Navigating the Dating World After Experiencing Sexual Assault
by Rebecca Strong
Originally Published on Askmen.com
Nearly 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime, but there’s something important missing from that statistic: that’s only counting those who report it.
Sexual violence affects millions of people each year in the U.S., and data shows that the reporting rate is even less for men than it is for women. This may stem from a fear of showing vulnerability or being shamed, as well as simply not having access to adequate recovery and support resources. However you’ve chosen to pursue healing from sexual assault, at some point, you may decide you’re ready to start dating again. Opening yourself up to others can be an exciting, confusing, anxiety-inducing, and perhaps at times even triggering experience. That said, if you can honor your own personal needs and limitations, set clear boundaries, and take things slow, there’s no reason whatsoever why you can’t have an active, fulfilling love life as a survivor.
“Dating after a sexual assault is something that must be approached on an individual level,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. “The timing and the level of intimacy are dependent on the survivor’s experience and the lasting impact of that experience. The amount of time is far less important than comfort level and desire to date.”
Klapow notes that hesitation and some level of nervousness when approaching dating again are totally normal. However, if you’ve given yourself plenty of time and space to process your assault and you feel ready to put yourself out there again.
Below, you’ll find a few things that trauma experts want you to keep in mind in order to ensure that your dating experiences only support your recovery rather than hinder it.
8 Steps to Dating Again After Sexual Assault
1. Go at Your Own Pace
“Everyone will have their own timeline for dating after experiencing sexual assault,” says Sarah Melancon, Ph.D, a sociologist, certified sexologist, and the sexuality and relationships expert for SexToyCollective.com. “For some, it may be weeks or months, while others may take years — and there is no right or wrong.”
So how does one know when they’re ready to cross certain dating milestones? Noel Hunter, a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma and director of MindClear Integrative Psychotherapy, says it’s crucial to listen to your gut rather than feel pressured by friends, family, or society.
Part of the reason why it’s worth taking baby steps is that this allows you to gather information about the person you’re dating before dropping your guard emotionally or becoming intimate.
“I don’t believe any of us survivors will know how to truly gauge trustworthiness in others,” says Ron Blake, Director of the American PTSD Association. “And trust comes with time. But it’s not always about trusting our dates. You also have to trust your own heart. Your own mind. Your own body. Your own soul. Trusting ourselves can be one of the most difficult things we can do after this kind of trauma. I have learned it is possible.”
Above all, you should never let your date coerce, guilt, or otherwise manipulate you into taking steps you’re not quite ready to take — no matter how amazing they seem or how into them you are.
You’re in control of your own dating journey, so if at any point in time you need to take a step back, that’s totally OK.
2. Prioritize Safety
It’s well worth taking steps to make sure you’re always protecting yourself on dates, not only for your own peace of mind, but for your personal well-being, too.
For example, you might want to try vetting dates before hanging out IRL. If you met on an app, Hunter recommends having a virtual date or two first to get to know them a little better. Once you’re comfortable enough to meet up, she suggests scheduling dates in public places where you’re unlikely to ever be totally alone (like a park or a cafe patio). She also says it’s a good idea to keep friends in the loop about where you’re going and when.
Charna Cassell, a body-centered psychotherapist and founder of the Center for Passionate Living, proposes going on a group date rather than a one-on-one excursion.
“Casual group activities that enable you to be around friends you trust can help you feel more at ease,” she explains. “What's more, it'll allow you to see your potential lover in a group setting and how they treat others. Further, a group date gives you an intimacy buffer.”
3. Take Control
“Loss of control is at the crux of sexual trauma, which frequently fills survivors with shame and makes them hypervigilant,” says Cassell.
That’s why experts highly recommend taking charge from the get-go by setting the time and location for the date.
“Choosing a destination you're comfortable with — whether it's your favorite restaurant or a park close to your home — will offer a sense of ease,” adds Cassell.
Hunter also suggests putting a time limit on dates, at least in the beginning stages.
“These early steps of being empowered can really make a big difference down the road and help you feel strong and assertive,” she tells AskMen.
4. Vocalize Your Boundaries
Once you start to sense some mutual physical attraction, you’ll likely want to be upfront about what you are and are not OK with in terms of physical touch. If it’s helpful for you, you can certainly note that these boundaries stem from your assault, but keep in mind that you are in no way obligated to share your experience (or any details about it) if you don’t feel comfortable.
According to Hunter, you may want to emphasize what you do like and desire in terms of physical contact just as much as what you don’t. That said, don’t leave room for your date to guess or potentially misconstrue what you are ready for.
“The more firm you are with your comfort levels and boundaries, the more likely you are to be heard,” she says. “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. If someone makes you feel bad for vocalizing your boundaries, it might be a sign that this person isn’t for you.”
Sure, it may feel awkward, but embrace that awkwardness. Keep in mind that this is likely to be an ongoing discussion once it becomes apparent that you may be gently moving along on the intimacy front.
“Rather than trying to get it perfect, do your best to laugh at how weird it can feel at times,” says Melancon. “And center the discussion on what makes sex great for you both, which will include both boundaries and sources of pleasure. Asking your date what they enjoy and what they don’t can open up a broader discussion that makes sexual ‘yes’s’ and ‘no’s’ equally important.”
Melancon recommends asking your date about their turn-ons and turn-offs, what makes a sexual experience great for them, and what they’re interested in trying or not willing to try. Once they’ve opened up, you might feel more inclined to do the same.
5. Consider Going Solo When It Comes to Pleasure (at Least at First)
If you’re not ready for someone else to touch you yet, touching yourself can be a good way to explore what feels good in a safer environment. According to Hunter, the more comfortable you are with your body, the more comfortable you're likely to be with someone else.
“I am always a proponent of mindful masturbation,” says Cassell. “Reintroducing yourself to gentle, kind, nurturing touch and being fully present, being with the emotions that arise and feeling through them, can be enormously healing.”
This is a highly individualized choice, and as Klapow points out, while it may help with learning to enjoy arousal after an assault, it does not necessarily translate to security and comfort with another person.
“There are valid reasons a person may not want to engage in self-pleasuring,” adds Melancon. “Ultimately, what will benefit someone most is honoring their own boundaries, which may include a ‘no’ to self-pleasure.
Fortunately, Melancon says there are other ways to get in touch with your sexuality after an assault aside from masturbation: looking at your naked body in the mirror, for instance, or taking erotic photos for your eyes only. She also notes that yoga, meditation, and exercise may help you to connect to the body more generally.
6. You Don’t Have to Share Your Story if You Don’t Want to
You don’t owe any of your dates an explanation about your assault. As Cassell puts it: “Sharing what you endured is a gift, not an obligation.”
“I find that when you are willing to be vulnerable (with the right people) it invites their humanity and gives them permission to be honest about their own trials as well,” she adds. “Vulnerability breeds intimacy and connection. That said, practice discernment. Pay attention to whether your date shows compassion and respects boundaries. These are good signs that they will be patient and kind with where you are at and not push you to go faster than you are comfortable with.”
Sharing certain information may prove helpful as you begin progressing with physical intimacy. Again, though, you should only ever have this conversation if you think it will be empowering or beneficial to your dating experience in some way. As sharing can be triggering in itself, Melancon stresses that there is absolutely no rush on disclosure.
7. Be on the Lookout for Red Flags
Pay close attention to how your dates behave after you’ve set boundaries. If they get irritable or angry when you assert yourself, Hunter advises cutting ties immediately.
“Listen to their stories, with particular attention to how they relate to others,” notes Melancon. “If their life tales involve coercion, manipulation, or lying, chances are they’ll eventually attempt it with you. And notice how they handle mistakes, whether it’s a wrong order at a coffee shop or a disaster with their last work project. Someone who can own where they’ve been wrong is more trustworthy than one who deflects blame onto others.”
Some of the top signs that someone is trustworthy are consistency, reliability, honesty, clear communication, flexibility, good listening skills, and an ability to be transparent and vulnerable about their own life.
Your date should be polite, curious about you, and never try to initiate sex so early on that it seems that’s their primary goal.
“After experiencing trauma, it can be difficult to connect with and trust your intuition,” explains Melancon.
“It is entirely possible you may miss some flags altogether, and that’s not your fault — it is a function of your nervous system that is still healing. But, if you do sense something is off, try your best to trust that, even if they seem great otherwise.”
8. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Out Support
Dating again after an assault may feel overwhelming at times, but you don’t have to go it alone.
“While most everyone could use support in navigating dating and relationships, this is even more beneficial after sexual trauma,” says Melancon. “Trauma can distort the lenses through which we see the world, and sometimes others can see things more clearly than we can in the moment. Find a trusted friend, relative, or therapist with whom you can safely talk about your experiences, good and bad.”
If you don’t have a counselor, friend, or family member you feel comfortable talking to, keep in mind that you can call RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE). Trained staff members are available 24/7 to help you talk through your experience or find local resources that can assist with your recovery.