So obviously this post talks about rape but also about painful sex and potentially abusive relationships. Do take care if you want to read this.
I am 18 years old. Recently, my friend raped me (more than once) and now I am afraid of sex and I personally dislike the whole process. Are you sure, like 100% sure, that IF I decide to ever get married or have sex again that (1) it will NOT hurt (2) it is a normally strange thing to do with someone you love to the moon and back?
Thanks so much for your question. I’m afraid that I can’t be 100% sure that you will be okay with sex, but I’m going to try and give you some advice so you can make it as good as you can. Some of this stuff you might not be able to do by yourself, so I really recommend that you find some professional support to help you with this stuff too.
PS this is long, and I think the best advice is at the end, so keep reading.
About What Happened
We had a quick chat about this on email so I know that you have been able to tell people close to you about what happened. Well done you. It can be really hard to tell people about this kind of stuff but getting that support is the best thing for you right now. There’s only so much that I can do sitting in front of my laptop (typing and thinking mostly – also I just had a cup of tea and a custard cream).
If you need any more support you might want to get in touch with RAINN where you can find support locally (for UK readers you might want to go to the Survivors Trust). They might be able to put you in touch with support groups, or counselling, or someone to talk to locally. You could also get some support from them via their phone or live chat services. If you are at college/uni there might be some counsellors or support staff who can help. If there’s a sexual health clinic near you (like a Planned Parenthood) you might be able to chat to people about this there. If you just want to chat online you might find some supportive folk in the forums over at Scarleteen.
It can be really difficult when people are survivors of a rape or sexual assault because it can sometimes make people feel powerless. You may also have a lot of different mixed and confusing thoughts and feelings. The fact that you are able to tell people close to you about it, to think about your future and to ask me for advice is a good sign for you.
So even if you feel you are really struggling I’m here to tell you, well done. It takes a lot of bravery and courage to face up to this kind of stuff. You’re going to have days where you feel awful, days where you feel great and days where you feel somewhere in between. But by being this brave and thoughtful makes me confident that you can get past this, even if you can never forget it.
Anyway, on to your actual question …
Sex Should Not Hurt
A lot of people are taught that consensual sex hurts for the first time for cis young women (or anyone with a vagina). This is total bollocks* (*UK speak for ‘piffliing nonsense’). Sex shouldn’t hurt (unless you’re doing something consensual like a love bite or a spank). If something is hurting it’s a sign that we should stop, because if we don’t then we can be damaging our bodies more. For example, when I accidentally forget to wear oven gloves when I take my fish fingers out of the oven (not a euphemism), my body says ‘ouch’ to stop me burning myself.
Because people are taught that sex hurts for girls (particularly for the first time – as this extremely irresponsible NHS article says) they just carry on, hoping that the pain will go away. This can cause damage to the vagina or the vaginal corona and can also really put people off having sex for a long time.
There’s more information here about why it shouldn’t hurt (and why the opening to the vagina is not called the hymen). Basically, if you are really wanting to have vaginal sex and are really excited about it then your vagina will usually be wet and relaxed. If your vagina doesn’t do this by itself you can make sure that it’s wet and relaxed by using lubricant and masturbating first.
I’m guessing (from your question) that when you were raped, it may have hurt. If you are being made to have sex then it can hurt because it’s very hard to relax and, like I say above, if you’re tense it will be more likely to hurt. This may also happen to you in the future too if you try to have this kind of sex again, even if it’s consensual, because you might find it difficult to relax. I’m sorry that I can’t guarantee it won’t.
[Important side note. This is not to say that everyone who is raped finds that it hurts their vagina. Some people can be aroused even if they definitely do not want to have sex. There’s a difference between wanting sex and being aroused, they are not the same thing. More about that here.]
So it’s important to remember that if something hurts or feels really uncomfortable then you should stop. It’s also important that anyone you have sex with stops if they think that you are in pain, feeling uncomfortable or not enjoying it. This all goes for anyone reading this.
Because of what happened to you, you might be having really difficult thoughts or flashbacks or memories. This is often known as ‘triggering’ and it can be really difficult to deal with. When someone gets triggered by something traumatic they might: panic and get out of breath and dizzy, or they may want to run away, or cry uncontrollably, or just freeze and shut down. If you’ve experienced this for yourself you may have your own signs of triggering.
Sadly, even if you go on to have consensual sex in the future you can be triggered. This is because you (and your body) might remember the kinds of touch that were really traumatic for you when sex wasn’t consensual. I’m afraid that you are not going to know for sure whether you are going to be triggered or not. You might also not know what kinds of sex or touch are going to trigger you.
So because you don’t know how you might react it’s best to be prepared for it. Just like with any sex that is painful, if you are starting to feel any symptoms of being triggered then it’s good to notice them as soon as possible and take a time out. You may need to tell anyone that you’re having sex with that this is something they will need to watch out for. Say something like: “there are times when I might just need to stop everything right away. So if this happens, it’s okay, but please give me space and time to calm down [or whatever it is you will need].”
You will hopefully find it easier to communicate this with someone that you can trust and feel comfortable with. However, I can’t guarantee that you won’t get triggered or have difficult feelings during sex. Sometimes it might happen and you just have to get through it, recover and try and learn for next time.
Different kinds of sex
I can’t promise you that sex won’t hurt or that you won’t get difficult feelings during it. However, I think you will find it a bit easier if you can start to think about there being different kinds of sex. A lot of people think that Hollywood or porn sex is the only kind of sex that counts. You know: kissing; nakedness; stroking; oral sex, followed by; penetrative sex. This is just one script for sex (that we keep seeing over and over and over again so we think that it’s the only kind of sex).
In the movies and in porn one thing always leads to another. IRL one thing does not lead to another. If you just want to snog, it’s absolutely okay to just snog and that’s it. Many people are totally chill with just snogging for half an hour and that’s it. Other people like to keep their clothes on and rub each other all over. Some people like to get naked, then cuddle and stroke each other. Others like to massage each other. Others like to lick each other. Others like to masturbate either themselves or someone else.
Others just like to only have sex with themselves which you could totally consider doing for a bit. If you can learn to give yourself pleasurable/sensual/sexual feelings then you can have sex which not only doesn’t hurt or feel strange but can be super super enjoyable!
If you can start to think about what kinds of sex you might like then you might be able to have sex that ends up being really enjoyable. You could deliberately try doing things that you are confident won’t trigger you. For example you might want to avoid doing some of the things that were done to you without your consent. If you can start to do things that you want (and that a partner is happy to do with you) then you can start to have a nicer time with sex but also get a bit of control back.
If you can sloooooooooow everything down, and get off the sex train, then you might be able to find some things that you enjoy. If you want to do this with someone you are going to need to find the right person.
Finding the Right Person
Sadly, just being in love with someone to the moon and back will not guarantee that sex will be great. It might feel strange, or not very enjoyable and it may even be not consensual (like with your friend). I think that there are more important things than ‘being in love’ with someone if you are going to have a happy relationship and a good sex life. Sadly, sometimes people ‘fall in love’ with people who can treat them really really badly.
So I think it’s more important that you find someone that: you can trust; can communicate with; and, is patient with you. Maybe you might love this person or end up loving this person, and yes maybe you might even want to marry them. But the most important thing is that you have a healthy relationship with them first. I’ve written a guide here to help you to work out whether you are in a healthy relationship or not, so this may help you for the future.
But Here’s the Best Bit of Advice – Ready?
I’ve saved the best bit of advice till the end. It’s good to end on a high. Here’s the advice. Ready?
Many people don’t have sex and don’t have romantic relationships and are totally totally blissfully happy with this. They have different relationships, like: friends, family, pets, spiritual, community, teams, colleagues and a relationship with themselves. If you are interested in finding out more about being asexual or aromantic you can head to this awesome website to read up some more about it.
It might be that you want to take a break from sex and romance for a bit too: maybe for a few weeks, months or even years. That’s all cool too. The important thing right now is that you really try to think about what it is that you want for you.
Treating yourself nice and treating yourself consensually is the single most important thing you can do right now. This is really hard to do because we live in a society that seems to have a lot of rules for us (get a job, get married, have sex, have kids, settle down) but it’s important to really listen to yourself. It might take practice so start with the small stuff.
Next time you fancy eating a chocolate bar really slow down and think about what it is that you want. Take as long as you need. Do you want something: well sugary; something small; a lot of ordinary chocolate; something smooth; dark with a fancy name; something with crunchy bits; something with a different flavour like mint or orange; something that reminds you of being younger; something completely different you’ve never had before….? Being able to do this is an example of self-care or self-consent. There’s more on this here.
Nearly there now
So to sum up: you don’t ever have to have sex or romantic relationships if you don’t want. If you do, slow everything down and think about the different kinds of sex you may enjoy. Try to find someone that you trust and can communicate with. Be aware that you may sometimes find it difficult and try to be patient. And please, if something hurts please stop. If you make any mistakes along the way, or if things feel really rubbish, try to be super gentle with yourself, slow down and try again. Maybe with a chocolate bar.
Here’s a whole bunch of other reading on consent and sex from me
As you are over 18 you might like the sex advice I write for grown ups with my mate Meg-John. We’ve done a podcast about triggering which you can listen to here. We’ve also written a book ‘Enjoy Sex (How, When and IF You Want To)’ which is all about consent and learning what it is that you might enjoy.
Hope that’s been helpful. Wishing you the very best.
© Justin Hancock, 2017