Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo

Reclaiming sex and romance after assault: The Less Spoken

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Nanyang Tech chapter.

Trigger warning: sexual assault

Love, sex, romance. For many of us, these are experiences we will not miss out on, and neither do we want to. Feeling lost in an ocean of feelings. Or being inside on a rainy day with a cup of hot cocoa. Or being at the peak of a rollercoaster with a maddening, possessive and overwhelming presence blooming in your chest. Or falling into bed after a long day. The fairytale that Disney films promised that we all secretly still desire. 

For me however, intimacy came at me like a monster that forced my flower to bloom. Many people understand rape or assault as violent and grotesque, commonly synonymous with sexual violence. Yet, rape could also be anything outside of consent. What do we make of the situation when I was coerced into believing intimacy was part of the package to the perpetrator’s pursuit to understand me, when in fact, I was merely an available meat dangling within his radar?

 Intimacy. It is when you allow someone to see you for who you are, to know what makes you a being. And that’s where I thought I stood. But when I let them peel off my clothes, my hands gripping tight to the edge of the fabrics, it wasn’t a “Please use me”, it was a “Please love me.” When I looked into their eyes as they straddled above me, it wasn’t a “Please penetrate me deeper” but a “Please, stop. I’m scared.” My submissive eyes weren’t a seduction call but a plea for help. When my body froze as their hands made their way down, it wasn’t submission, it was surrender.

Many people are familiar with the fight-or-flight response to sexual assault, but this binary classification has always left me feeling alone in my pain. I was confused as to why I reacted so differently, why I neither had the courage to go against the perpetrator — maybe kick him in his nuts like many have made it out to be so easy to do — or simply, just run. I simply remained still and my mind just blanked out, not registering what was going on. Thankfully, I stumbled upon this term – the flop response – while reading up on trauma responses in After the Quake by Haruki Murakami. The flop response is a counterpart of their much more popular sister, the freeze response. 

The flop response, albeit similar to the freeze response, differs in that the body becomes limp and disconnects both physically and mentally from the present situation. Possibly because it makes the violence of the act more digestible when one cannot remember the details. I came to realise that this was what I exhibited during the assaults, which perhaps left my perpetrators oblivious to my pains, or at least made it easier for them to dismiss their violations and brush it under the rug. 

If one exhibits such responses, it becomes unsurprising that one would have difficulties communicating one’s concerns, since a flop response would mean a zombie-like submission which neglects expression of one’s needs. Following the assault, I fell into a pattern of passivity communicating my difficulties and fears in the bedroom. Difficulties experiencing intimacy aren’t necessarily obvious. Some can fall into introversion and become closed up while others may experience the inability to be aroused, inability to express affection, communication difficulties, people-pleasing behaviours… which will spill over into their relationships and affect their experience of sex. 

Certain moments in the bedroom could trigger a flashback because it could be an action done during the assault, causing me to shrivel up rather than act out. For example, if the memory of the assault surfaces during an act of intimacy, I might not feel any arousal because my body has retreated into itself, as a form of protection for fear of the event being repeated. A flop response yet again. 

Even when a survivor is ready to have sex, issues like anxiety and flashbacks can still rear their ugly heads. It is definitely difficult to want to have sex, or enjoy it, when intrusive thoughts about my assault linger in my head. Or worse, triggers arise when having sex. Avoiding triggers after sexual assault can feel like a walking through a minefield. From the most innocuous of things like smells, colours, specific objects, verbal tics and sounds. For instance, a hand around my waist could send me into flop mode even though the act on its own is non-sexual. Just because this was a move my abuser pulled right before sexually violating me, feeling a hand on my waist automatically becomes interpreted as a threat by my body. On top of that, it is challenging figuring out what my triggers are until I am placed in the situation and flashbacks occur, or my body tightens, which then I realise, “Oh. Here we go again.” It is a conundrum, isn’t it? It is only through experiencing the triggers that I can avoid them in the future.

A yawning chasm between my mind and body continues to haunt after the assault, making it impossible to fully connect with another person. Even acts of intimacy from a partner I trust, or a partner I connect with outside of the bedroom, set off alarm bells of lust and danger instead of warmth and affection. 

Opening up about the experience to a partner was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, even though I know how absolutely crucial it was. Communication calls for a certain level of trust, yet, I am unable to let my guard down because the last and many times I did, they saw it as bait and I became their prey. Having had one’s idea of intimacy being warped into an act of violation, it becomes hard to accept acts of affection. When my partner does a thousand things to assure me, I would’ve trusted them in any other situation. But throw me in a bedroom setting and immediately, they become carnivores lusting for my flesh. Because that’s how I knew intimacy to be.

Understandably, I was confused about what intimacy looks like and what sex involves, and conflating sex with romance. Many times, the equation of sex to assault is instinctively formed in my head, causing me to feel bad about myself and my body because it has been associated with violence, manipulation and objectification. However, it is important to recognise that the thing that separates sex and sexual assault is consent. 

Aftercare is important to tackle post-coital depression, but this is even more so for assault survivors. Healing is often depicted as a linear journey, but with sexual trauma, flashbacks are not uncommon and it is very likely that the wounds would resurface, especially while navigating normalcy in the bedroom. What this means is that extra nurturing, care and tenderness has to be invested to ensure the trauma from the assault does not threaten one’s bubble of safety. Healing is repairing this bubble after the violation from assault poked holes at it, and intimacy after assault is going into sex or romance with a deflated bubble that needs to be gently re-pumped.

Angelina Sim

Nanyang Tech '23

Definitely a professional hoarder, niche area being tissues from Starbucks. Other professional skills include sleeping with music playing at full volume, knitting and cat-feeding. Way to her heart? Conversations on mental health and navigating around misogyny.