Sex researcher discusses intimacy after sexual assault, how to talk about it with your partner

El Paso News

FILE – In this Jan. 20, 2018 file photo, a marcher carries a sign with the popular Twitter hashtag #MeToo used by people speaking out against sexual harassment as she takes part in a Women’s March in Seattle. According to a study published Monday, Sept. 16, 2019, the first sexual experience for many U.S. women was forced or coerced intercourse in their early teens, encounters that for some may have had lasting health repercussions. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — Many people in the U.S. will have an intimate partner who’s survived sexual assault, but many couples will never talk about it.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline reports that someone is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every 68 seconds and the effect can last a lifetime. One in five women in the U.S. has experienced a completed or attempted sexual assault, while almost 25 percent of men will face some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.

KTSM 9 News spoke with Nischa Phair, a trauma-informed care specialist and sex researcher, about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on survivors of sexual assault. According to Phair, lacking sexual education curricula across the country has compounded challenges of discussing issues of intimacy and sexuality with partners. 

“We’re not taught how to have conversations about sex and intimacy. We’re taught how to put on condoms and we’re taught how to prevent pregnancy and we’re taught where all of the bits are,” she said. 

A 2017 report by the Texas Freedom Network found 25 percent of the state’s school districts do not offer sex education and almost 60 percent teach abstinence-only approaches. An article in The Journal of Sex Research from 2018 examined youth pornography usage and found respondents reported they wouldn’t know “half as much” about sex without pornography.

Phair said that unhealthy attitudes about sex and intimacy often make an unhealthy impression.

“I hear more stories than I care to know about young women ending up in ERs or doctor’s offices because of things their partner saw on a porn and wanted to try,” she said.

More than half of women survivors of sexual assault reported their intimate partners as their attackers, which can make intimacy with future partners challenging. Phair explains it’s not uncommon for survivors of sexual assault to be triggered during an intimate experience and have a stress response.

Two of the most common responses are shutting down or “fawning,” which is a form of “grin-and-bear-it” submission to avoid conflict or harm.

“I think perhaps the most damaging effect of these responses is that once they’re triggered, they disrupt the connection we have to our language center, making it virtually impossible to say ‘no,’ or ‘stop,’ or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Phair said.

The pandemic has exacerbated mental health distress across the country.

The ubiquity of sexual assault in the U.S. is coinciding with a global decline in sex and desire over the past year and a half. 

Many sexual assault survivors, says Phair, have felt triggered over the course of the pandemic. 

“The idea of having to be alone, of having to be isolated, being forced to do something that you don’t want to do. All of these factors can force someone to re-experience their trauma,” she said.

Sexual assault can change a survivor’s perception of sex and researchers advise distinguishing between abusive sexual attitudes and healthy sexual attitudes.

Despite shifting attitudes toward intimacy and sexual assault, Phair said there is still not enough praxis.

“Women need more proof that it’s safe to say ‘no’,” she said.

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