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05/31/2018 13:10 EDT | Updated 05/31/2018 13:11 EDT

What To Do If You Experience An Uncomfortable Sexual Situation

The process for dealing with a bad sexual experience is going to be different for everyone.

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This winter, a young woman described a date with comedian Aziz Ansari that ended in a sexual experience she said left her feeling uncomfortable, violated, and ashamed. But in many jurisdictions, the details of that experience wouldn't have constituted rape or sexual assault, and Ansari himself said that all indications, from his point of view, meant that their sexual activity was consensual.

Many of us can recount situations where we weren't 100 per cent on board with a sexual activity even if we did not directly say so, or where we felt like things had crossed a personal line even if they had not crossed a legal one.

These experiences are difficult to talk about, as evidenced by the intense debate that followed the story about Ansari. But if a sexual experience wasn't OK for you, then it wasn't OK.

The process for acknowledging, dealing with, and moving on from a bad sexual experience is going to be different for everyone. That's OK, and it's normal. What is important is that you deal with it in a way that helps you remain healthy and well.

This expert advice can help, wherever you are in that process.

Know the law

Canadian law defines sexual assault broadly, including all unwanted sexual touching — grabbing, kissing, fondling, as well as forced oral sex or intercourse. And consent under Canadian law is defined as voluntary agreement to engage in the sexual activity in question; silence or passivity doesn't imply consent.

Knowing the law may help you reckon with your feelings about a sexual experience, whether or not you decide to press charges at any point.

Understand it's not your fault

"By now, most of us got the message that blaming the victim of sexual assault or any other misconduct is not the solution," clinical psychologist Viola Drancoli told HuffPost Canada by email. "Unfortunately, many times survivors of sexual harassment tend to blame themselves for what happened."

The first step of moving away from this pattern is to acknowledge that you have been violated, even if that acknowledgment itself is uncomfortable, Drancoli said.

Acknowledge your feelings

"It is a natural reaction to want to forget and push the emotions away," therapist Donna Oriowo told HuffPost Canada by email. "Don't."

It can be painful to acknowledge that what happened to you was wrong, or that it made you feel badly, especially if a partner you love or trust is involved. But bottling those feelings up doesn't make them go away or help you resolve them in the long term, Oriowo said.

"When we suppress our emotions, they tend to get stronger and more concentrated with time," she said. "We may think we forgot, but really we can have outbursts and get angry over seemingly small things."

There are tips below for reaching out to people for support, but if you're not ready for that, journalling can be a helpful way to express your emotions without talking or suppressing them, she said.

When the problem is your partner

Sometimes, even a sexual experience with a partner, one who has otherwise been respectful of your boundaries, can make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed. "If you have engaged in a sexual act with a trusted partner that has made you feel uncomfortable or unsafe I recommend talking to them about it directly," therapist Bianca Rodriguez told HuffPost Canada by email.

And remember, just because you and a partner had a particular sexual experience once doesn't mean you are obligated to do it again — whether you consented to that experience or not. "Allow yourself permission to change your mind then discuss your feelings with your partner and devise a plan to ensure your comfort and safety in the future," Rodriguez said.

Find help

Finding support is the best way to heal, Rodriguez said, whatever that support looks like for you. You can speak to friends and family you trust, if you are comfortable talking to them about what happened. Alternatively, or in addition, you can seek out a support group for survivors, or find an individual therapist to talk with.

If costs are a concern, Rodriguez suggests seeking out a psychology graduate program in your area, where sliding scale counselling with students is often available. Women's centres in your area may also offer counselling at low or no cost.

There are also helplines across the country that offer an anonymous way to talk, and are often available at any time of day or night, including the Assaulted Women's Helpline at 1-866-863-0511.

Avoid isolation

"After sexual assault or a questionable sexual experience, it is not uncommon to want to isolate yourself and never talk to anyone," Oriowo said. "But it can be the opposite of helpful to be left alone with the thoughts of what happened."

Make an effort to spend time with people who love and support you — it can distract you from things for a while, it can help you have some fun during a time when that might be hard, and it will remind you of the people in your life who care for you and want you to be well.

Decide how to proceed

Depending on the circumstances, you may decide to address the experience in some way: confronting the person responsible, ending a relationship, reporting it to a relevant school or workplace authority, and/or pressing charges.

"Getting support from someone close to you can help you decide about the next steps," Drancoli said. Talking to someone about what happened to you can be helpful because it can put things in perspective and help you clarify how you feel about the situation and what you want to do to move forward.

Some people will decide that the best path for them is not to report the incident. The decision about whether or not to report assault or harassment is a personal one, and the path will be different for everyone.

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