Let me begin by saying I am not a specialist in any way except one- I've had to deal with a lot of what your loved one is feeling and expressing, and I think that makes me a specialist in the sense that I can relate to what is going around in their head at certain times. On the other hand, each person's case is different. The best judge of what anyone feels or thinks or wants is that person. So if you and your partner are up to discussion, ask him or her first. In all honesty, if you can't yet discuss it, you probably shouldn't even try to resume a physical relationship at this point.
Deciding to Touch
I can tell you that many, many people are simply not prepared to manage in an intimate physical or sexual relationship environment after they have been raped or assaulted. Some will go to extreme measures to "prove" that the incident didn't effect them too much- and as a result will go to exceptional lengths to assert a promiscuous attitude. Others will simply back away from contact, emotionally or physically- sort of a "grin and bear it" or "run and hide" approach. Many studies have shown that the hardest relationships to maintain after abuse or assault are the most intimate ones. The victim has a great deal to handle in learning to trust others and feel safe again. They may feel betrayed, worthless, frightened to open up to friends and family, self-judgmental or self-critical, even suicidal.
The best way to determine whether or not your mate is "touch-ready" is to ask. Always ask before touching your mate. At a certain point in their healing process, they are trying to determine how they feel about many things that they didn't have the chance to discover or control before. What used to be acceptable to them may have changed in their view. Healing is an ongoing process; it changes constantly. Never assume that anything that was okay for them before is still okay.
The Body Recall
Even if your mate has problems with memory gaps filtering out their traumatic experiences, that person's body will remember. The body's memory is a very effective trigger. Some common reactions you may find your mate displaying while trying to sort out their physical and emotional boundaries are:
Fear, especially fear of pain, darkness, or suffocation
Need to stop foreplay or intercourse for no "apparent" reason
Nausea or vomiting before, during, or after sexual activity
Cramping or other unexplained pain
Being triggered- often displayed by hand gestures, sudden silence, frightened facial expressions, or refusal to look at you
Overzealous attitude or display of arousal that often appears unreal
Crying or other emotional outbursts before, during, or after sexual activity
Inability to tolerate sensation of any kind
Dissociating, going out of the body or away from the present time's activities
Questioning their sanity, senses, feelings, instincts, or emotions
May want to shower or bathe often, especially after sexual activity
Feeling trapped or bound for no obvious reason
Panic attacks at sudden triggers may occur
Nightmares, unexplained waking in the night
Being startled easily by the sudden sound or appearance of another
Suddenly recurring behavior you suspect is associated with the trauma
Inability to determine the difference between sexual and non-sexual touching
Inability to be comfortable with their body as a part of their humanity
Inability to handle certain positions or postures without panicking
Being unable to or refusing to take joy or pleasure in the experience
Being ashamed or feeling indecent or dirty for participating
Being confused about what is pleasant and what is painful
This list is by no means complete. It is simply an example of some of the possible reactions one might expect from a victim of sexual abuse. Often there are so many reactions at the same time, your mate may have trouble registering how they feel. Any reactions your mate displays are considered "normal" under the circumstances.
If your mate is displaying any of the previous attitudes or behaviors, they are probably not quite ready to resume any sort of sexual activity-- even though they may not realize it yet. When your mate will begin to feel ready to resume any sexual activity is entirely up to them. There may be intermittent progress where the victim will be fine with some activities one day, and the next day may not be emotionally prepared for even a simple hug or kiss.
Impact on You and Your Feelings
It is important to realize that your mate is already feeling "different" enough. Judging their behavior is not helping them to recover. You can distance yourself from your mate's behavioral pattern by accepting it for what it is- a reaction to past or present internal or external stimulation. It is not directed toward you. I admit it is incredibly hard to do this, but may save your sanity and sense of humor in the long run.
It is fairly common for a victim to seem interested in sexual activity until a certain point, then suddenly seem as though they have disappeared into space. This is likely to register as rejection to you. Try to understand that this behavior is simply a defense mechanism rearing it's ugly head. Patience and understanding and a willingness to stop until your mate is more aware or less distant can be immensely helpful in reducing the stress related to these situations.
Asking if they would like to stop, or asking what they are thinking or feeling can help identify what is triggering that behavior. Allowing your mate to determine which boundaries are comfortable and which feelings and expressions are acceptable is essential. Always remember the body and person you are loving belongs to someone else- and they have the right to determine how it is treated, if at all.
Finding Other Methods of Helping
There are actually several resources available to singles and couples who wish to resume sexual activity after trauma. One is obvious- a good therapist or counselor can often treat couples as well as single people for trauma-related difficulties. There are numerous self-help books available also. One I often find myself recommending is A Woman's Guide to Overcoming Sexual Fear and Pain. This book contains numerous exercises used by many therapists around the U.S. and abroad. It is based loosely on the Masters and Johnson model.
There are also other philosophies to look into. Tantric or Karezzan practices can help to reduce the anxiety often accompanied by sexual activity after trauma. There are two exercises in particular that, if done properly and with respect for the person, have assisted many people to begin to feel more comfortable with their bodies after trauma.
Having your mate meditate or relax alone for a time before attempting any kind of activity may be of some assistance. Beginning with something non-sexual such as a massage, or allowing your mate to decide what and how and when any activity is begun is almost always helpful. Asking frequently how they are doing is an excellent way of keeping track of their emotional base. It is usually a good idea to avoid the use of alcohol or drugs, as these are common factors found during rape and assault and can be triggers for your mate. Some people find that keeping the lights on or having sunlight is helpful.
Being Observant and Cautious
If at any time you feel your mate is not responding in a manner that seems realistic or you suspect they are in emotional or physical distress- by all means, please be kind enough to ask how they are feeling. If at any point you are asked to stop, believe it is necessary for your mate's well-being that you do so. It absolutely is. Any time you allow them to be in control, it increases the chances that your mate will recover more quickly and fully.
An inconsiderate partner can re-route all the previously-done healing back to square one. Encourage your mate to be guiding and vocal about what they feel comfortable with. You should probably not attempt to experiment unless you are very familiar with your mate's triggers.
You can find out what your mate wishes you to do when he or she is having a panic attack or in the grip of some memory by being prepared for that to happen. Beforehand, asking them questions like "What would you like me to do when ______ happens?" may be helpful. Expect them not to know what will help. Offer to hold them in a non-threatening posture, or provide a comforting object for them to hold. Allow them to move freely to a position that feels more emotionally and physically comfortable for them. Try not to feel rejected if they choose to move away from you. Being suddenly and powerfully overwhelmed with emotions in a frightening way can force some victims to take a step backward in their healing. This is not necessarily a reflection on you; many times it is simply a way for the victim to re-integrate that emotion into their lives on a less threatening basis.
Expect them to cry or have other emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, and not to understand why or how they came to feel that way. It is rare for someone newly on the healing path to be able to distinguish how or why they feel something in a particular way at any given moment. Often there is some remaining sense of not feeling in control or sense of shame that can linger, even after they are feeling well for a long time.