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9 Ways Sexual Trauma Can Impact Your Postpartum Sex Life

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Healing from sexual trauma is a journey, and that ongoing process can look different depending on who you are and what recovery means to you. Since there’s a chance that your relationship to your body and mind will change as you recover, it’s no surprise that healing from sexual trauma when you're postpartum can be complicated.

Personally, I realized that pregnancy was going to impact my continued recovering during the prenatal physical exams. My personal relationship to touch, specifically with respect to strangers — yes, even if that stranger is a medical professional — touching or entering my body is complex, and changes depending on things like my mood or the state of my mental health. So when pregnancy hormones were taking over my body, and my already existing mental health issues were taking me for a psychological ride, my recovery journey hit a few speed bumps. It wasn’t until the postpartum period, though, that I really started to experience drastic changes when it came to my continued recovery from multiple sexual assaults.

While my own recovery journey is unique and the details are between me, my partner, and the therapists in my life, I spoke with Olivia Djouadi, psychotherapist and counselor, about different ways that healing from sexual trauma can impact your postpartum sex life. The following list is by no means exhaustive, but includes some different things survivors may experience while navigating their sexuality after giving birth:

1. Redefining Bodily Autonomy

When you spend a significant amount of time growing another human being inside your body, the phrase “get your body back" can take on a whole new meaning. This is particularly true when you’re feeling out of control of your own body, or dissociative.

Even breastfeeding can impact these feelings. Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed, like you don’t have autonomy over your own body and even though you feel blessed to be able to breastfeed, you can still feel stressed about the lack of space.

According to studies done by the London-Brent Health Research Authority, some parents even experience what researchers call Breastfeeding Aversion and Agitation (BAA) that can lead to feelings of "anger or rage, a skin crawling sensation, and an urge to remove the suckling infant, but can also be feelings of agitation and irritability whilst the infant is latched."

Given those types of complicated feelings, your changing feelings about autonomy can impact your desires related to touch.

2. Feelings Of Alienation & Fear

There may be moments where you feel alone or like no one else can understand how complex and complicated your feelings are. Maybe no one else can. But there are different types of support available that can help you navigate your feelings and concerns.

Researchers with the University of Western Sydney note that when it comes to sex in the postpartum period, some new parents "are fearful of the pain they may experience, fearful of the changes that have happened and how this may impact on their (and their partners) sexual experience. Some women also describe a fear of falling pregnant again and how that will inevitably result in having to give birth again."

There are moments when I feel defective or like a burden to the people around me, especially my partner. There are days when I feel jealous of people who have exciting sex lives as new parents. Sometimes I don’t have the words to explain to my partner why I feel nervous about sex and intimacy. Sometimes I just don’t have the energy and it can be alienating.

As survivors, it’s important to be honest and transparent about our needs and fears, and that includes during the postpartum period when we’re physically recovering.

3. The Weight Of Expectations

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A 2019 State of Motherhood survey revealed that about 30 percent of moms aged 23-38 say they had sex with their partner before they felt ready.

Part of this problem is that we’re bombarded with ideas about sex and intimacy that are informed by oppressive structures. This can lead us to think of sex and intimacy as things that are transactional or "owed" to our partners. Make no mistake, the so-called "six-week mark" is damaging and misleading, according to Dr. Anastasia Powell, PhD, who told News AU that male partners are ignoring the physical health of their postpartum partners, simply because at six weeks they believe they're "allowed" to have sex. But when it comes to our bodies, it is our choice what we want to do with them and when. As survivors, it’s important to be honest and transparent about our needs and fears, and that includes during the postpartum period when we’re physically recovering.

4. Unexpected Triggers

Some people use the word "trigger" flippantly or even a joke. As someone diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), triggers are a serious and sometimes debilitating aspect of life in recovery. But what exactly is a trigger? Simply, it's something — like a smell, sound, feeling, or other form of stimuli⁠ — that causes someone to relive a traumatic experience. In some cases, triggers can lead someone to avoid certain tasks, places, or activities. They can also lead to feelings of stress or anger.

"The logical and emotional mind do not always speak the same language," Djouadi tells me. This can lead to stressful moments when it comes to triggers in the postpartum period.

While I was pregnant, I dealt with some unexpected triggers during physical examinations. After giving birth, I did as well but I dealt with them while also trying to recover from a difficult labor. If you cope with mental illness as a result of past sexual trauma, you may find yourself experiencing new triggers. Some many even surprise you or make you feel guilt or new types of stress.

If someone, even your partner, touches you in a way that startles you or triggers flashbacks, it can cause anxiety or make you freeze up. It’s something that I’ve experienced and have discussed with other new parents who are also survivors.

5. Confusion About Pain

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Before and after labor, feelings of physical can lead to feelings of confusion. When it comes to survivors, Djouadi says that “their brains may confuse why the pain is there.” Some May feel that “their child is entering a world of unsafety,” and “this can occur especially if rapes have occurred more than once.”

In the postpartum period, this can manifest in different ways and sometimes lead to feelings of shame or guilt. When you’re recovering from sexual trauma, and have certain associations with pain and your body, new sensations and experiences of pain in areas where you once felt traumatic pain during an assault can result in strange feelings and concerns.

6. Coping With A Concerned Partner

"It may sound a bit silly, but have date nights out so you can reconnect as partners rather than only being parents because dads can also struggle after," Djouadi tells me. This is especially true, she says, “if they were present for a difficult birth or caesarean [because] they may worry about there partner being harmed by adult activity/ sex.”

For partners of all gender identities, watching their partner heal and recover after giving birth, and watching them do so while also coping with trauma, can be difficult. This can lead to some heavy, but important, conversations about boundaries, worries, and healing.

7. New Support Needs

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“Even if one sexual assault occurred, it may have replayed in her mind many times since then,” Djouadi says, so it's important to be mindful of the continued needs of sexual assault survivors. "Assaults don’t get erased, they get managed.”

When navigating postpartum sex and intimacy with your partner, they may not understand that your past traumatic experiences can impact you in the most unexpected ways. Some may even feel alienated or confused by your recovery and healing needs. Being open and honest about your feelings is imperative, and the help of a therapist can be good for everyone. You and your partner may have new needs when it comes to support to navigate the many changes you’re facing as new parents. With the added complexities of recovery from sexual trauma, you may need even more help to navigate these changes.

8. Discomfort In The Bedroom

Djouadi recommends that new parents take tit slowly. "Check to make sure everything is medically ok then consider talking to someone, whether its a friend who understands the situation or speaking with a therapist," she says.

It's also important to remember that being a new parent is difficult all on it's own and even without past harm, Djouadi tells me. "Speak with your partner about what would be helpful and then start when you feel comfortable. Remember your hormones will be up and down during this time as your body is readjusting. You might want sex one day then not much for a while. This can be confusing to the person you’re sleeping with.”

While everyone's needs are different, it might help to know that during this time you may feel more compelled than ever before to seek therapy.

9. You May Need Additional Therapy

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Djouadi recommends “psychotherapy and also taking steps to make connections” when you feel overwhelmed or like your daily life is heavily impacted by your emotional and psychological state. Even things like leaving your home or going to the park can be difficult.

“Many people may see these [activities] as normal,” she explains, “but to a mom with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) they might feel scary.” Djouadi says that “some people find online groups really helpful as other new moms may have been through something similar. If you’re in a populated area then there may be meet up groups to get support.” While everyone's needs are different, it might help to know that during this time you may feel more compelled than ever before to seek therapy.

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.