Kat Alexander’s sibling molested her when she was a child. She pushed down most of her feelings about that abuse until about a decade ago, when she moved back to her hometown and re-encountered the sibling, in the home where her abuse took place. That’s when the feelings came back, intensely. Ever since, Alexander has worked to find ways of navigating life with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—including ways of having an enjoyable sex life.
Over the past few years, Americans have gotten better at talking about rape and other forms of sexual abuse—and the lasting effects they can have on people. Numerous personal stories and expert explainers even detail for the public all the diverse, nuanced ways sexual trauma can affect one’s future sex life. People who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to sexual assault often develop negative associations with sexual sensations, and describe being in their own heads, or dissociating during sex, among many other possible outcomes. PTSD can also lead to a loss of sex drive, or an explosion of it.
Yet modern culture is still not great at talking about how people navigate those effects, and how they can find new sources of pleasure and release. Likewise, we are not great at talking about how their partners can work with them towards those goals, and overcome their own fears of re-traumatizing their partners. This may be because, as Tracy Clark-Flory wrote in Refinery29 in 2015, it can feel uncomfortable to mention sexual abuse and sexual pleasure in the same conversation. It can seem to many somehow wrong to look somewhere other than the pain.
But it isn’t. Finding a path through the effects of sexual trauma to a healthy sex life is, for many people, an important aspect of healing—of regaining control from an abuser and living their lives. As there is no one experience of sex after sexual trauma, there is no definitive guide for reclaiming one’s sex life. Still, examples of how some individuals have negotiated their sex lives after trauma are valuable. They show that people can develop their own paths forward.
To offer one such example, VICE spoke to Alexander, founder of Report It, Girl, a web platform helping “survivors of sexual violence heal through storytelling, resources, and community.” Alexander spoke to VICE alongside Dave (who did not want his last name used to preserve his privacy), her partner of the last three-and-a-half years, about how they navigate sexual intimacy.
Kat: As a teenager, and especially going off to college, I remember people hooking up with a lot of guys. I was super protective of myself, knowing what I’d been through. My first couple years of college, I kissed one boy. I was also very symptomatic in college [with] pretty bad PTSD, but I didn’t know what it was. I just knew I had nightmares and flashbacks.
As I progressed [into] my 20s… I couldn’t get the help that I needed and those traumatic memories recessed even further. [In 2009] I moved back home to San Diego for a PhD program in public health. My father, who had left when I was two, passed away from prostate cancer, so it was like a final abandonment. My mother had a full-blown manic episode, and I once again stepped in to rescue her. And I was, for the first time in a long time, around my sibling who molested me, in the house where it happened. So I had what I call this unraveling. This cocoon that protected all of these memories fell, and I went into full-blown PTSD.
Dave and I met three-and-a-half years ago; it will be four years on April 30.
Dave: I knew zero [about trauma-based PTSD and the ways it can affect intimacy before this]. I got to hear about it quite a bit when we started dating. I learned a lot. It came up quite a bit early on.
Kat: Early on, it was like: Here’s all my shit, because if you’re going to reject me, I want it to happen early on. I don’t want to waste time. So there was some front-loading.
In about 2011, I’d dated someone who turned out to be abusive. So it was a lot for me to open up.
Dave: I was compassionate towards her. She’d bring up [her abuse history]. I was accepting and we would move on from there. She would also share a little at a time, so I was never processing at once what had happened to her. I found out over the next year and a half the extent of things.
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Kat: I can talk about it now without being completely numbed out and dissociated. I’ve done the work to work through it. That doesn’t mean I’m not still impacted by it. There’s still, deep in my mind, that fear: If I share, is this person going to judge me? Because especially with incest—not to minimize people’s experiences of abuse by non-family members; we can’t compare abuse like that—there’s a huge taboo around it. But he was calm. He was grounded. He was loving.
Dave: [I noticed the effect her PTSD had on our physical intimacy] early on, maybe in the first week of dating. She broke down and started crying in the middle of sex. You wonder: Is it you? What’s going on? You start replaying everything in your head.
And I heard her story repetitively for the first couple months of the relationship. She would always read it back, all her life’s trauma, which was really tough on me. When you’re thinking about the future, to hit pause and hear about the story over and over, maybe several times a week, you’re doing a self-check in yourself: Is this normal? It took me about nine months to learn that the word heal can be an active and ongoing thing. You could go for the next 20 years trying to heal yourself. We [eventually] talked about holding space for people and living with boundaries.
Kat: The time I was most traumatized as a child was when I was asleep. So early on, I told Dave not to wake me up to be intimate, ever. That was a clear line, and he has respected it 100 percent.
Dave: Rules of engagement. That’s what I call them. I know she needs to feel connected [before sex]. So, yeah, quickies are out of the door.
Kat: That’s not totally true.
Dave: It’s not totally true. But there are times where, after the fact, she’s like, "I would have liked a little bit of foreplay or touching." You take these things into your brain and course correct going on.
Kat: For me to be in the moment and not be numb or dissociate or detached—like, Oh, sex, I don’t really want to, but I guess I’ll just do it—I slow down and say, "Hey, I really want to connect with you right now." Or, "Hey, I’m really tired and I just want to sleep." I’m really aware of what I need.
I am fascinated by what of that is the trauma and what is a normally functioning human being who wants her pussy eaten out. If I hadn’t been sexually abused, how would I be different?
Dave: There are moments when you sit and go, Wow, is this going to be forever? It’s almost like drinking or other types of problems. Is this going to get better or go away? You don’t know.
You take steps, though, until you feel really safe with each other. I probably started feeling like I wasn’t doing something wrong after a month, but only because we talked about things so much.
Kat: Early on, we did a lot of—we called it touching each other’s wounded parts. We learned how to slow down those moments where one or the other of us would be—I don’t like to use the word triggered, because it’s a very violent word to me, so I like to use the word activated. We learned how to, first of all, just name what we were feeling… Now we have it to a point where, on our better days, it will be like seconds: I’ll read his energy or he’ll read mine and I’ll be like, Hey. And we look into each other’s eyes and I’ll be like, "What happened?"
Early on, I remember, I did something that crossed one of his boundaries and it was like, Whoa, I fucked up here. He didn’t tell me about it for a couple of days. Then I was like, "Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize that had violated your boundaries. I will never do that again."
Dave: I grew up an extreme introvert and never shared my needs, feelings, wants with anyone. It’s been a strange learning experience, meeting Kat and expressing them. Early on, I held back… Definitely, when someone else is sharing something so big, it’s like, Yeah, mine’s not so big, there’s no need to share. So it was definitely a one-way street for a long time. But she was like, Let them fly.
Kat: One of my favorite things he does now is, if I’m upset or worn down, he’ll walk over to me, look me in the eyes, and say, "What do you need?" Immediately, it shifts everything. I never had a parent or family member ask me what I needed. I slow down, and take a moment: What do I need?
Dave: Sometimes [in our early days] sex would be normal and fantastic, and sometimes it would be more surrounded by woundedness. But we developed systems that could help and now we don’t seem to have those moments [of discomfort] as much anymore.
Kat: We did move in together about a year ago. That was a big shift, sharing a bed all the time. I’ve spent my adult life being able to make a snow angel in bed. I was actually concerned about, Is Dave going to want to have sex every night? My body will be right there. Maybe he’ll want to have sex. If I’m not in the mood, am I going to have to say no more often than when we saw each other a couple times a week and it was clear that this was time for us to be together?
Dave: Early on, we’d get together on the weekends and spend Friday to Sunday together and never go out. So our sex frequency was pretty much above average when we first started dating, which is not something you’d think about a relationship with somebody with these experiences.
Kat: He has a very high sex drive, and mine’s medium high, especially if I’m not stressed at work.
Dave: But as life hits us and we’re both working 14-hour days, it’s normal to just slow it down.
Kat: We make time. We book a couple of intentional date nights. And there’s such an attraction to him, just who he is and how he shows up. And with all the work we have done, I know I can ask for what I need. And I know that he’s held space for me and all the shit.
Dave: The trauma of rape and things from her early life, they don’t come up as much anymore. They’re being replaced by, like, Who paid the water bill? You just move on as a couple. Any challenges that come up now, we’ve grown into a better language of calling shit out right away.
Kat: It feels really safe for me, because early on there was so much discussion about my stuff and what I need that we built this tie. It felt like we were in a war zone. Now we’re in peaceful times. We can call back remember all the boundaries and layers.
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