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Sex Therapy and the Treatment of Trauma

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

Non-consensual sexual experiences, whether rape, molestation, threats of sexual violence, or anything else, can leave us damaged. Sometimes these effects are obvious, and other times they may be subtle.

However trauma may have affected you, sex therapy can play a role in helping to normalize your life again. Today we'll review some common symptoms of non-consensual sexual experiences and how sex therapy may help.

What is a post-traumatic response?

First, it should be noted that non-consensual sexual experiences come in many forms and affect everyone differently. There is no "wrong" way to be affected by trauma, although some symptoms are more common than others.

To the vast majority of people, a non-consensual sexual experience is traumatizing. It often leaves people scared, feeling violated, and it might leave them ashamed.

Sexual trauma can have any number of effects on a person's mental health. If you feel your quality of life has decreased in any way, we very much recommend you seek counseling, even if your symptoms are different than what we note.

Traumatic events, in the immediate, often leave people feeling:

  • Nauseous
  • Dizzy
  • Unable to eat normally
  • Unable to sleep on a regular schedule
  • Withdrawn from friends and family
  • and more

These reactions are post-traumatic responses and, for some people, may only last only a few weeks or months after the event. However, many people see symptoms well beyond that.

Technically a "post-traumatic response" would be any symptom occurring after (post) the trauma caused by that trauma. That said, the term is most often used in reference to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition brought on due to trauma. While not all victims of non-consensual sexual acts experience it, a very large portion do.

The symptoms of PTSD can be characterized into three types:

  • Symptoms causing you to relive some aspect of the trauma
  • Symptoms causing you to avoid anything associated with the trauma
  • Symptoms of increased "arousal," which in this context means alertness and irritability rather than how the term is often used in everyday speech

An entire article could be written on just PTSD, and non-consensual sex acts, but, in short, it is serious. If you believe you have PTSD, you should seek the help of a counselor as they can be an enormous help in controlling symptoms.

In the case of sexual trauma, some specific symptoms may be a fear of sex or difficulty getting aroused, a fear of people superficially similar to your attacker, or even a need to avoid similar locations to where you were attacked.

It's also common to experience depression alongside PTSD or even a feeling of anxiety that may not be severe but is hard to place. Often you may feel "bad" without an immediate cause; trauma can rewire your brain that way.

Trauma may not look like trauma

Much of the above sounds like it would be obvious, at least to the person affected. However, a few things need to be noted.

First, many people, victims of trauma and otherwise, are less fine than they think. It's easy to overlook being tired, fear of strangers, or terrible nightmares, as "normal" if these issues have been going on for months.

Second, sometimes trauma affects in less obvious ways. Even if you don't have PTSD, it would be odd for sexual trauma not to affect your mental health. It is perhaps not impossible, but it is unlikely.

What is more possible is your life continues much as normal with some changes to specific areas. For example, many victims of sexual trauma have major trouble with sex and relationships.

This makes sense; something we tend to associate with love or fun was instead twisted for victims of sexual trauma. It is also hard for many partners to understand that trauma and how to help you navigate it.

Trauma and libido are often linked such that sexual trauma will make it hard to enjoy or desire sex. This loss of desire for sex can make relationships harder, and it's often less a person doesn't want sex and more they feel repulsed by it.

Recovering from sexual trauma

Recovering from any sexual trauma is a process. Our immediate recommendation would be to review this RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) guide on what to do if you've been assaulted.

Their guide covers many basics, linking to numerous other sources of info you may be seeking. They also have a helpline if you feel like you're in crisis and need someone to talk to who is trained in helping victims.

Pretty key early on is trying to understand that what happened wasn't your fault. That won't make what happened to go away, but it will establish what is to many a key truth: you didn't choose for this to happen.

One thing many victims are reluctant to do is to talk to a mental health professional. You might feel ashamed, but, again, you didn't do this. A mental health professional can help equip you to deal with what happened.

Getting a read on how your trauma-affected you can have several positive effects. One of the biggest is an understanding of what is happening to you. A diagnosis can help you understand why you feel the way you do.

In many cases, a diagnosis may also allow you to get medication if it helps. Medication can help you sleep better or feel less depressed.

The goal of getting treatment is not to erase what happened; that is impossible. It isn't impossible for you to feel better, live a full life, and for your trauma to feel like an event of the past rather than the present.

A sex life after trauma

We've touched on it in a few places, but sexual trauma can make sex difficult. Trauma and sex drive often don't mix well; this is doubly true if you're going through PTSD.

Talking about sex after sexual trauma is a complicated topic. Let it first be said you don't have to engage in any sexual contact or dialogue you don't want to.

That said, most people who have experienced non-consensual sexual acts hope to one day have a healthy relationship and sex life. You can want something but still feel repelled or put off by it. This is an area where sex therapy can help.

Even if victims of sexual trauma still are having sex, often their relationship with it has changed. That may not be inherently bad, but the changes are often ones you might not want.

To give some examples, some people might be comfortable with flings but not serious relationships. Others may have sex but need to feel in control to be comfortable. Again, trauma affects everyone differently.

Your connection to sex

Sexual trauma (very often) damages your relationship with sex. This is even more true if the trauma happened while you were young or as one of your first sexual experiences.

Part of a healthy recovery from trauma is understanding "sex" wasn't the issue. The issue was that another individual or individuals did you harm. They did something that was not fair and that you did not want.

That isn't to blame victims of trauma for being put off by sex. It is difficult to see what healthy sex can be after a sexual trauma has left you feeling harmed.

The interaction between rape and sex drive is seldom a desired one. Rape, or any sexual trauma, can change in almost every way how sex makes you feel.

We hope our app can help regarding the feeling many people who have undergone sexual trauma have with their sex drive. It can try and walk you through the steps to develop a healthy libido again.

Our app can be helpful for people who have experienced trauma as it's a human-free process. There is no judgment, just a guided, science-based journey to help you heal.

Trauma and sexual desire aren't binary. As you face your trauma in a healthy way, sex can become easier and more enjoyable.

Trauma can rewire your brain so that even consensual sex feels different. Part of recovery will be trying to rewire your brain once more so you can enjoy sex the way you want.

Talking to partners

The impact of trauma on relationships can sometimes be quite severe. Sexual trauma is hard to understand if you haven't gone through it yourself and, even if your partner has, all trauma is different.

The way trauma and relationships interact will depend not only on you but also on your partner/s. While it may not affect you as much as other people, the chances are high that it will play a role in your interactions.

If you're in a long-term relationship or one you hope to get to that place, you may need to discuss your trauma. This is a task many people who have gone through non-consensual sexual experiences dread.

In part, this is because talking about sex, even without any trauma, can be hard. Many people are raised to only whisper and giggle about anything related to sex. Having a "real" talk about sexual trauma is tough.

The unfortunate thing is that your partner won't understand what you want and need without a conversation. That's putting aside the fact many people who have gone through sexual trauma need hard sexual boundaries to feel comfortable.

This is one area that Blueheart's app has focused on helping people with. Both trauma and the way society has raised you to think about sex make sex conversations hard. Our app can help make it easier.

Sex can feel normal again

If you've experienced sexual trauma, the odds are good that your relationship with sex is changed forever. No therapy and no app can undo what happened.

The good news is that it is neither the goal of treatment nor what you need to be happy. Healing from emotional trauma is much like healing from physical trauma. A wound can become a scar and, with work, that scar can fade.

By processing a trauma, working through it in a healthy way, and relearning what healthy relationships and sex are, life can normalize.

Sex is not supposed to feel scary or like you have to turn part of your brain off to do it. It also isn't supposed to feel like an obligation. If that's how it feels, something is wrong.

Unless you're asexual, the odds are good; you'd like for sex to feel normal. Whether for fun or so, you can be intimate with your partner; that's a fine thing to hope for.

The interaction between sexual assault and sex drive doesn't have to be a permanent, negative change. You can heal from sexual assault, or any sexual trauma, with work and the right tools.

Sex therapy can help heal trauma

Facing sexual trauma can be a long, difficult process. That said, sex therapy can be a powerful component of your healing, helping to make sex feel less triggering and to get your libido to a place you're happy with.
If you feel ready to get back in touch with sex, we encourage you to do so. We've also included links in this article in case you feel you need deeper, more traditional care. Sexual trauma is a serious thing and you should tailor your care to your needs. So explore your options before trying Blueheart. That said, our app can make a very good supplement to traditional care (many sex therapists choose to use it alongside their work to help clients find it easier to practice their therapy at home when the therapist isn't present). So maybe you'll see us soon after all.

If you're feel ready.
If you're in therapy, or have spoken to a therapist and you're ready to try touch again, you can try Blueheart for free.
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