Kelly (surname withheld to protect privacy) was date raped at 25 and it wasn't her first assault. At 18, a guy she'd met at a nightclub forced her to give him a hand job with her right hand.

"The only really good thing that I ever took away from it was that I probably saved myself from actually getting raped that night," she says.



Kelly told her story to the ABC podcast Ladies, We Need to Talk, and as you'd expect, this story is pretty heavy with details of sexual abuse and trauma.

Being intimate and enjoying sex is a lot harder if you've been abused or sexually assaulted, but it's not impossible.

One in five Australian women over the age of 15 have experienced sexual violence and 1.4 million Australians have lived through childhood sexual abuse.

If you're dealing with the fallout of sexual assault, how do you pick up the pieces and be intimate again?

"I didn't have sex for three years. Honestly, I was like, you know what? I'll never do it again because I am terrified," Kelly says.

Kelly's two assaults have left her "completely scarred" — she's never had sex sober, but has slept with people since her assaults.

"And then the next time I would've cried for two hours and then after that, I cried while we had sex."

Dr Freedman hesitates to say women ever "get over" a sexual assault but believes disclosing what you've been through to a sexual partner is an important first step.

"Women may not be able to discuss the details of the assault, but to at least say to a partner, 'This is something that happened to me' … to be able to say something like 'Sex isn't great right now, but I would like to make it better'," she says.

"Maybe the goal is not crying during sex or maybe being able to complete a sexual act without asking to stop," Dr Freedman says.

Eleven years on from her first assault, Kelly now takes antidepressants for PTSD and depressive symptoms.

Last year, when Kelly started dating again, she built the courage to tell her sexual partner about her assaults.

Touching a penis still feels impossible for Kelly. She also experiences panic attacks if she accidentally uses her right hand to drive her car.

"If I let that be a problem, I'll never be enough for anybody, so what I need to do is just be really open about it and say: 'Listen if that's going to be a problem, let's cull it right here. We won't go any further. Because that's who I am'."

She says navigating intimacy after the fact is particularly challenging due to how our brains store trauma.

If we experience a similar environment to an assault, whether that be what we saw, heard or smelt, it can often trigger incredibly painful memories.

"Our brain then has trouble remembering whether the trauma is happening now or whether it happened in the past," Dr Moulds says.

More than 20 per cent of Aussie women say they didn't enjoy sex the last time they had it. So what does bad sex look like?

In Dr Moulds' experience, the first step is working out what feels good for you, while being very patient with your body.

The second step is recognising there's no pressure to jump into having sex right away and instead thinking about opportunities where you can build intimacy.

"If eventually you get to a point where you feel like you can be sexually intimate with somebody again, great. But that's not something that's expected of you or something you have to rush into straight away," Dr Moulds says.

"It's about having a conversation as openly as we can about what feels good for them and what feels good for you," Dr Moulds says.

Enjoying sex after sexual assault may seem like an insurmountable feat — but Chantel (name changed to protect privacy), who was sexually abused as a child, now manages a healthy sex life with her long-term partner.

Chantel was abused by a family member. She was five or six when it started. Her abuser called it a "game" and it started in the bath.

We want to explore and experience pleasure, but often we're too afraid to ask for what we want. Tanya Koens explains how to get those conversations on the table for better sex.

"That game very quickly turned into … he would attempt oral sex on me. And that just obviously progressed."

Chantel experiences complex PTSD and daily migraines from her abuse, and when she started being in an intimate relationship, there were many things she couldn't do.

"I'm more than happy to initiate sex on a daily basis … it's so freeing to be able to have complete control over my body and what pleasure it's able to experience," she says.

"Just say he's touching my breasts and it's not feeling so right … I'll say no, and I'll move his hands away. And he listens to that," she says.

"The fact that he really does listen to me throughout the experience means that over time he's gotten to know me and he knows when to touch me and when not to touch me.

"It's funny how my abuse was sexual abuse and yet the way I'm healing is often through positive sex with my husband … it brings me back to my own body.

Ignition coil

"And I can connect with my husband and I can now make eye contact. And it's a really, really great experience."

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