The Dating Advice Therapists Give Sexual Assault Survivors

Jane on "Big Little Lies" is starting to date years after being raped. Here's the advice therapists give real people in the same situation.
Jane braved a date with her co-worker Corey in Season 2, Episode 3 of "Big Little Lies."
Jane braved a date with her co-worker Corey in Season 2, Episode 3 of "Big Little Lies."

It can be incredibly difficult to have a healthy relationship and sex life after sexual assault: Years and years can pass before you feel connected enough to your body to even think about getting intimate with someone.

On Sunday’s episode of “Big Little Lies,” we got a rare depiction of just how complicated the experience can be: Years after Perry assaulted her, Jane (Shailene Woodley) decides to give Corey, her co-worker at the aquarium, a chance.

Their date isn’t without its hiccups: Corey goes off on a long, unwieldy tangent about sustainability and the sourcing of seafood, which Jane luckily seems to find endearing. And then there’s the botched kiss: Corey goes in to kiss Jane and she flinches and pulls away.

“It’s not you,” she tells him after he apologizes. “I just have to idle on neutral for a little bit, that’s kind of my M.O. right now.”

“Jane knows she needs to give herself time to process how she feels. And she asserts good boundaries by telling Corey she’s not ready to become physical.”

- Virginia Gilbert, a therapist in Los Angeles

Corey’s fine “idling on neutral,” and by the episode’s end, Jane’s walls have broken down a bit and the pair are slow-dancing in her driveway.

Jane’s reaction is a pitch-perfect representation of someone suffering from PTSD who’s trying to trust again, said Virginia Gilbert, a psychotherapist in Los Angeles.

“I think Jane demonstrates a lot of self-awareness in those scenes,” she said. “She knows she needs to give herself time to process how she feels. And she asserts good boundaries by telling Corey she’s not ready to become physical.”

Jane is making progress, in her own way. There’s no “right” way to start dating again after sexual trauma; it’s going to be jarring regardless, but there are ways to make it a little easier. Below, Gilbert and other therapists share the general advice they give sexual assault survivors who are starting to date again.

1. Take as long as you need to be by yourself.

After an assault, saying “no” to dates can feel like a form of self-protection. That’s OK. You’re on your own timetable with processing this: Be gentle with yourself and avoid rushing into dating, even if well-meaning friends and family push it on you.

If you dip your toes back into the dating pool and hate it, it’s entirely OK to pull back, said Megan Negendank, a psychotherapist in Sacramento, California.

“It’s fine for your needs to change,” she said. “Healing isn’t linear and you might feel good about going on some dates initially, but then notice your anxiety increasing and decide to slow down. Listen to this, be gentle with yourself ― whatever reaction you are having is normal! ― and communicate any boundaries you need.”

2. You plan the date, so you feel in control.

It’s completely natural to experience hypervigilance ― it’s a common symptom of PTSD ― when out on a date with a new person, said Kimberly Resnick Anderson, a Los Angeles-based sex therapist who works with trauma survivors.

“Due to PTSD, some women ‘freeze’ when faced with certain requests, like going on a walk at night with a guy they just met,” she said. “It’s that kind of trauma in the body that makes it hard to date.”

To counter that feeling and regain some control of the situation, take the lead and plan the date to a T, Resnick said. Meet in a public place where you feel totally comfortable, drive your own car or take an Uber there, set a predetermined end time and have an excuse ready to go. (For instance, “I have an early conference call, so I want to be back home by 10:30.”)

3. Coordinate a safety check with a close friend.

This is a good rule of thumb for anyone: To bolster your sense of security, let a friend know who you’re going out with and where you’ll be, said Stefani Goerlich, a therapist in Detroit who works with sexual trauma victims.

“If things are going well on the date, you can shoot your safety-checker a quick smiley and they’ll know that you’re having a great time,” she said. “If you’re looking to make an early exit, the safety check becomes your opportunity to make a graceful exit.”

4. You don’t have to talk about it with this person immediately.

There are myriad things you can talk about on your date. Your sexual assault doesn’t need to be one of them. You are under no obligation to share your experience with anyone you’re casually dating, said Kristen Diou, a counselor in Texas and the co-host of the podcast “Pop Culture Therapists.”

“Your story is yours alone, and you get to choose when or who you want to tell,” she said. “You can still set boundaries without sharing your story.”

5. Identify the signs that tell you someone is trustworthy.

Sexual assault can severely lower your expectations for men. Not every person is a threat, but it can take months, years or decades to regain trust and feel comfortable in someone’s company.

If the person you’re seeing is “safe” and worthy of your trust, Gilbert said they should have these three qualities: They should respect your boundaries without taking things personally. They don’t rush things or pressure you to change your mind about getting serious or getting physical. And last, their actions should match their words (if they say they’re going to do something, they follow through).

6. Make sure you’re comfortable with your sexual self before you get physical.

Enjoying sex again, or for the first time ever, can be difficult after sexual trauma. There can be a mind-body disconnect that makes it feel safer and less triggering to disassociate from your body rather than embrace it.

Before you have sex with someone else, you need to reconnect with your sexual self and get to know your own body again through self-pleasure.

“Touching yourself mindfully in your erogenous zones and finding out what it is like to feel your own touch can be a good reintroduction of your sexuality after the assault,” said Silva Neves, a London-based psychotherapist who specializes in sexual trauma therapy.

Breathe and deeply focus on the touch. But if you suddenly have images or memories of the assault when you touch yourself, definitely stop.

“That’s how you know these parts of your body need more self-care before you can allow someone else to touch you there,” Neves said.

7. Set good boundaries if things get physical.

Certain interactions with your date might trigger you: A certain touch might remind you of the assault and cause you to completely freak out. You can’t prepare yourself for all those moments, but setting sexual boundaries and hashing out a definition of consent helps. The right partner should be happy to oblige, Diou said.

“Some survivors feel like they are going to lose a great partner if they won’t have sex or be physical with them in the beginning,” she said “That’s untrue. The right person will understand and be respectful.”

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