The first time you have sex with a new partner can be nerve-wracking for many different reasons — but for sexual-assault survivors, the experience can be particularly fraught.
And with statistics showing that 1 in 4 North American women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, this is a situation many will find themselves in.
"Sexual abuse survivors are not broken. It is possible to heal from sexual abuse," says sex therapist Vanessa Marin, who works with survivors of sexual assault. "It's always going to be a part of your history, but it doesn't need to be in control of your present or your future."
Here are eight pieces of advice for navigating a history of sexual assault when you begin a new relationship.
Bring it up early: Depending on where you are in your recovery process, Marin recommends bringing up that you are a survivor before you are intimate with a new partner. "Specifically, before the two of you do any particular act that has been triggering for you in the past," she says. "It's much easier to explain your triggers to a partner before they've happened than after."
Be specific about those triggers: For some people there will be specific acts that are triggering. If you know this, be clear with your partner about what those are early on, and don't feel you have to push yourself to do anything you're not comfortable with. (Ever! This applies to everyone.)
Validate your feelings: Allow yourself to acknowledge how you feel about the need for this conversation, and validate that. "It's really painful to have to acknowledge your abuse. There's no sugar-coating that," Marin says. "It's OK to feel sad, frustrated, or upset about having to have this conversation."
Give them a heads-up: Marin suggests beginning the conversation with something like, "I have something difficult that I want to tell you, so I hope you can listen with an open heart." This gives a heads-up that prepares them to react with sensitivity and empathy as the conversation progresses, she says.
Tell them what you need: Let your partner know how the abuse you experienced continues to affect you. "In particular, it can be helpful to let your partner know what you need from them, like, 'I need to take my time before we're intimate' or 'I need to have sex with the lights on,'" Marin suggests.
Heed red flags: "Talking to your partner about your history of sexual abuse is a great litmus test," Marin says. It's OK if your partner is surprised or confused, but that doesn't preclude them from treating you with kindness and respect. "If you get any whiff of judgment, that's a sign that this person isn't worthy of going any further with you," she says.
Get support as needed: There are some therapists who work with assault survivors and sexuality, and you may find a local support group. Talking with friends who have had similar experiences can also be valuable.
Be kind to yourself: "When you've been sexually abused, you were sent the message that your body and its needs weren't important," Marin says. "Of course it's painful and frustrating to recognize that the abuse has had lasting impacts. But it's extremely important for you to be kind and generous with your body." Don't pressure yourself to do things you aren't ready for, and treat your body — and yourself — with love and patience.