Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault and trauma.
I’ve often found myself wondering if there’s a “right” time to unveil to a new love interest I was raped at 15 when I was a virgin. My high school sweetheart, Travis, was the first person I told. We hadn’t had sex. When we did become intimate, we took things very slowly. To date, no one has taken this information more carefully than he did, which motivates me to always tell a potential partner before intimacy.
I recently asked Travis how he felt when he found out I’d been raped. “I thought, how could she let this happen? Why would she put herself in a position that this could happen? Why didn’t she fight back? The more you talked about it, I realized it wasn’t your fault. I felt like I wish I could’ve done something or been there to prevent it,” he said. I was the first person he’d been with who’d endured sexual trauma, as far as he knows.
It took me a decade to start talking openly about being a survivor with friends and family. Only then did I realize that in order to have a meaningful relationship, I needed to be upfront about what had happened to me as early on in a budding relationship as possible. Five years ago, I made a pact with myself to tell new sexual partners about being a rape survivor before sex, but never managed to do it.
“It took me a decade to start talking openly about being a survivor with friends and family.”
I followed through with the commitment for the first time this month. I casually mentioned that I’d been raped as we stood on a hectic sidewalk in Vietnam waiting for street food — this wasn’t the best approach. I was interested in this person and it looked like things were moving towards intimacy. Not staying true to my promise had been eating away at me. I was so anxious that it just came out like word vomit.
He reacted as they usually do — with shock, a tender touch, and a statement along the lines of “fuck, I’m so sorry.” Full stop. End of discussion. It’s excruciating to share something so personal so early on. Our connection fizzled out a few days later for external circumstances. We never had sex and I can’t help but wonder if he created distance between us once he learned I was a survivor of sexual assault, which would have been deal-breaker for me anyway.
The fear of being perceived as “damaged goods” has prevented me from keeping true to my promise. I’ve worried that sharing something so serious and “real” so quickly might scare men away. But then again, do I really want to be intimate with someone who isn’t capable of supporting me as a survivor? Honestly, probably not.
I have sexual triggers, which can give me violent flashbacks. There are moments every day when I remember I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I need a partner who is prepared to support me at times when I feel triggered. Choking triggers violent flashbacks for me. Usually, I write it off by telling a partner I don’t like being choked because I have asthma, which may play into it, but isn’t the full picture. Omitting the truth makes me feel like I should be ashamed.
How Sexual Assault Changes You
“Sexual assault may be a formative part of your life experience, as unwanted and out of your control as it was. It might be that surviving sexual assault has changed you and made you who you are. You wish it hadn’t happened, but it’s changed your perspective and informed the person you are and your values. In this case, as a core part of your sense of self, it might be that you wouldn’t be interested in being with someone who is not accepting, understanding, or loving of who you are in all of your experiences,” says Counseling Psychologist Dr. Alex Kasozi. “On the other hand, the experience of sexual assault may have left you feeling vulnerable, ashamed, and self-blaming — as sadly it so often does. You may have strong beliefs about yourself about being unclean or unworthy. In this case, you are in a much more vulnerable position. Your partner’s response can either help to begin to shatter these negative core beliefs or continue to affirm them,” she continues.
In the past, I’ve mustered up the courage to tell some lovers I had a traumatic sexual past. I spewed out the bare minimum details of what had happened to me one evening on the beach to Maikel after we’d been dating for a few weeks and were already sexually active. I’d never told someone I didn’t know very well before. I was absolutely terrified. He told me I was the first sexual assault survivor he’d been with, to the best of his knowledge. At first, he thought someone who had been sexually assaulted would not enjoy sex as much, but reassured me that I disproved this immediately. This sort of sentiment makes me hesitant to tell future potential lovers who might make similar assumptions.
“I’m nearly 30 and no one had ever told me that I have the right to consent.”
Talking about sexual assault with my romantic partners hasn’t gotten any easier. I didn’t tell my ex-boyfriend Julio about being raped until I was re-traumatized when I was sexually assaulted in Morocco. When I told him, he was in disbelief. Just like Maikel, I was the first person Julio had been intimate with who’d been raped and told him about it. “Rape was something that happens in the movies or to other people you know — all of a sudden I was sharing my life with a rape survivor,” Julio said.
I told Julio more than I’d ever shared with anyone else. It wasn’t easy. He’d be angry and upset that I was suffering — I often felt like I had to console him. These were conversations we had to have, as it’s a major part of who I am today. I never felt our chats about sexual assault impacted our intimacy. I asked Julio if knowing I’m a rape survivor changed his perception of me: “I felt pity for you, but, I began to understand more about you. I know why you are so strong and caring, why you want to help people, and how you feel towards injustice,” he said.
A Sexual Assault Survivor in the #MeToo Era
My relationship with Julio ended right at the dawning of the #metoo era. Suddenly, I found myself in what I call the “age of consent” for the first time. I’m nearly 30 and no one had ever told me that I have the right to consent. For a year after we broke up, I stayed celibate, mostly out of fear based on my experiences with sexual assault. Eventually, I started engaging in casual sexual activity but it felt hollow after being in a serious relationship. I value meaningful connection and respect above all else so I knew it was time to invoke my pledge to be open-hearted and discuss being a rape survivor with new partners.
I started dating Martin but didn’t keep my vow — I slept with him without disclosing my past trauma. I shared the story of being forcibly masturbated on and mentioned it triggered PTSD from being raped. He held me tightly and didn’t say much. I was the first sexual assault survivor he’d been with — at least as far as he knows.
It’s alarming that none of the men I’ve told are aware they’ve likely been with survivors before. In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). It appears few survivors tell their partners, which isn’t surprising, considering the stigma surrounding sexual assault and how very few survivors actually attain justice.
“It’s alarming that none of the men I’ve told are aware they’ve likely been with survivors before.”
The fear I have about being treated differently by a partner hasn’t been realized but it isn’t irrational either. Brooke is a sexual assault survivor who hasn’t figured out how to tell partners about her rape, as her past attempts have never gone well. “I told a partner I lost my virginity at age 12 and he said, ‘At age 12? What’s wrong with you?’ One told me he no longer found me sexually attractive. Another asked me if I thought about my rapist when he fucked me. The same guy also told me I fucked like a rape victim,” she told me. These reactions aren’t just disappointing, they’re incredibly dangerous.
How to Start the Survivor Conversation
As Brooke has experienced, you may be ready to share your truth but you can’t be certain how someone will respond. Their reaction is exclusively a reflection of them, not you or your experiences. If you’re considering telling someone you’re a sexual assault survivor, try to assess first if they can hold space for you in case you experience flashbacks while sharing. Kenya Crawford, a mental health counselor specializing in working with sexual assault trauma survivors, says those who are active listeners — meaning they have strong communication skills, show compassion, and emotional intelligence — are likely to be the most equipped to provide adequate support for a survivor.
Crawford suggests having conversations about sexual assault with a new love interest that aren’t related to your personal experience in order to learn about their beliefs and potential biases. “You may uncover your prospective partner is attuned to oppressive structures specifically impacting survivors of sexual assault,” they say.
When you’re ready to broach the subject with a new partner, put your needs first. You only need to share what you feel is important. You’re not obligated to answer any uncomfortable questions. Avoid downplaying the seriousness of the conversation in order to ease the tension. If your partner is worthy of your time, energy, and affection, they’ll want to be there for you.
“When you’re ready to broach the subject with a new partner, put your needs first.”
Setting expectations can help avoid reactions, which could be damaging. Think about what their reaction will mean for you and preface the conversation with an explicit disclosure about your needs. Understand your intention behind sharing your experiences with sexual assault. For me, it’s important to share my experiences of sexual assault with those I’m intimate with so I can feel safe to express my feelings.
“Communicating what you need before disclosing a trauma can be helpful in increasing the likelihood of feeling positive after the interaction. Say something like ‘I’m going to tell you something which happened to me. I want to tell you but I’m feeling scared/vulnerable/exposed/nervous. I need you to respond with kindness and empathy, can you do that?'” suggests Dr. Kasozi. This primes your potential sexual partner to be supportive of you and sets the stage for open, honest, and respectful communication throughout your relationship. You may also want to reiterate that you want to have a healthy sex life if that resonates with you. Be clear about any triggers you may have, how you avoid them, and ways to support you when you’re triggered is also crucial.
If they react poorly, be ready to find nurturing and nourishment elsewhere to repair any harm done by a conversation which didn’t meet your expectations and needs. “Self-love and compassion are things we’re not very good at — particularly if we’ve endured others mistreatment and been assaulted. You’re so worth every drop of kindness, love, and compassion you were hoping to get. If someone else lets you down it’s not because you don’t deserve it. Telling yourself this can help to stop the further entrenchment of negative beliefs about yourself.” says Dr. Kasozi.
“If they react poorly, be ready to find nurturing and nourishment elsewhere to repair any harm done by a conversation which didn’t meet your expectations and needs.”
“Every survivor engages with their story differently. Some find liberation in sharing while others choose to selectively share their story, if ever. The decision is solely up to the survivor. Disclosure does not define healing. A survivor is a survivor regardless of their disclosure,” says Kenya Crawford, a mental health counselor specializing in working with sexual assault trauma survivors.
Ultimately, it’s a personal choice whether or not you chose to disclose you’re a survivor of sexual assault. If you do decide to disclose, only you know when you’re ready to reveal your history with sexual assault to a potential partner. It will require you to feel comfortable and have a level of trust, which forms at various stages of a relationship. Once you’ve formed a strong bond and are empathetic to each other’s experiences, it’s more likely you’ll be able to create a safe space for divulging you’re a sexual assault survivor… if that’s what you want to do, at least.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence and are in need of support, call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).