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Human beings are social and this is evident in the need for most people to look for a partner and become involved in a short or long-term relationship. For survivors of sexual abuse, their trauma is a violation of a human connection and this violation may impact the survivor’s ability to trust, be vulnerable, and to feel safe and secure with another person, even a partner.
In the United States, one in nine girls and one in fifty-three boys have experienced some form of sexual abuse (The Rape, Abuse, & Incent National Network (RAINN), 2016). According to RAINN (2016), there is a sexual assault every 98 seconds, and every 8 minutes the victim of sexual violence is a child. These are only estimates of the actual number because many incidents of sexual violence or victimization go unreported. There is still significant societal shame, victim blaming, and stigma surrounding childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault that prevent many survivors from coming forward and reporting these incidents. Many in the sexual violence prevention field have argued that there is a rape culture in the United States. Rape culture is not about one person or group; rather it is a societal attitude that minimizes, maintains, or negates the impact of sexual violence or victimization
With the advent of the #metoo movement and more knowledge about sexual violence, one cannot read a journal article or attend a workshop without hearing about trauma or trauma-informed care. There are many interventions, therapeutic approaches, and evidence-based practices that are shown to be effective for individual trauma survivors of sexual violence. However, the research is somewhat limited when it comes to the partners of sexual trauma survivors or the healing within the couple. Many partners may be left out of the healing process altogether or brought in only at the very end. Many partners of trauma survivors may not understand how trauma may be affecting the survivor and/or their relationship.
In most relationship’s partners want to support one another, but many times the partner of the sexual trauma survivor is left to figure out what that is on their own and what may work or not work in terms of support. While most would agree that the primary focus of healing from childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault should be focused on the survivor and the survivor’s needs; the importance of a trustworthy and understanding partner should not be underestimated
As a trauma survivor continues to recover and heal, many well-intentioned partners or survivors may struggle with discussing and negotiating sexual consent and intimacy. Active consent is no longer about the absence of a “no,” but rather a “yes” that is clearly communicated throughout a sexual interaction from start to finish. Consent at its core is about communication and this is often something that can be difficult for couples to have around sex, even in long-term relationships. One way to ease communication is by clearly defining sex and intimacy. Sexual intimacy does not have to be defined by penetrative sex (penis in vagina) or sexual activity; rather it is a broad continuum of behaviors that could mean touching/caressing, kissing, hugging, napping, talking with or being near their partner. What sex means to each individual may be different and needs to open to a discussion between partners. Healing from sexual trauma is not a linear journey. It involves multiple steps for the survivor, partner, and/or couple. Once consent is discussed and what intimacy will look for the relationship is agreed upon, there is a need for the couple to develop a stronger foundation of communication, trust, and mutual agreement. This will take time but is something that's worked out along a continuum knowing that things may change as expectations and different forms of intimacy emerge.
Sexual trauma is a violation of one’s most basic rights, therefore healing can be a complex and complicated process for both the survivor and partner. Navigating sexual intimacy may present further challenges for some couples. Part of the healing process may need guidance of a clinician or sex therapist who is comfortable and knowledgeable in addressing and discussing sexuality, sexual functioning, and sexual intimacy. However, through the therapeutic process both survivor and partner may experience empowerment, relational healing, and potentially greater intimacy as a result of this difficult work.
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Dr. Heather Quaile is a Womens’s Health nurse practitioner, sexual assault nurse examiner, and sexuality counselor. She is the CEO and founder for The SHOW (sexual health optimization and wellness) Center as well as clinical director for a human trafficking organization in Georgia. www.theshowcenter.com