My name is Haley, and I am a woman who masturbates. I am also a survivor of sexual assault.
What do those two things have in common? Firstly, they’re both things I feel the need to “confess” – as if I’m somehow dirtier for admitting them – mostly because I am not a man. (If I were, my sexual appetite would just be accepted as a fact of life.) But secondly, and more importantly, they’re both things that have informed the way I experience sex as an adult woman.
I have rarely spoken out about my sexual assault publicly. Many of my closest friends still don’t know. But now more than ever, talking about this experience feels relevant to what’s going on in the media – and in my emotional and political life as a young American woman and a survivor.
I’m a survivor, but I’ve also learned what I do and don’t like in bed, and how to speak up for myself sexually. Not that I think I could have prevented my assault simply by saying “no” – which I did. Multiple times, actually. Rather, it’s that I feel confident in bed. I feel like a sexual being again – a whole being, instead of a walking pair of boobs with a vagina. And I’m not afraid to admit that masturbation has played a big part in helping me heal from my sexual trauma.
Fortunately, I never suffered flashbacks or other symptoms of PTSD as a result of my sexual trauma. However, I did lose sight of myself as an active participant in sex. Instead, I learned to see myself as a giver rather than a receiver of pleasure. I grew complacent, almost comfortable, with the idea that my body was there for men to use; to create an experience rather than have one; to give rather than to take. I also developed problems reaching orgasm, problems I now know resulted from the judgment and guilt I felt in the sexual relationship where I had been assaulted.
I never recognized the connection between masturbation and my healing process until very recently. Like many girls, when I first realized that I had been sexually assaulted (almost two years after the incident had actually taken place), I didn’t want to be touched. But slowly, I eased my way back into taking pleasure from sex in the way I felt most comfortable: alone.
I started having orgasms again – first from masturbating, then with a new, more patient partner. I explored my body, got in touch with my needs and wants and bought my newly-sexual self fun presents like lingerie and a Shibari magic wand. Finally, I started to see sex as something exciting that I could share with another person. Rather than something that happened to me, sex became something I did.
To put it bluntly, I wasn’t just “getting fucked” anymore. I was fucking. We were fucking. And it had been our choice to fuck. We had chosen each other, and we had both said “yes” explicitly and eagerly.
Using masturbation as an acclimation tool, I slowly took back control of the sexuality that my assailant had forcefully taken from me that one day in the basement of his parents’ house. Because of this experience, and all of the research I’ve read that confirms my theory, I firmly believe that masturbation is a critical element of the healing process from sexual trauma.
Here, I will share with you some of my findings about masturbation and healing from sexual trauma – and explain how you can start a mindful masturbation process (I know, I know – sounds weird, right?) to help you reclaim control of your sexuality.
As always, I am not a doctor, so please speak with your PCP or mental health provider if you have any specific medical questions about sexual trauma. You can also always contact RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline by calling 1-800-656-HOPE.
Sexual Symptoms After Assault
After experiencing a sexual assault, it is natural to experience some interruption to normal sexual function. In my case, I did not even realize I had been assaulted by my emotionally abusive partner until almost a year later – but as I began to learn more about sexual assault, I realized the warning signs had been present in my behavior following the assault all along.
For so long, I had no libido whatsoever. I enjoyed masturbating from time-to-time, but my sexual appetite – or sense of satisfaction – was never quite what it used to be. At the time, I blamed it on my antidepressants – but even after introducing Wellbutrin, an antidepressant used to treat SSRI-induced sexual dysfunction, I faced difficulties achieving orgasm, especially with a partner, and eventually began to avoid sex altogether. This caused even more problems with my sexually coercive partner, who used guilt to manipulate me into performing sexual acts I wasn’t really interested in to begin with.
After the relationship ended, my sexual desire snapped back like a rubber band. Though I still suffered from anorgasmia, my formerly-nonexistent sexual appetite became insatiable. I remember feeling confused, yet empowered. For so long, I believed I was broken because my partner couldn’t “finish” me, or because I wasn’t giving him enough sexually (or so he used to say). So, what happened? What had changed?
Once I learned about sexual coercion, it all started to make sense. At first, I had simply believed the relationship was to blame – we didn’t love each other the way we used to, so the sex wasn’t as good. Then I learned that the guilt-tripping, badgering and pouting my partner used as weapons to obtain sex were actually a form of assault and abuse. All of a sudden, I went from “sexually broken being” to “sexual assault survivor,” and was forced to reconcile with this new identity and what it meant for my sexuality.
That is my story, but I am only one of the 1 in 3 women who has experienced sexual trauma in her lifetime. Sexual trauma following an assault looks different for every survivor. If you have survived sexual assault, abuse or rape, here are some signs you may still be suffering from the scars of the events:
- Avoiding sex. Just as I did when my partner would badger me, sexual assault survivors often avoid sex altogether as a means of coping with their trauma.
- Viewing sex as an “obligation.” Healthy sex means both partners give enthusiastic consent and want to share in that experience with each other. However, that is often not how we see sex after an assault. Not only does our sexual functioning change, but our attitudes toward sex are affected, too.
- Feeling anger, disgust or guilt with touch. Over a year later, the feeling of being “wet” still leaves me feeling guilty and “dirty.” These effects often persist for survivors of sexual assault.
- Loss of sensation or arousal. In some survivors, libido may cease to exist – or, they may have a sex drive, but experience little to no sensation when touched by a partner. Sexual assault can leave you feeling “numb” and indifferent to sex.
- Intrusive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. Some survivors use sexual acts or masturbation as a form of self-punishment following assault. Others may experience unwanted images or flashbacks to the assault.
- Pain or difficulty reaching orgasm. Vaginismus – the painful contraction of the vaginal walls upon touch, which can make penetration near-impossible – is a common trauma response to rape. You may also experience erectile function, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Or, you may have vaginal dryness – which, take it from me: makes penetration feel about as sexy as sandpaper.
Why Touch Heals
The idea that you could heal from sexual trauma with sexual activity sounds, on its face, counter-intuitive. But while it’s true that you should ease yourself back into sex gradually, there are a couple reasons that distinguish masturbation as a form of healing after assault.
Masturbation makes sex about YOU again. During an assault, your abuser is inherently acting selfishly, with no regard for your health or well-being – let alone your sexual pleasure. By masturbating, you are able to reclaim your sexuality as a healthy and valid component of sex. Sex isn’t something to be taken from you; it’s something to be shared and enjoyed!
Masturbation puts you in the driver’s seat. One of the most frightening and frustrating parts of a sexual assault is the feeling that what happens to you, and your body, is out of your control. After a sexual assault, you may find it difficult to resign control to a partner in the bedroom. Masturbating allows you to be in control of your own body, so that the only touches you have to experience are ones that you want to and enjoy experiencing.
Masturbation allows you to safely restart your sex life. Following a sexual assault, partnered sex becomes complicated. Whether your partner is someone you’ve known for five hours or five years, you may find yourself triggered by partnered sex after the assault. Even the most understanding partner can get frustrated by this part of the healing process. By masturbating in the privacy and safety of your own home, you can start to build a healthy sex life without feeling guilty for stopping – or pressured to keep going – as many times as you need.
Finally, masturbation helps heal sexual dysfunction. Sexual dysfunction is a common response to sexual trauma. It includes any interruption to the progression from arousal to plateau to orgasm. For some victims, this may present as low libido or vaginal dryness; for others, this may look like erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation or anorgasmia. Regardless, sex therapy – and directed masturbation as a component of that – is a proven treatment for sexual dysfunction in both men and women. (And guys: the myth that masturbating can cause ED is just that – a MYTH!)
How to Start Healing
Before I discuss what worked for me, and how you can begin a mindful masturbation process to begin healing from sexual assault, I’d like to devote a few sentences (which is still not nearly enough) to the importance of therapy and the role sex therapists can play in healing from sexual trauma:
Therapy is an important component of the emotional healing process following a sexual assault. It’s imperative that survivors feel like they have someone they can turn to whenever they need to talk about what happened, or reconcile with their new identity as a survivor, or navigate their altered relationship with sex and sexual partners.
Ideally, this person is a professional sex therapist (though it may also be a friend, family member, life coach, counselor, professor, minister – you name it). However, because the majority of therapists specializing in “sexual trauma” primarily treat victims of child abuse, and the majority of “sex therapists” work mostly with couples struggling with sexual difficulties, I recommend finding a sex therapist who specifically mentions working with survivors of sexual violence, sexual assault or rape in their professional experience.
I also think it is incredibly important to find a sex therapist who views sex openly and non-judgmentally, but also someone who comes from a similar walk of life and will share the same attitudes and beliefs regarding sexuality. For example, if you are a trans person who has experienced sexual violence, you will probably want to find a counselor who specializes in treating the LGBTQ+ population – or, if you are a devout Catholic (or Jew or Buddhist or whatever-ist), you may want to seek a counselor whose practice is informed by your faith.
Because sexuality is such a sensitive subject to broach, finding a counselor who speaks openly about sex, encourages you to do the same and does so in a language you understand can be life-affirming for a survivor of sexual violence. That being said, you can also take steps to heal yourself from sexual assault outside the therapist’s office – and that can start with a mindful masturbation practice you begin at home.
As a survivor of sexual assault, here is my advice for masturbating following a sexual assault – as well as some juicy bonus tips for how you can experience greater pleasure in the process!
- Begin with non-sexual activities. Lighting a candle. Soaking in a hot bubble bath. Rubbing a vanilla-scented body lotion into your parched skin. All these activities, to me, read “sensual” rather than “sexual.” These activities allow you to show yourself and your body some love, before you are ready to start engaging in sexual touch.
- Follow with non-sexual touch. The feeling of a hot shower running along your bare skin, or a gentle massage from your partner after a long day at work, can be just as powerful in relearning to love your body as sexual touch.
- Give yourself time. The last thing you want to do when healing from sexual assault is “rub one out.” Allow yourself at least an hour to breathe, take breaks (if necessary) and spend this time focusing on you.
- Avoid watching porn. Porn can be a healthy way of exploring sexuality for the average person – but when you’re a survivor, so much porn depicts sexuality in an unhealthy, even violent way that can trigger unpleasant thoughts and memories of the abuse. Rather than watching porn, close your eyes and focus on your breathing and the sensations going through your body. This simple act of awareness is what sets “mindful masturbation” apart from simply masturbating.
- Try tantric masturbation. Whether or not you buy them, you’ve probably heard of tantric sex techniques for growing closer with a partner – but did you know you can practice tantra by yourself, too? Because of tantric masturbation’s focus on loving-kindness and self-exploration, the mindfulness techniques used in tantric masturbation make it the perfect healing art for survivors. Check out this article from Refinery29 for the full breakdown.
Survivors, what has helped you recover from sexual trauma and learn to love sex again? Let us know in the comments below!