When a rape concludes, it’s just the beginning. The assaulter may appear to leave, but the memory of the incident becomes a part of you. Your consensual partner goes down on you or touches your thighs in a certain manner and the entire horrific and dehumanizing experience comes flooding back.
It’s difficult to breathe and difficult to explain. How do you tell a lover who cares about you that their intended touch of pleasure brings you back to the worst moment of your life? Contrary to popular drug myths about cannabis ruining your memory, I’ve personally found that the plant makes like a whole lot more comfortable. And I know I’m not the only sexual assault survivor who feels that way.
For me, cannabis keeps flashbacks at bay. Unfortunately—as is the case with most research pertaining to sexuality and cannabis—we need more. Some studies suggest that cannabis could help manage the symptoms of PTSD. So what exactly are the symptoms? According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, PTSD include flashbacks of a traumatic event, dissociation, avoidant behavior, shame, anxiety, and a slew of other monsters.
“Cannabis definitely can help in [sexual assault] situations,” says Harvard cannabis specialist Jordan Tishler, MD, “It helps on multiple levels. There is a physiological level; it causes relaxation and lubrication. There’s a lot to be said about its role in fear extinction.”
Such symptoms can really get in the way of dating. It’s a horrible feeling to fall for someone but have their touch trigger memories of your rapist. Medical cannabis helps keep me present and with my partner, not back in the memory of assault. “Safety, and knowing the person you’re with is trusted, has your back, can offer you all of those things in the moment to feel connected and pleasure,” Dr. Richmond says.
“Cannabis helps on multiple levels … There’s a lot to be said about its role in fear extinction.”
When used responsibly, cannabis is said to reduce stress, which in turn can help you connect with your partner and stay present in the moment. “I let my partner know that I’m having a flashback and then we’ll pause and I’ll hit my vape,” says sex and relationship coach and creator of Cannasexual, Ashley Manta, who is a multiple sexual trauma survivor herself.
“I’ll focus on the here and now—feeling the touch of a lover’s hand across my skin, the smell of the room, the sensory details really start to bring me back into the present. That heightened awareness helps me get out of the flashback and into my body again.”
As most cannabis enthusiasts know, if you overdo the THC, it can backfire. Overconsumption leads to anxiety and paranoia, which is why it’s crucial to start small. “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Dr. Tishler. “Some [cannabis] is good but a lot is probably not so good. We have to be mindful of the dosing there.”
5mg is a “starting dose” that’s often recommended for those who want to get high, and if you’re new to using cannabis, you may even want to start with 2mg. It’s difficult to suggest an exact dosage or method of intake as cannabis affects us all differently. It’s not as simple as Indica vs. Sativa. Start small; you can always take more.
While responsible cannabis use could curb flashbacks, keep survivors present, and help manage trauma-related stress, Dr. Tishler says that we want to treat the symptoms of PTSD stemming from an assault. We don’t want to try to use it as a memory-eraser or we’re never going to process and heal responsibly. One way to mitigate this risk is to pair cannabis with therapy. He likens traumatic memories to a shoebox; we want to put them away, but we want to put them away after dealing with them, not suffocate memories to death with cannabis smoke.
“We don’t want to try to use it as a memory-eraser or we’re never going to process and heal responsibly.”
“It’s not repression,” Dr. Tishler says of the healing process. “You’ve dealt with it enough to reasonably put it away for now. That doesn’t happen by accident. That happens by careful introspection, therapy, it’s work you know? Cannabis helps us get through moments where things are uncomfortable. But if we’re not careful, we can rely upon cannabis in the ways that our parents would worry about, like, we’re just tuning out.”
So use cannabis as a healing tool, but be aware that even drugs as safe as cannabis can be used to numb pain. Healing from sexual trauma is always more effective when coupled with therapy.
Cannabis is said to help ease all trauma in some users, but sexual assault trauma is gnarly. It wedges itself into your romantic life, and flashbacks interrupt the most intimate of moments. For me, personally, using cannabis before sex helps prevent flashbacks while with a partner. Once the consensual sex begins, cannabis makes it feel better by enhancing senses, increasing blood flow, and decreasing any physical discomfort.
Survivors can f*ck. Far from the image of a frail rape victim, most sexual assault survivors go on to heal and have fantastic sex lives. “The myth that trauma survivors are not sexual beings is totally bogus,” Manta says.
Thanks to time, cannabis, and therapy, I no longer have flashbacks very often. I’ve gotten quite good at staying ahead of my pain and triggers in addition to selecting partners I trust and feel safe with. I’m not thankful that a sexual assault happened to me, but I commend myself for working hard to make the most of a bad situation, and for transforming pain into self-awareness. Cannabis is not the source of such insight, but it is a powerful medicine that helped me get there.
If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.