I recognize that nobody is going to nominate me for the annual person of the year award in the above mentioned community, but I am good with that. I will just put something else in the spot on my shelf that I had reserved for that award. The truth is that while the immediate therapeutic response to a victim of sexual assault is often wonderful and compassionate, the long term response actually inhibits recovery and growth. I believe the reasons for this failure go much deeper than I am able to see, but what I can see disturbs me greatly. I do not suggest that the dedicated but often deeply broken people who work in the field intend to do any harm. Nothing could be farther from the truth. However, I do believe the failure of the therapeutic community to transition the client from victim to survivor does harm in that it stunts growth, makes social interaction with a broad range of people much more difficult, and profoundly cripples potential life partnerships. The result is that the victim remains a victim, and misses out on the full life they deserve.
In the short to medium term after being traumatized, a victim needs to know that s/he is safe and in charge of their own physical self. They need to be reminded, often repeatedly, that they have the absolute right to make their own choices, establish boundaries, ask for their needs to be met, and be respected at all times. There is physical and psychological healing that needs to happen, and while the physical wounds often heal quickly, the psychological wounds take longer. I suggest that because the treatment community, especially the front line treatment community, is made up of a large percentage of assault survivors who have not done their own work, they do a profound disservice to survivors in that they unconsciously seek to keep them in the victim stage by presenting their own dysfunctional responses to their own trauma as appropriate and normative when they are not.
The goal of treatment and recovery, whether from trauma, addiction, an accident, or anything else, should be a return to as full a level of participation in life as possible. In some cases, full participation isn’t possible and the therapeutic team then works to help the person achieve as much as they possibly can. Quite often the refrain from sexual assault recovery folks in my part of the world is “you never have to have sex again if you don’t want to.” That’s an absolutely true statement, as far as it goes. However, if you are ten, twenty, or more years in recovery and still choose not to be physically intimate, you aren’t likely to have a partner for very long. The reason isn’t that your partner is a defective human being, or lacks understanding, or only cares about himself or herself. The reason is that all people have needs. No single person will meet all of our needs, and that’s normal. In our culture, however, it’s generally believed that the need for intimacy is appropriately satisfied within our primary relationships. Therein lies the problem. If one partner steadfastly refuses to be intimate with their partner, the relationship is already fractured.
I am absolutely not saying that anyone should do anything outside their comfort zone. For example, some women who have an assault history are never able to accommodate penetration of any kind. If that’s the case, the couple can work together to find a level of intimacy that is comfortable and meets their needs without penetration. I don’t need to detail those options for you here. If you don’t know the options, Google them. If you’re aren’t capable of intimacy on the very basic level of touching, cuddling, holding hands, scratching someone’s back, and similar things, why are you even interested in being in a relationship? If you are in a relationship but can’t bring yourself to make a commitment to your partner to work on find a way to be intimate, why are you remaining in the relationship? If you are the partner, why are you staying?
I suspect I know why the partner is staying. That are staying because they don’t want to take the heat for leaving. You will never be seen as the good guy if you leave someone who has been assaulted because they aren’t capable of being intimate or interested in working toward that goal. That is all but guaranteed. My question is, how long are you willing to remain in a profoundly dysfunctional relationship because of what other people will say? When do your needs matter? When will you call an end to the profound sense of loneliness and rejection you have been living in for years?