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We need to talk about trauma response after sex assault


Women who have been sexually assaulted are subjected to exhausting, doubt-raising questions (Picture: Getty Images)

‘What were you wearing?’ ‘How much did you drink?’ ‘Did you say no clearly?’ ‘Did you say it instantly or change your mind?’

Women who have been sexually assaulted are subjected to exhausting, doubt-raising questions. Asked not only by the police, but by wider society and even their friends and family. 

There has been much – but not yet enough – discourse on this topic in the public domain, highlighting how damaging such questions over a victim’s behaviour (rather than focusing on the attacker’s actions) can be.

When the interrogation over a sexual assault itself subsides, questions about a victim’s post-trauma behaviour often take its place.

There is no set way for a woman to respond to sexual assault, domestic violence or rape. There is no right or wrong way to deal with it.

Trauma responses vary both in their type and severity and they can appear in a multitude of ways. They may also change over time, or rear their ugly head on an idle Thursday afternoon after months of feeling free from their grasp. 

Years ago, I was sexually assaulted in my sleep. Because I was still able to have sex with other men after the assault, and didn’t feel an aversion to sexual intimacy, I presumed that I hadn’t been deeply affected by the incident. I brushed it off. Came up with as many excuses as I could to explain why he did what he did, and ultimately blamed myself for ‘letting’ it happen.

I found myself thinking about my attacker in a good light. I minimised his actions, framed him as a good person and even fantasised about being with him – and I hated myself for it.

I spoke to a friend about my confused feelings and instead of the ‘that’s messed up’ reply I expected to hear, she confided in me that she had the same thoughts about a man who had sexually assaulted her. Yet we had never heard of this trauma response being spoken about in the public sphere.

In the process of researching other trauma responses, I was alerted to the concept of ‘hypersexuality’, which I hadn’t come across before. At first, I presumed it to be synonymous with nymphomania or sex addiction, but in relation to trauma response, it is far more nuanced.

Hypersexuality is a topic that is not often discussed or understood, and as such, its definition varies. Researching, I discovered the ‘i am EMPWR’ social media community and podcast which supports survivors of sexual trauma and gathered that hypersexuality pertains to compulsive, impulsive, obsessive or ‘risky’ sex, often in response to a sexual assault or rape.

It is frequently presumed that victims who experience PTSD as a result of sexual trauma will be avoidant of, or triggered by, sex. It is also largely presumed that a victim will have a sense of repulsion towards their attacker.

While that may be the case for some victims, it won’t be the case for all. It certainly wasn’t for me.

For some men and women who have been sexually assaulted, their trauma response might be to compulsively seek out further sexual experiences in either healthy, or unhealthy, ways. (By no means am I suggesting that trauma victims seek to be assaulted again. There is nothing a victim can do to encourage an assault, the responsibility lies with the perpetrator only.)

‘Unhealthy’ sexual practice is subjective. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that we live in a world where a woman’s sexual activity is constantly judged as negative, however she behaves.

 I’ve been criticised by friends for sleeping with someone on a first date (‘he won’t stick around now he’s got what he wanted’) and mocked for waiting until the tenth (‘he won’t stick around if he doesn’t get what he wants’).

Ultimately, the only person qualified to judge the health of your sexual behaviour, is you.

Nina Randolph and Isa Bogart, the women behind ‘i am EMPWR’, define ‘risky’ sex as ‘having unprotected sex with multiple and/or unknown partners, having a more sudden interest in extreme or violent sex, frequent drunk or high sex and breaking or pushing past personal boundaries’. 

Even if you have experienced assault, please bear in mind that no two victims cope with trauma in the same way

It’s possible for all of these acts to be carefully and knowingly participated in with consent, but if these behaviours arise after assault, they could signify trauma response.

If sexual behaviour becomes uncontrollable or problematic, recognising the link between assault and hypersexuality could be the first step towards the victim gaining control of their sexual agency once more.

Since studying the topic, I began thinking about my own trauma response to sexual assault and ways in which hypersexuality may have played a part in my life, subconsciously or otherwise. 

I read accounts from anonymous women who shared their experiences with survivor advocate, @HouseofEffie, on Instagram. 

Some spoke of having sexual fantasies about their abuser after their assault. Others spoke of an increased sex drive and engagement in uncharacteristic sexual activity, as well feeling confused as to why they had been affected in this way. 

While I did not experience an increased sex-drive, I judged myself for not having a decreased one. I can now also recognise that some of the sexual relationships I took part in after my assault, were an attempt to rewrite history. 

For a while, I saw sex as a form of validation and I wanted to check that I could spend a night in the same bed as a man without him assaulting me. It’s as if I was trying to prove to myself that assault wasn’t an inevitable outcome of sharing a bed.

Although I have since dealt with the sexual assault in a healthy way, I still feel a sense of shame admitting to it. I still fear being disbelieved; I still fear being judged. But my biggest fear is passing up the opportunity to share my experience, knowing that a woman somewhere might read it and feel seen.

Unless you have been through it, you have no idea about the sheer amount ofbewilderment PTSD from sexual assault can impose on your brain. If your response doesn’t fit in with society’s perception of how a victim should behave, you feel abnormal. 

Even if you have experienced assault, please bear in mind that no two victims cope with trauma in the same way. 

Victims might react to trauma with hypersexuality for a number of reasons. Women might feel the need to fit into – or reject – sexual societal norms expected of women as a way of regaining control. 

They may also take part in behaviours that push their own boundaries, by people-pleasing in order to avoid further sexual assault. 

So often we hear of women, non-binary and LGBTQ+ people being pathologised because of their response to trauma (or simply for existing as their authentic selves). 

Hypersexuality is even part of the diagnostic model for so-called ‘personality-disorders’, and while it’s good to recognise that there might be an explanation for impulsive and risky behaviour, it’s irresponsible to suggest that there is something inherently ‘wrong’ with the person displaying them.

Because hypersexuality is often misunderstood, it can be scary to talk to with friends for fear of rejection, judgement or invalidation.

If hypersexuality is something you identify with, or think you may be experiencing, you could reach out to a therapist who specialises in sexual trauma and PTSD. 

Just because the complexity of sexual trauma isn’t in the realm of public discourse, doesn’t mean your experiences aren’t valid. 

If only the patriarchy could provide us with a checklist, so we know how to pass the ‘victim test’ imposed by a critical society.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.


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