Justice

5 Tips for Dating a Survivor of Sexual Assault

An unsettling number of Americans experience sexual violence each year — around 293,066, according to RAINN.

Kesha

It is extremely jarring to hear that your partner has been a victim of sexual violence, but if they do choose to share what they've experienced, it is crucial that you respond in a validating and respectful way and educate yourself on how to be a supportive, sensitive partner.

Every survivor is different, and they each process trauma in a different way.

ATTN: spoke to three survivors of sexual assault, along with Melanie Carlson, the Client Services Coordinator at Doorways for Women and Families, a domestic violence shelter that also provides support to victims of sexual assault, over email about their advice on how to best support a survivor.

Here are five tips for dating a survivor of sexual assault.

1. Validate their experience.

It takes a lot of courage to recount sexual trauma, and survivors experiences are extremely varied.

"You may never know that someone you're dating has experienced sexual assault," Carlson said. "Some people may never disclose, some people may tell you years into your relationship, and others may be very open and upfront about it. It is a very personal experience and there is an infinite way people have experienced sexual assault, cope with sexual assault, and disclose sexual assault."

They also might not fully have come to terms with what happened to them, so let them guide the conversation.

"I did not actually identify as a survivor of sexual assault until I had a partner that validated that things that happened to me were rightfully traumatizing and violent," Sarit Luban, a 26-year-old writer told ATTN:. "I knew I felt messed up from what had happened, that bad things had happened, but when I did share them previously, I was met with blame, or like I was being dramatic, sensitive. So having a partner that validated my experiences and my reactions to them was huge."

2. Don't be pushy.

Opening up about sexual assault can also be re-traumatizing — if your partner opens up to you about past trauma, let them share their experience to whatever degree they feel comfortable.

"More and more research is showing that telling the assault story on repeat re-traumatizes people," Carlson pointed out. "It is more about creating the space for someone to tell you what they want by illuminating thorough options and trusting survivors as the experts of their lives."

If your partner does share one of these stories with you, resist the urge to press them for more details or label their experience.

"If you’re not a survivor and your partner discloses that they are, you don’t get to push for information," Danielle*, a 25-year-old writer and domestic violence advocate living in Portland, Oregon told ATTN:. "Always ask yourself if the questions that come to your mind are information you need to know or if you’re just curious. Odds are that if you’re not working with survivors in a professional capacity there is literally nothing you need to know, and the way to support your partner is to be open to them talking about it, but not forcing it. You can ask questions, but don’t pry if they don’t want share something."

Alison*, a 37-year-old writer and mother living in Seattle, told ATTN: that she was sexually abused by her father as a child, and she wasn't sexually intimate with a partner until she met her husband, at 29.

"After being together for three months, I told him about my experiences (my father also was a drunk, threatened us with firearms, and was — and this should be obvious — a total jackass). I told my husband about the sexual abuse, but kept it vague and said it quickly," she said. "It was obvious what I was telling him, but I couldn't say the words or specifics straight out. He was incredibly supportive, holding me while I wept and divulged such a secret."

3. Practice affirmative consent.

While affirmative consent— "yes means yes," rather than "no means no" — is valuable in any relationship, it's particularly important to be clear about consent with a partner with a history of sexual trauma.

"We still live in a puritanical society, where sex education is still contentious," Carlson said. "People are often uncomfortable stating directly what they want or need in a relationship and if they even want it to be sexual. It is truly amazing to me how many times people treat sex as an interstate, like their are no stoplights."

"So when being intimate with someone new it is OK to just ask 'are you comfortable if I…?'... It sounds counterintuitive, but just 'feeling it out' probably won’t be sufficient for open communication around sex," she added.

"My current partner and I are both survivors of sexual assault, and I think that really helps our relationship because we understand triggers and the importance of affirmative consent," Danielle, said. "Neither of us ever pushes the other. "

Luban also emphasized the importance of affirmative consent, and appreciated that her partner was attentive to her wants and needs.

"That person was always paying attention to consent, always paying attention to how I seemed when we were intimate — if I seemed not into it, they would check in, ask if I'm okay, ask how I'm feeling, etc.," she said. "If I couldn't answer, they wouldn't demand I explain myself, because they understood that I wasn't able to."

"And they didn't make it about them," Luban continued. "They knew that sometimes I check out or freak out, and make the conversation as easy and simple for me as possible. In those situations, consent was still primary — they'd ask to touch me (hug, rub my back, whatever). And the sweetest thing was sometimes when I dissociated, they would just gently tell me to come back."

But not all of her previous partners had been so understanding. "The one really shitty thing I had happen with someone was when I said I needed more explicit consent with him and he brushed it off and argued with me," she added.

4. Be patient.

"It took a long, long time before I met someone I was comfortable with enough to get intimate," Alison told ATTN:. "I had no boyfriends but dated plenty before that. No one lasted more than a few dates. I really still think I just knew what I wanted, but I am sure my experience with my father tainted sex and intimacy for me. His abuse was my only frame of reference."

While Danielle said her current partner was particularly understanding, that wasn't the case of everyone she had dated. "My ex wasn’t like that at all; he was pushy and didn’t respect my boundaries when I set them," she said. "He couldn’t understand how things could go from being fine one second to very much not fine the next, and he got frustrated and impatient with me often."

5. Be sensitive to their verbal, physical, and emotional cues.

Many survivors of sexual assault and other traumatic experiences are triggered to relive their trauma by certain stimuli, the Washington Post reported.

"So, how would someone know all this? Ask! Ask what I need," Luban said. "Ask what to do if I am triggered, or what that would look like. Ask what my triggers are. You don't have to bombard me with questions, but let this type of communication can be a casual, regular part of getting to know me and being with me."

Pay attention to your partners boundaries and what makes them uncomfortable.

"My husband is very supportive, let's me talk about it if I want to, but never pushes me," Alison said. "Sex-wise is the same; I know he'd like more sex, but he respects that I don't want to."

Carlson said that while it was important to pay attention to a partner's boundaries, they might also not feel comfortable revealing them explicitly.

"Being an attentive partner also requires that if someone doesn’t feel comfortable expressing their boundaries due to previous trauma, cultural norms or anything else that you take the physical and emotional cues that are right there in front of you," she said. "For all you know this could be your new dating partner’s first time making the personal choice to be intimate again after a sexual assault. You may not know it in the moment, but it is an honor and it requires trust. Live up to your potential and approach emerging intimacy with all the beauty and safety it requires."

*These names have been changed to protect to anonymity of sexual assault survivors and their partners.