classes on oral sex and orgasm so women can explore different methods and find out what works for them.

“You can pick and choose the technique that works best for you if you know the different ways one thing can be done. It allows for you to feel safer because you are bypassing triggers. If you want to deliver oral sex at all, then you are doing it in the way that works best for you, not how a man or previous partner may have liked it. We also teach good sexual health practice.”

Emily Rose, 40, from West London was raped six years ago. She was beaten and raped anally, in her vagina and with kitchen objects. Five and a half years on, she says she still cannot connect emotionally during sex, but good communication with a close friend she trusted was key to her enjoying sex again.

Emily says: “I always had a hint of the kink about me. But after the rape, I stopped wanking because I had used fantasies of force in the past. I really trusted my friend and we had sex a few times, but I couldn’t enjoy it because I felt I wasn’t allowed to fantasise about force anymore. I knew the reality of my fantasy and it was too frightening. But I was able to tell him that. We had a very solid foundation of trust, respect and love as friends, so enjoying sex the way I wanted to - with my fantasies - happened for me again. It was a bit of an accident, but because we’d spoken about it before he knew exactly how sex was enjoyable for me. So then, when we were in the moment, I said no and he said ‘Shut up, you don’t mean that’. That worked because I trusted him deeply. I will always love him as a friend, because he was the person who gave me back what was taken away. I even remember the date. It was 12 January 2012. I owned my fantasies again.”

Female survivors of sexual violence are welcome to share their own experiences at www.mybodyback-survivors.blogspot.com. Your story will be anonymous if you choose. Hopefully the website can be a resource for survivors.

You can share by going to the homepage, or by emailing mybodyback-survivors@gmail.com

You can also follow us on Twitter @mybodybackproj and get involved in the discussion via the #MyBodyIsBeautifulBecause hashtag

This article first appeared on thefword.org.uk and is crossposted here with permission