Getting Your Body Back: Sex After Sexual Assault

Warning: The following includes survivors' accounts of sexual assault, which some readers may find distressing.
Andrea* was 20 when she was raped by a friend at university. She didn’t acknowledge it as rape at the time, because it felt easier to ignore it. But afterwards, the physical truth of it became hard to ignore. It caused her quiet distress in all areas of her life, but Andrea found that the rape particularly changed the way she had sex. Suddenly, sex was triggering, something that became more pronounced when she got into a relationship the year after she was raped, with a man she now describes as selfish and controlling. “Essentially, sex felt like I was being raped again,” she says, “I had no agency over my sexuality.”
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After the relationship ended, Andrea found herself in her mid-20s, confused and entering a new phase where she tried to seize back ownership of her sexuality. In hindsight, she says, “There was an energy in me – anger or shame, a shaking tension. I felt like I should be having lots of sex – to show that I’m fine.” Andrea ended up being more promiscuous than was naturally comfortable for her, and it wasn’t liberating. “I would pick nice guys and be really sexually aggressive with them.” She sighs. “It was totally unfulfilling. It wasn’t about connecting; I floated away, I felt nothing.”

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Every year, 85,000 women are raped in England and Wales alone. 1 in 5 women between 16 and 59 report having been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 90% of the time, the perpetrator is known to the person who is raped. Andrea was not alone, and yet she felt it. At the age of 26, she decided to go into therapy to talk about what had happened, but it was only when she came across London’s Café V workshops – discussion groups about sex after sexual assault – that she met a bunch of other people who’d had similar experiences.
Café V is part of the My Body Back project, which helps women who have survived sexual assault with things that can be triggering, like going for a cervical smear test, or watching porn. Andrea heard about the programme through a friend, and contacted them about seeing their specialist doctor for a smear test at Barts Hospital in London. Penetration had been problematic – upsetting, even – since the rape, but this smear test ended up being different. “They didn’t ‘dive right in’,” she says, wryly. “We talked, they informed me about what was happening and they made me feel safe.”
When Andrea enrolled in the Café V workshops, she got a chance to confront how she had been feeling for almost a decade: “My own sense of sensuality and sexuality in my own body had become really grim, and it wasn’t until I worked on the shame and disgust I held that it started to get better,” she explains. “Café V was about exploring sexuality from a place of understanding that sex isn’t always great. We often talk about it like it is, but for a lot of people, sex is something you’re meant to do.”
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There was an energy in me – anger or shame, a shaking tension. I felt like I should be having lots of sex – to show that I’m fine.

My Body Back was started in 2014 by Pavan Amara, who is one of those everyday saints that harnesses the power of a bad experience to help other people. Pavan was sexually assaulted herself as a teenager and, afterwards, felt frustrated by a lack of services in the UK specifically helping women like her to reclaim their bodies. She felt compelled to write an article about it, interviewing dozens of women about their sex lives, or lack thereof, and how assault had changed them.
“The reason I wrote it, is that I wondered if it was just me,” she explains over the phone. “I had googled help but I couldn’t find anything on the topic – not one article. So I interviewed about 30 women across the country about sex and about their health, and you could see they wanted somewhere to talk about it.” Pavan liaised with psychologists and quickly set up Café V out of the female-run sex shop Sh! in east London. The group would take place on Saturday mornings, monthly, for the cost of a small donation.
Because Café V deals in delicate subject matter, the setup has to be very particular. A psychologist is always on hand to lend expertise to proceedings. Dr. Siobhan Marnoch, who has volunteered at the group, says that women who attend can choose whether or not to share details about themselves or their current experiences with sex, and that it’s fine just to go along and listen. This isn’t therapy, adds Dr. Jane Vosper, another clinical psychologist working in sexual health services at Barts, who has led sessions – something that’s laid out clearly from the start.
When Andrea attended Café V for the first time, she found a room filled with 10 other women of different ages and backgrounds, with different experiences of trauma. “They pulled a red velvet curtain around us, and there were pastries, tea and coffee,” she remembers. “I recognised myself in some of the other women, talking about self-blame, or freedom in their lives... some women said they’ve never talked for 25 years. We were all there together, and it was like, ‘In this moment, we’re OK’.”
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Pavan explains that Café V covers different themes each time, based on what attendees themselves have asked to discuss. They’ve looked at triggers and flashbacks, where Dr. Vosper offered tools and techniques to communicate with a partner when you’re potentially triggered, for example. They’ve also covered masturbation, says Pavan: “A lot of women said they felt guilty just washing their vagina in the shower after [being raped], so feeling a sensation properly in their body was really difficult for them.”
One recurring request was for a session on BDSM. “For that workshop we were completely oversubscribed, 60 women on a waiting list for 20 places,” Pavan remembers. “What was interesting is that, in the end, only about eight or nine women turned up. I got lots of emails from the women saying they felt really guilty for not coming but they were too worried or ashamed.” She recalls that the women who did go mostly said they felt like they were breaking a taboo – like they were replicating the abuse if they wanted to be submissive in sexual situations. They thought: ‘Why does this turn me on?’
Similarly, in another workshop, on fantasies, Pavan says one woman admitted that she thought about the place she was raped – someone’s flat– when she was having sex, years later: “When she said it, she said it with such shame, she was really sad.” Pavan remembers Dr. Vosper’s response, which was that, sometimes, the mind likes to take charge of situations it wasn’t in control of originally, and turn them into something else. “Perhaps it was her mind trying to reclaim that space where her sexuality was taken away from her. Perhaps it was about control.”

A lot of women said they felt guilty just washing their vagina in the shower after being raped, so feeling a sensation properly in their body was really difficult for them.

After a man or woman has experienced sexual assault, it’s common that sex and intimacy can become a prompt for recalling memories, emotions or images about the assault, Dr. Marnoch explains. Often, this can make sex a terrifying and unpleasant experience that women learn to avoid. “Women who may have ‘frozen’ or ‘dissociated’ during the assault, due to the body’s automatic drive for self-preservation, can also find that these states are triggered during sex later on,” she says, and they might experience a loss of sexual desire or pleasure, or have sexual difficulties such as vaginal pain.
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Café V aims to normalise these commonalities by giving women a place to talk about them openly, but it also offers practical strategies. Dr. Vosper says that, even though they’re not working to address trauma directly in the groups, it can be useful to introduce grounding techniques – focusing on sounds, sights and smells in the present moment, for example – in order to remind yourself where you are and that you’re safe.
“As the workshops are about rebuilding a positive discourse around sexuality, sometimes ideas from psychosexual therapy can be helpful, too,” says Vosper, giving the example of sensate focus, where you re-engage in a safe and graded way with non-sexual touch before moving onto sexual activities.
“'Pineapple' was the safe word,” remembers Andrea, “we’d say it in the group if we felt like we needed to stop.” Attendees were invited to say at the beginning of her session if there were any words or things they didn’t want in the space, and they were told they could leave any time they wanted. “It felt like it was about empowering us to keep ourselves safe, like it was our own responsibility to stay with ourselves and notice if we didn’t, so we could do some work, and not tiptoe around the fact that we were all there because we’d been raped.”
Dr. Vosper admits that it’s almost impossible to avoid triggers altogether and that, because there can be up to 25 women in a group, it can be hard to monitor everyone’s wellbeing. “We ask that if women notice that some of the content discussed is triggering, they take a break in a room downstairs or nearby. We can talk afterwards and help signpost them to appropriate services or suggest seeing their GP for appropriate referrals,” she says, reiterating that Café V is not a substitute for therapy, but something that probably works best alongside it.

It’s shown me that sex isn’t just about penetration, and it’s reminded me about agency – how knowing what you want in sex should be like knowing when you want a cup of tea, which is hard when you’re tied up in shame.

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These days, Andrea doesn’t have sex. “But I do consider myself very sexually active,” she says. “I masturbate a lot. And I feel like I’m in touch with my sexuality as I go through the day.” She says she’s starting to feel the way she did before she was raped – excited and powerful – and is getting ready to have sex with a partner... just as soon as she can be bothered to date again and find the right person. “I’m not in a rush,” she says firmly.
Andrea credits Café V with getting her to this point, and lists the various ways it has helped. “It’s given me information, tools, it’s shown me that sex isn’t just about penetration, and it’s reminded me about agency – how knowing what you want in sex should be like knowing when you want a cup of tea, which is hard when you’re tied up in shame.” She says she’d absolutely recommend it to other women in a similar position.
The good news for people like Andrea is that Pavan has recently been granted funding to take Café V nationwide; “Glasgow, Cardiff, Dublin, Belfast... so many women were coming from across the country, it just needed to be done,” she says excitedly. The tour comes courtesy of a donation from Lush Cosmetics, and booking will be available soon via the My Body Back website.

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On top of that, My Body Back is branching out, having recently decided to offer sessions specifically aiding survivors of FGM. When Pavan got a call from Leyla Hussein, a Somali psychotherapist and social activist around FGM, the pair decided to work together. “We swapped notes,” Leyla explains, “and thought, let’s not do this in isolation.” Leyla believes FGM is sexual assault in itself, although a lot of her clients have been separately sexually assaulted.
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“The benefit of Café V is it’s focussed,” says Leyla enthusiastically. “Other clinics often have five or 10 minutes to see you, but this is an hour.” Leyla will be facilitating Café V sessions later this year, working with an art therapist, too. “I would encourage women to come along,” she urges, explaining that drawing will be used as a means to discuss FGM openly. “It’s about reclaiming sexuality and voices. We’re trying to get rid of the shame.”
While Leyla describes Pavan as her “(s)hero”, Andrea gushes about what a help she’s been. The work Pavan has done – on the side of a full-time day job – and her openness about her own experiences, has clearly set a precedent for other women to speak about what they’ve been through.
In a world where rape is a terrifying commonality, and at a time when the stigma surrounding sexual assault persists, at least there's a small room in east London – and soon, around the country – where women who’ve been raped are taking care of one other.
“A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had the language to talk about sex at all,” says Andrea at the end of our call. “Now, I’m the girl who talks about wanking all the time.”
Rape Crisis offers information and support for anyone who has experienced sexual violence of any kind.
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