The Hook Up: Navigating Sex After Assault

How can people separate consensual BDSM from rape in their minds? I realize there’s a huge difference, but it’s been a problem for me lately and whenever I try to look up “kinky sex advice” I only find information on how to tie better knots and stuff.

I’ve been realizing more and more lately that I really like being dominated and degraded during sex. Nothing makes me hotter. I also have a boyfriend who’s more than willing to help me indulge my fantasies. The problem is that I’m also a former victim of sexual assault. It was a few years ago now and I’ve worked through the worst of the trauma that I had, but the memories still haunt me from time to time. As a result, when I have my awesome kinky sex with my awesome, loving boyfriend I’ll often start off feeling fine, even thrilled, but then suddenly remember the time that these things weren’t consensual and start to feel terrible. It completely ruins the sex for me.

The same thing happens when I watch kinky porn. I’ll be enjoying myself and then see an expression that looks pained or sad on the tied-up woman and then my brain immediately goes RAPE! even though I logically know that she’s probably quite enjoying herself. How can I thoroughly separate my ideas and memories of assault and rape from the joys of kinky consensual role-play?

Anna says: I think you’re having trouble finding information because the core of your problem has very little to do with “kinky sex advice” and everything to do with overcoming sexual assault triggers. A trigger is something that sets off a memory reel or flashback that transports a person back to their original trauma. Triggers are most often in the realm of sight and sound, but any of the five senses can set off a flashback. A common trigger is seeing abuse, whether real or performed, such as the kind that exists in the kink porn you sometimes watch. But it could be anything really.

Since I’m not an expert or trauma counselor, I reached out to Heather Corinna, author, activist, educator and  founder of the amazing sex resource site Scarleteen, as well as numerous other projects you can read about at her afore-linked website. Corinna’s writings on sexual assault are intensely personal and necessary and smart. I highly recommend them. Corinna notes: “One thing a lot of us are unprepared for is that sometimes the closer we get to someone, the more our triggers can come up: we often assume the opposite will happen. But hey, the closer we get the more vulnerable we will be and feel, so often triggers can come up in our deepest, healthiest relationships, rather than the other way round.”

Let me also say that I applaud you for your insights and resilience and your head-on confrontation of your past. Silence is never the answer to the ugly and scary and f—ed up, and I commend you for your wherewithal to take back control of your body and desires. It sounds like you’re on the right path. You’re connecting dots between your sexual experiences and the emotions that correspond with them. Unfortunately, self-awareness is only one small part of the battle. Self-awareness is the step-ladder and our emotions are the Eiffel Tower. I wish it were different, that we could rationalize away those messy and upsetting feelings, that we could tell our brains, “I am OK” and our bodies would follow suit.

Here’s Corinna again: “I’d check to see if she’s had any help or support learning how to identify and manage triggers, sounds like she hasn’t.  We’re going to be triggered sometimes, but we can learn what those triggers are and find ways of managing them.  We don’t have to just try and avoid them, something we’re probably not going to want to do if they are coming up with things we enjoy and want.  Maybe, for instance, she and her boyfriend can find something one or both of them can do or say when she gets triggered to help bring her back to the moment, comfort her and affirm what’s happening is wanted and consensual.  Too, sometimes being triggered might mean sex for then needs to stop, and that’s okay.  It’s okay for a sexual experience to stop or for us to need to switch gears: it’s so not the end of the world, and people who have not been abused or assaulted need that sometimes, too.  So, it’s also not a ‘Oh, we have to do this thing for the poor, breakable, wounded abuse victim,’ which will of course make us feel like crap.  It’s something that can and often does happen with anyone, that anyone can need and will at least every now and then.”

In terms of support, I’d suggest you check out RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), which is a tremendous resource. They offer free and confidential phone counseling 24/7 through their hotline (1.800.656.HOPE), as well as a comprehensive, searchable database of local counseling centers throughout the U.S. If you live in a city, there are probably support groups near you that have a kink or BDSM focus. I’d look into some. You never know what help exists until you look for it. Corinna also suggests Staci Haines’ books if you want further reading material.

RAINN also has tips on what to do if you realize you’re experiencing a flashback:

  1. Tell yourself that you are having a flashback and remind yourself that the actual event is over and you survived.
  2. Breathe.
  1. Take slow, deep breaths by putting your hand on your stomach and taking deep enough breaths that your hand moves out with the inhalations and in with the exhalations. This is important because when we panic our body begins to take short, shallow breaths and the decrease in oxygen that accompanies this change increases our panicked state. So increasing the oxygen in our system can help us to get out of the anxious state we are in.
  1. Return to the present.
  1. Use your five senses to ground you to the present:
  1. See: What’s around you? Make a list of the items in the room; count the colors or pieces of furniture around you.
  2. Smell: Breathe in the smell of lavender, or focus on the smells around you.
  3. Hear: Listen to the noises around you, or turn on music.
  4. Taste: Bite into an apple. Focus on the flavor and juicy sensation in your mouth.
  5. Touch: A piece of ice, or hold a stone. What does it feel like?
  1. Recognize what would make you feel safer.
  1. Wrap yourself in a blanket; go into a room by yourself and close the door, whatever it takes to feel as if you are secure.

There’s no correct way to get over something traumatic, though in my readings and experiences, BDSM can be a very effective outlet for recovery because it’s a retelling of a story where we can control the outcomes. By defining the parameters of a scene in a safe and constructive way, such as with a loving partner, we can find understanding, healing, catharsis, as well as eroticism, desire, orgasms, etc. Remember also that if you’re going to build a fire, you need to have a water can nearby. You should be using lots of safe words in your play. You should negotiate a lot before and after. Discuss your limits. Discuss what you’ll do if something goes wrong or if you find yourself slipping into a negative headspace. Honor your feelings as they come up, but try not get stuck blaming yourself if something doesn’t work out the way you expected.

And, I’m sure you know this, but just as an advice columnist PSA: While BDSM can be healing and cathartic, it’s not a substitute for therapy. In other words, you can’t expect to work out all your problems in the sack, and I highly encourage you to seek out the resources listed above as you move toward recovery and more, hotter, loving sex with your partner.

Good luck!

Hailing from the rough-and-tumble deserts of southern Arizona, where one doesn’t have to bother with such trivialities as “coats” or “daylight savings time,” Anna Pulley is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. Find her at and on Twitter @annapulley. Send her your Hook Up questions at

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