A man raped me when I was 18 years old. I was just starting to get comfortable with my sexual self, and the assault forever changed how I approached sex. As I recovered, I renegotiated the process of creating a safe, healthy sex life — and found that some aspects of that sex life were actually better than before. But why?

Reclaiming a sexual identity has led some survivors to a similar place: They’re having better sex than they were before they were assaulted — and often they tie these improvements to the experience of coping with assault. These survivors can become more focused on pleasure, enthusiastic consent, assertive communication, and sexual exploration than they were pre-assault. This kind of post-traumatic growth has led survivors forward to more embodied, communicative, and pleasurable sex — not just for other survivors, but for all of us.

“I would never say [the assault] was a positive thing, and it still affects me really badly,” says Angela, a rape survivor. Even so, she found that in the wake of her assault her sex life improved — and her perspective on sex fundamentally changed. Angela worked with her partner towards more clear consent and made sure she was actively engaged during sexual encounters.

Before she was assaulted, Libby says she had a disembodied relationship with sex. “My first experience of it was somebody taking something from me that wasn’t mine entirely,” she explains. Experiencing sexuality in an intensely negative way causes many survivors to question assumed power dynamics. Savannah says that growing up, she absorbed the idea that “sex was something to give to a man to show him how grateful I was for him.”

Savannah, Libby, and many other survivors start to question these notions after their assaults. As Libby got older and articulated that what had happened to her was assault, she began to think: “there’s a lot more here, in terms of having sex, for me to go find and take for myself.”

Survivors often focus on pleasure over orgasm. “Many survivors have a hard time orgasming because orgasming requires surrender,” Julie explains. “After assault, you have fear in your nervous system during sex and it can be hard to let go, in that way.” For her, sex is about sharing intimacy — not about climaxing. Rather than asking if she’s close to finishing, she instead focuses on asking “How am I experiencing pleasure? How am I taking pleasure from giving my partner pleasure?” Sex has recentered on foreplay, erogenous zones, and exploration.

Libby also centers pleasure in her sexual practices, and in moving slowly, starting with holding hands, and eventually exploring pleasure areas, besides intercourse, to start out. This has led her to a better sex life with her current partner, she says, and also slowly exploring interactions like a threesome with two friends.

One of Julie’s partners noticed that her eyes went blank while they were intimate, and stopped the interaction immediately. He told her, “don’t ever continue to do something with me if you’re not actively enjoying it.”

For survivors, one of the most difficult obstacles to sex is staying grounded in the present and in the body. Staying present can be terrifying, since it means feeling whatever comes up — good or bad. Eventually, however, being able to avoid checking out or “performing” for their partner can allow survivors — and all of us — to refocus the experience on pleasure.

Savannah sees consent as a process of “checking in with someone,” and Julie finds that checking in is a sort of antidote to “checking out,” as she calls a response to sex many survivors experience: disconnection and dissociation. Sex can trigger what happened, Julie says. One of Julie’s partners noticed that her eyes went blank while they were intimate, and stopped the interaction immediately. He told her, “don’t ever continue to do something with me if you’re not actively enjoying it.” For survivors, these check-ins can be the difference between good sex and retraumatization — but they’re important for everyone, too.

Speaking up in bed has moved beyond the simple yes/no spectrum of consent. Kayla found that talking to partners led to a more gratifying sex life, because learning how important communication was post-assault wasn’t just a matter of setting boundaries. “It’s forced me to be more vocal about what I really want,” she says.

Jess came to a similar conclusion. “Being verbal about my boundaries really helped me learn how to be verbal about what I like and don’t like, which has helped me have really enjoyable sex — saying what I want, what feels good, and what doesn’t feel good.”

And consent isn’t just about verbal check-ins. Alicia finds this to be particularly true as someone who is into kink. They describe the practice of asking one’s partner, “‘if this is good for you, what would I be seeing?’ Having a conversation like that and knowing what to look for when someone’s having fun, even without vocalizing it, is important.”

Though sexual exploration inherently involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone, establishing that comfort zone to begin with is essential to moving beyond it. For some survivors, sexual exploration may mean venturing into areas that might be related to trauma. Savannah’s assailant choked her during the assault — which felt horrible at the time — yet she has since enjoyed the sensation during sex. Experiencing triggers in a safe environment can ultimately be a positive experience.

Alicia, too, found that many things they like in bed are linked to trauma: “being tied up, being restrained, being talked to in a stern voice.” Julie says that “when you’re taking power dynamics that you struggle with and bringing it into a safe place, and turning it into play — that can be helpful for some people.”

BDSM requires very explicit consent — Julie reiterates that you “can’t get away with assumptions about what might happen, you have your safe word and a sense of [what’s to come].” To Julie, making consent really explicit is one way of reclaiming her sexuality, and some survivors find BDSM an entrypoint to that type of explicit consent.

Inevitably, the experience of assault may impact what survivors look for in a partner, and their changed preferences speak to a broader shift in what many of us are looking for in our intimate companions. “I want [my partner] to be turned on by me being turned on, to enjoy the experience of giving me pleasure.” says Julie. “If I have any inkling of them being entitled to my body, I’m out of there.”

Body sovereignty is particularly important to survivors, who have experienced the complete removal of their agency. A partner needs to be able to cope with whatever their partner shows up to the interaction with. Alicia found that they “needed someone to approach [the trauma] with me and work on it with me — that’s what made me feel safe and want to engage in sex.” Alicia says of trauma survivors’ partners, “If you haven’t experienced trauma, take your lead from your partner and try to squash any assumptions about what they should experience.”

Ultimately, we all carry so many other aspects of our lives with us when we enter the bedroom. But sexual assault survivors are venturing into sexual territory in a mindful way that all of us can benefit from. “Sex can be way better than you ever could have imagined before,” Julie says, “because you’re mindfully deconstructing what happened to you, and how to be in a sexual realm with your partner or yourself.”

* Some survivors’ names have been changed to protect their anonymity.