Long Reads

How it feels to start dating again after sexual assault

Posted by
Lydia Smith
Published

“I’m doing my best to let my walls down, bit by bit.”

The Me Too movement has been a profound cultural reckoning; a powerful rallying cry for survivors of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct. When one Hollywood actress after another began coming forward with their stories, so did other women. Through this, we heard what many of us had suspected for years - that pretty much every woman we know has a #MeToo story.

The impact of sexual assault is now being widely discussed in painful, candid detail. We have broadened the boundaries of what assault means, who is affected and how we talk about it. But what is still rarely spoken about, is what it’s like to start a new relationship as a survivor of sexual assault.

Ali, 28, was raped on a date in 2014. Understandably, this completely changed the way she approached meeting men and starting new relationships.

“I was duped by the man who assaulted me. He really made me believe he was this nice, normal, polite guy, but he wasn’t,” she says. “It made me question all of the seemingly ‘nice’ men that I met. It also meant I was very afraid to ever be alone with them, or go back to theirs, or share a bed with them.”

When Ali began to date again, she felt more comfortable about meeting men in public. “I kept my wits about me, as I usually do. Because my assault happened in private, I’d be nervous to be alone with them and to progress the dating into an intimate relationship.

“I felt so apprehensive and torn. I wanted to feel the way I used to feel with men, and to have a nice relationship because I know they exist, but I just had the anxiety of ‘it could happen again, it could happen again’.”

“When Ali began to date again, she felt more comfortable about meeting men in public.”     

Dating can be difficult in any situation, whether it’s navigating the wealth of smartphone apps, or simply finding someone who shares your interests and values. But for survivors of assault, new relationships can be further complicated by issues of trust, or the triggering of difficult, traumatic memories, anxieties and fears.

“Since my sexual assaults I haven’t been able to emotionally connect with men,” says Anneli, 28, who was repeatedly assaulted by her former partner between 2013 and 2016. “I live with PTSD and while I have come on leaps and bounds in all other areas of my life, romantic connections are still something that make me very uncomfortable.

“I have tried online dating and had a few flirty exchanges, but getting to the stage where I feel confident enough to meet up seems impossible. I no longer trust my own judgement,” she says. “After all, I chose my abuser - what’s stopping me from choosing another?”

We’re all subject to societal pressures that dictate how we should look, act and behave in the bedroom, which can make intimacy difficult for any woman. Not all survivors of sexual violence respond in the same way, but for some, confidence and self-esteem can be impacted and the entwining of intimacy and trauma may make sex even harder.

For photographer Elisa, who was assaulted in 2012, being intimate wasn’t something that came easily – but it was something she knew she wanted to be able to do again.

“I might have had some flashbacks while it was happening, or I might suddenly get a sensation, or remember something that had happened, and that was uncomfortable, but I purposefully tried to fight through it,” she says. “I didn’t want it to completely stop me from enjoying it in the future.”

Elisa began dating someone she knew and trusted, and found she was able to be intimate with her new partner less than a year after her assault.

“I have tried online dating and had a few flirty exchanges, but getting to the stage where I feel confident enough to meet up seems impossible.”     

For Ali, feeling able to speak to a new partner about her experience is crucial for the relationship. “If I trust them, then as things are becoming more intimate, I can open myself up to them about my trauma,” she says. “If they are understanding about it, then I know I can move on to sleeping with them. If they’re strange about it, then I know it’s probably not right for me.”

There are a number of groups and projects which support survivors, including the My Body Back Project, which runs Cafe V in London - to help women learn to love their bodies after sexual violence. Counselling or therapy with a trained professional, if or when they feel ready, can help people work through trauma.

“If the person is in a relationship, having couples or relationship counselling could also help so that the partner can learn how to be supportive and also express their own feelings around the impact of what’s happened,” says counsellor Katerina Georgiou.

Art can be therapeutic, too. One year after Ali was assaulted, she started running mental health and art therapy workshops for women. Over the last five years, Elisa has been photographing other survivors to capture the psychological impact of sexual violence. Her series, The Spiral Of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath, was published in a book last year.

With 85,000 women raped in England and Wales alone every year, and half a million adults sexually assaulted, a huge number of women are navigating life as survivors - and the challenges of dating.

“It took a lot of time for me to feel brave enough to go ahead with it, but I’m glad I opened myself up to it again,” Ali says. “I just make sure I’m thoroughly protecting myself, but also doing my best to let my walls down, bit by bit.”

Images: Huy Phan, Serge Esteve, Tony Lam Hoang, Unsplash