Clinical Therapist Sarah Hemphill’s working definition of trauma came from one of her clients:
“Trauma is something that opens your eyes to the fact that the world’s not a safe place or fucks with your concept of safety. I’m going along; I’m in control of my life story. Then somebody pulls the pen out of my hands and starts writing my life story. Wait, I’m not in control anymore … and I’ve got to grapple with the fact that I’m not guaranteed control anymore.”
For many, dating after a trauma — especially after sexual assault— is a way to try and take back the pen. But it can be daunting: deciding who it is safe to be vulnerable with and how to set boundaries. I spoke to Sarah about how to navigate dating after sexual assault.
It Can Be Empowering to See the Layers of Trauma
Throughout our lives, we pick up messages about how to act on dates, about modesty, being an object of desire, and the worth of our bodies. These messages — what Sarah referred to as our “cultural socialization” — are impacted by one’s ethnicity, gender, the size of one’s body, whether one has a physical disability, and so on.
An individual assault is intimately tied to these messages: to rape culture and the prejudices against specific race and ethnic groups, genders, body size, etc. This is both true because these biases create an environment in which rape and sexual assault thrives, but also because they play a major role in how we see ourselves.
“Trauma always exist in context,” Sarah summarized. “We’re not just dealing with the event in isolation; we’re also dealing with all of this stuff that’s meaning making around it.”
When trying to make sense of your own trauma, it can be useful to see it within this larger context.
Sometimes simply recognizing that these are cultural messages and not “truths” can be helpful.
Socially, we’re starting to protest against and reject some of these messages (such as rejecting the idea that a fat body has less worth or is less desirable). But, as we’ll dig into, you may not even realize that something you believe comes from a cultural message. For instance, there are cultural messages around how you’re supposed to react after trauma.
Responses to Trauma Vary, and They’re All Okay
After a traumatic event, many individuals attempt to regain control of their own story. How they do this can look very very different, and there is no right way.
In Andrew Pari’s research about how people respond after sexual assault, he found there are several norms. Many people shut down that part of their lives and limit access to their bodies and sexual stimuli while others do the opposite and will sleep with many people in order to regain control of their narrative.
Whatever your personal response to trauma, it’s normal.
“We don’t want to pathologize these behaviors,” Sarah explained. “However you’re reclaiming your story, if it’s not hurting you or someone else, let’s accept it as somehow serving you. It makes sense in your narrative, and you get control to write that.”
Normalizing and accepting your response can help you start to feel a sense of control again.
However you’re reclaiming your story, if it’s not hurting you or someone else, let’s accept it as somehow serving you. It makes sense in your narrative, and you get control to write that.
Reject the Social Stigmas Around These Responses
Back to that cultural socialization, there is a lot of stigma around specific responses to assault. When people begin to limit access to their bodies, they’re seen as “prudes.” If they sleep with several people, then they are deemed a “slut.”
These judgements are related to society’s toxic and policing perspectives on sex and bodies. It can be helpful to “depersonalize” these judgements. It’s not your problem — it’s society’s.
I personally believe that it’s easier to date people who are actively rejecting these judgements. Any sign that a person believes someone else’s worth is connected to who or how many people they have sex with, for instance is a sign that they are not a safe person for me to date.
Learning to Trust Yourself
Part of dating is building trust with another person, and especially after trauma, it may be difficult to trust someone else. In addition, trauma can harm your ability to trust yourself. There are often feelings of self-guilt and mistrust around your instincts or your ability to protect yourself. This can directly impact dating.
When rebuilding self-trust, one place to start is to practice listening to yourself.
It’s easy to get caught up in wondering whether the other person is having a good time or what they want, and these questions can drown out what you want.
Especially, when you’re in a place of self-mistrust, it can be hard to quiet all these other messages and focus on your own thoughts: Do you like this person? Do you want to see them again? Do you trust them? Do you want to develop a physical intimacy?
Listening to yourself and learning to trust your gut are both practices that you can develop.
Sarah explained that when you start simply listen to what your gut is telling you, its messages will get louder and clearer. “When we’re looking for them, these messages are able to come up in more readable ways and can give us permission to believe that trusting ourselves can be part of dating.”
Here’s something to try. On a date, go to the restroom and check in with your body. Are you relaxed or stressed? Are you turned on? Are you hungry or tired? Just practice listening to what your body is telling you — it’s easier to do when you’re alone.
When we’re looking for them, these messages are able to come up in more readable ways and can give us permission to believe that trusting ourselves can be part of dating.
When and How to Bring Up Your Assault with Someone You’re Dating
Sarah explained that after a traumatic event people often feel that they “have to” go to therapy or they “should” tell specific people in their life about it. That’s just not true.
“It’s whatever feels right for you. If it doesn’t feel right, that’s not bad. And it doesn’t mean you haven’t processed enough or anything judgemental like that. You get to pick the pacing and what it feels right,” Sarah said.
Sometimes your desires conflict with each other. A part of you wants to share the information, and another part is scared about how it will be received.
Sarah offers two very different examples of how someone might approach the topic with their partner, both of which can be healthy:
Example #1: Hey, this is a part of my past. I want you to know that it’s there. I want you to know that these things bring it up. And also I don’t like talking about it. I don’t want this conversation to go any further. Can I just share that information with you and then not have to fill in the details because I don’t think those are relevant.
Example #2: Hey, there’s something about my past I’d like to talk to you about. It would help me to share it with you. Do you have some time and are you in an okay emotional space for me to tell you about it and see if you want me to share more?
Bottom line: You get to control how much you share and when.
Sarah added, “It’s not unlikely that when you do share it with a partner, because assault is so common, they might have their own stories. They might have their own stuff that they’ve not been sharing with you too.”
Remember that their reactions come from a combination of their own history which might include trauma, and messages that they’ve heard. Their reactions are not a pure representation of how they feel about you.
Advice on Dating A Survivor
When dating a trauma survivor, Sarah recommends to check your expectations: “Even if you’ve dated someone who has experienced assault before, that can look totally different for a different person. You don’t get to put on them how they process it. You’re there along for a ride that can be unexpected for both people.”
Sarah also recommends knowing and setting your own boundaries. It’s okay to tell someone you’re not in a good space to have a conversation at the moment or to limit how long you can talk about it.
“Just because they’re dealing with something, doesn’t mean it can’t also be triggering for you. Your boundary setting and realistic expectations around a conversation can actually make you feel like a much safer person to talk to than just saying, ‘Yes, I’ll take it,’” Sarah said.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that someone’s actions and reactions might have nothing to do with you. When you’re dating someone, it brings up insecurities that can make a situation feel very personal.
“When someone is processing trauma (or really anything else), they’re working on their own story,” Sarah explained. “Your partner might have emotions or reactions that have nothing to do with you, and that’s not your fault, and you don’t have to fix the situation.”