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Hi, my name is Leigh.

I am a freelance writer of personal essays, poetry, and fiction living in Los Angeles. I also publish on Medium.com.

Sex After Rape

Sex After Rape

Reclaiming My Sexuality After Surviving Abuse

Originally published 1.21.19 in P.S. I Love You on Medium

Photo by  Wei Ding  on  Unsplash

Photo by Wei Ding on Unsplash

If you, or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, trauma or abuse, please contact the National Sexual Assault Helpline at 1–800–656–4673. Visit Rainn.org for more information.

Before:

Two years ago, I was assaulted by someone I thought I could trust. I found myself in a foreign country, in an unfamiliar bed, with the worst headache of my life — piecing together the events of the past 12 hours like they were a mismatched puzzle. I was coming down from the second worst heartbreak of my adult life, less than a year out from my father’s death, and I had fallen into an old pattern of seeking comfort through easy sexual encounters. This was the first time I realized how dangerous that impulse could be.

During:

I’d agreed to go out with a man I’d met through mutual friends while traveling. We had some wine and some sake, we talked with some other travelers for awhile. I left my drink unattended — because in my mind I had no reason NOT to trust this man. And then I started to feel…funny. I was much more intoxicated than I should have been. I was weaving through sidewalks and crosswalks in Tokyo, his arms practically walking for me — promising him I wouldn’t get sick, I wouldn’t get sick, I wasn’t going to get sick, it would take a lot more than that to make me sick…I couldn’t keep my promise. My body was trying to expel something that didn’t belong, I can’t blame it. I woke up, and something was wrong. I didn’t remember the cab ride, or the stairs, or how I’d gotten into the bed. Everything smelled like summer heat mixed with stained sheets. I felt awful, and I was sore in places I shouldn’t have been. I thanked him for washing my clothes, for “taking care of me,” apologizing profusely for making such a mess out of a night that should have been easy (easy for whom, I wonder?). I even let him touch me again…because I knew it had already happened, and what more damage could he possibly do? I kissed him goodbye on the train home and smiled.

I didn’t feel the full weight of what had happened to me until I was back with my mother, in the tiny studio we were sharing — sobbing in the bathtub, rocking back and forth, saying over and over again — “I think I was raped.” At that point, it was nothing more than a whisper in the dark.

Twenty-four hours later I was back home in Seattle, taking a drug test, calling my therapist, calling out of work, confiding in the one manager I trusted, writing down what I could, sleeping as much as my body would let me, and washing everything I had worn that night within an inch of it’s threadbare existence. I was determined to be O.K.

I couldn’t believe it had happened to me. I was smarter than that. Wasn’t I? If I had just left sooner, if I had watched my drink more closely…then maybe I could have prevented it. I did what I’m told a lot of survivors do. I made it my fault. Because if it was my fault, then I could prevent it from happening again. Then the world would be safer than I experienced it to be. Then there would never be a next time, not if I had anything to say about it.

I met up with my ex, the one who had broken my heart and then blamed me for breaking it — still asking if I needed emotional support because he was “worried” about me. He hugged me goodbye and held me too tight for too long. Before — that would have felt comforting. The pressure would be safe and containing. After — it felt suffocating and panic inducing. I found my voice. I asked him to “Please stop. Let go. Come on, I’m serious!” He assumed he knew what I needed better than I did, so he kept holding on. I wanted to bury my fist in his face…

Photo by  Adam Birkett  on  Unsplash

After:

“After abuse, the victim’s view of self and world can never be the same again: it must be reconstructed to incorporate the abuse experience.” — (van der Kolk)

It took me a minute to stop reenacting the danger of this pattern. Abuse and trauma survivors have a tendency to repeat or seek out their experiences in an attempt to normalize them. I was still playing with fire. The risk felt comfortable in its familiarity, so I kept looking for it. I was sleeping with men I barely even knew, ignoring my body when it tried to rebel. I was more focused on trying to reclaim the life I had been living before, than embracing the new reality of after.

This thing that had happened to me had become a part of me. Now it felt like necessary and crucial information that I was obligated to share with anyone I chose to be intimate with. It was the constant elephant in the room — the admission of brokenness — the requirement of care that I never wanted to ask for. Another addition to the pile of evidence telling me that I was too screwed up for anyone to love me like this.

Sure, I tried dating…I even thought I’d found someone safe:

This man was the antithesis to the one who had hurt me. He was feminine, he was vulnerable, he was adoring and always respectful. The kind of attention he gave me felt like a blanket that I could escape under that was oh so warm and fuzzy. I dropped all other conquests and put all of my emotional spoons into this one relationship. With him, I knew I had control — this was the way I was going to protect myself.

When we finally did have sex, my emotions broke through the mask I so desperately wanted to wear and completely overtook me. I curled into a fetal position. I wept and shook and vainly tried to hide my puffed, stained face and the sobs wracking my ribs. He was terrified. He thought that he had hurt me — that he’d done something wrong — that I was crying because of HIM. And it kept happening. He wondered aloud if we should even be having sex…if I was going to continue reacting in this manner.

The assault felt like this dark twisty secret that shouted to the world “I’M NOT ENOUGH.”

I was mad at myself for not being able to contain more effectively, and I had no idea what was wrong with me. I LIKED him. I TRUSTED him. I KNEW he would never hurt me or take advantage of me — at least, not intentionally. What was missing in my mind that I couldn’t disconnect from the trauma I had experienced and reconnect with my present partner?

Nothing, as it turns out. Sex carried a memory of feeling physically violated. My body was just reacting to a specific sense memory in order to protect me.Orgasm wasn’t even on the fucking table. I felt like a complete mess. I needed more time. I needed more experiences that told me I was safe. I needed more reassurance that this lovely man could look at me and hold whatever was going on for me — without running in the opposite direction at the first sign of trouble.

Photo by  Kelly Sikkema  on  Unsplash

Two broken halves don’t make a whole.

I feel like I should know this by now…that no one can make me whole but myself. I was still putting my safety in the hands of others and looking to them for absolution. I ignored every red flag and warning light telling me I was attaching to someone who didn’t love themselves enough to love me. He had lied to me, had been lying to me for months — had omitted a major part of himself because he was so terrified that I wouldn’t love him despite it. I was stunned into the silence as he cried into the other end of the phone: “If you can’t love me, no one will.” Oh boy…

Clarity dawned upon me like a lightning bolt. I could never love him enough to make him love himself. He was proclaiming his brokenness as a badge of dishonor — a contractual obligation for the survival of this failing relationship. A dark prophecy that did nothing to draw me closer. At that point, I realized that this really wasn’t going to work — that what I’d been doing, really wasn’t working.

The assault had felt like this dark twisty secret that shouted to the world “I’M NOT ENOUGH.” Unconsciously, I’d drawn in others who were either broken or wanting to fix me — thinking that was the only kind of relationship I deserved. The despair inside of me had sought comfort and been met with abuse. I believed this initial wound that led me to seek comfort was responsible and deserving of the torture inflicted. That there existed proof within me — that this happened for a reason. I had to hear it from someone else — that this WAS NOT MY FAULT, that I DID NOT ASK FOR IT — before I could believe it myself.

When I was finally able to have a connected, safe, enjoyable sexual experience with someone — it felt kind of magical.

Now:

My body is the ultimate bullshit barometer. If anything good has come out of this experience, it’s that it forced me to renegotiate my relationship with my body. Being drugged and raped caused me to question my faith in myself. It felt like my body had betrayed me when I most needed it to fight back. It didn’t matter that I’d been robbed of my own agency through whatever substance I’d been given. Trust needed to be rebuilt, and the only way to rebuild it was to practice LISTENING:

To what turns me on and off, with myself before others. 
To how my nervous system reacts to someone getting close to me. 
To the impulses running through my mind.
To what the other person is telling me. 
To the parts of my mind and my body that know the truth of every statement and action.

Then choosing to give a voice to the answers I receive.

It took me over a year to find a partner I was comfortable having sex with. And that’s O.K. I’m still healing. Like grief, I believe that this kind of assault will always be present. I can’t erase this wound, or ignore it’s implications, but I can learn to live with it. To be in partnership with it without letting it define me. I no longer feel the need to divulge this “secret” to everyone I choose to be intimate with. The next person I share my story with will have earned my trust over time. Then, it won’t be about how wrong I am, how broken I am, or how unworthy I am of taking care of myself. It will come from the place of knowing that “Bad things happen, whether or not we deserve them. They’re just a part of life.”

When I was finally able to have a safe, connected, enjoyable sexual experience with someone — it felt kind of magical. It was with someone who had already held me when I was broken, whom I had nursed through several breakups of his own, and who treated me as a whole person, without question. Things that I thought would forever be off the table — power exchanges or submissive tendencies — felt safe and FUN. My body was completely on board, and I was right there with it.

It is 100% possible to have safe, connected, enjoyable sex after assault, I promise.

Some things will change. That cannot be helped. I cannot stand to feel trapped or out of control in sexual situations anymore. I also don’t like being intoxicated with someone I want to be intimate with. This is all to be expected! It doesn’t mean that I’ll never have a drink with a partner ever again. It just means that I’m more concerned with being present than being “in the mood.” I now need a measure of familiarity and physical rapport in order to feel comfortable being sexual.

I did not ask to be raped (it’s still hard for me to say that word out loud). I also didn’t fight back against my attacker. I wasn’t given the choice. I did what was necessary to survive. That doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t make me at fault. It doesn’t make me helpless or wrong or dirty or damaged. Neither does it make me unworthy of love or affection from a whole, kind, well-adjusted person. Not anymore.

More than anything, it makes me want to listen, and honor the part of me that always knows best. The warning lights — the gut instincts — the icky feelings of uncertainty. They’ll be my best teachers for whether or not another person is safe for me to engage with. I can only hope that I will keep listening. That I will continue to have a choice. That my voice will be heard by those who I choose to place my trust in. That is all I ask, as I continue to move forward.

Home Again, Home Again

Home Again, Home Again

Casual Sex Doesn't Do It For Me Anymore

Casual Sex Doesn't Do It For Me Anymore