Surviving sexual assault: can change your sexual desires?

Surviving sexual assault: can change your sexual desires?

(Trigger Warning: The following article contains a discussion of a sexual nature that some readers may find unsetting.)

It is not surprising that most adults surviving sexual assault will experience changes in their established sexual preferences. How they feel sexual desire may change; their sex drive might also change, as may their sexual preferences.

The emotional fall out from a sexual assault or a sexually abusive relationship can be far more enduring and than any physical injuries. The body can and will often recover more readily and faster from the physical assault than the psychological assault on the adult survivor’s sense of self. 

Sexual assault recovery

Coming to terms with the experience of surviving sexual assault can have many more layers of complexity. Particularly when the sexual assault involved grooming, betrayal of trust, or the power imbalance between an adult and a younger person.

Being a survivor of sexual abuse does not condemn them to a life-sentence of going without consensual sex. Or a life where sexual interaction is either distressing or even re-traumatising. It is a cliché to think of sexual abuse or rape survivors as permanently damaged or ‘broken’ in some way. This is a huge oversimplification of a complex process of recovery.

It’s true that sex is often more difficult following experiencing sexual assault. But it’s entirely false that a survivor will not be capable of engaging in healthy sex.

To experience difficulties either emotionally or physically is a legitimate response to trauma. The Amygdala is part of the brain that controls the fight and flight response that reacts to perceived threats – either real or imagined.

It can become over cranked by traumatic experiences such as these. This makes it difficult for the survivor’s body and mind to fully accept they are safe to enjoy consensual sex with their partner, even when they feel consciously ready to do so.

This is a typical response that may require working with a trained therapist to overcome.

Changes to sexuality after sexual assault

It has been suggested that some sexual assault survivors find themselves gravitating towards consensual BDSM (Bondage/submission) or less mainstream sexual encounters due to their experience of abuse.

However, in my experience as a therapist what makes people gravitate towards consensual BDSM or kinky sexual encounters is complex and being a survivor of sexual assault is only one of many factors that may or may not make this kind of sexual interplay attractive.

It’s often difficult to ascertain a linear correlation between previous sexual experiences, even ones as traumatic as sexual assault and how it impacts on sexual desire. In my therapy practice, I’ve seen a wide variety of responses to sexual assault from both my male and female clients.

Common threads do exist including the role childhood sexual assault has played in many of my client’s lifelong struggles to maintain a healthy weight. It is not uncommon for them to battle obesity or out of control behaviour around food and/or alcohol or Class A drugs.

The consequences of rape and sexual assault for survivors leave them scattered across the whole spectrum of sexual activity. Some choose never to be intimate again; others become sexually promiscuous as a way of taking back control.

Some wilfully disregard their safety and wellbeing by repeatedly placing themselves in potentially exploitative or dangerous situations. Some who used to feel sexually confident and instigate experimentation with their partners find themselves only willing to participate in so-called ‘vanilla’, or non-threatening sexual activity.

Sexual assault and PTSD

Other survivors struggle with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) flashbacks and prefer to refrain from penetrative sex. Some avoid feeling claustrophobic or physically restrained in any way to ensure they don’t trigger their traumatic memories. Others can effectively departmentalise their traumatic experience so that it has no conscious influence on their consensual sex life.

Submission and abdicating sexual responsibility within a safe framework can be useful role-playing for some survivors of sexual abuse. Equally taking the dominant role and play-acting feeling in control can counter some previous experiences of powerlessness and vulnerability.

How adults experience consensual sexual activity is no-ones business but their own. Within the confines of legality and personal morality, everything is acceptable. However, it is the judgments people make about their behaviour that can be at odds with their actions. This can indicate a psychological disassociation which would benefit from a therapeutic resolution.

Physiologically, Vaginismus is the medical term for a rarely spoken of and commonly experienced after-effect of sexual assault. Vaginismus can take place for many reasons other than sexual assault too. It is a medically recognised condition when an involuntary muscle spasm that woman experience that can cause consensual penetrative sex to be acutely painful and almost impossible to undertake.

Psychologic effects of unease around sexual activity can be relatively minor or completely debilitating. This includes frightening out of body experiences, emotional discomfort and unease through to full-blown panic attacks. All of these responses would benefit from an empathetic and skilled approach from an experienced therapist to ensure the survivor is not re-traumatised by having to re-live their experiences. There is fortunately therapy approaches dedicated to ensuring this work is as gentle and trauma-free as possible.

Effects of sexual assault

Effects of sexual assault are highly unpredictable and can lay dormant for years if not decades. When the high profile Jimmy Saville multiple sexual abuse case hit the media myself, and many other therapists were inundated with calls for therapeutic intervention from adult survivors of childhood abuse. Many of the survivors thought they had put their childhood experiences behind them, but found they were experiencing mounting anxiety and distress as the news story rolled out over an extended period triggering their memories.

Perhaps not surprisingly sometimes a random car accident or period of high stress such as moving house or loss of a parent or loved one can be enough to unsettle years of equilibrium. This brings back uncomfortable memories of long-buried sexual trauma or sexual confusion from childhood.

Memories buried alive never die, and if survivors of sexual assault have tried everything but are still not confident they are making decisions free from the influence of their sexual assault, then therapy can give them the clarity and resolution they need to go forward knowing they have fully resolved their past trauma.

Time to do something about it

If your life still feels limited by surviving sexual assault that you experienced or by your emotional response to an abusive relationship, you deserve to fully recover from the trauma you have experienced. If you feel ready to thrive please book a discovery call with me so that I can explain how I work with PSTD and trauma.

You can access more information and resources by calling:
National Rape Crisis Helpline 0808 802 29999.
Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline 08088 01 03 02
National Assault Hotline (USA) 800 656 4673




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