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Sexual Assault and Sexual Arousal

By Laurence Cobbaert.

Laurence recently graduated with a BS in Aviation earning High Distinction from an American University. However, she decided to step aside from Aviation for her Honours thesis and chose to discuss the sexual abuses perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. Laurence is Belgian and has lived in the UK and the US. She is preparing to begin her PhD in Social Sciences/Gender Studies.

The rape culture prevalent in our patriarchal society has reinforced a normalization and desensitization towards sexual violence committed against women. Pop culture continuously glorifies the objectification of women’s bodies, and society as a whole remains entangled in a vicious circle of misinformation, taboos, confusion, and blaming aimed at survivors of sexual violence. Women are being told and made to feel that they should have fought harder, that they should have tried to resist more, that they should have dressed or behaved differently, or that they aren’t ‘true victims’ in case they experienced a physiological response [sexual arousal, including vaginal lubrication, increased genital blood flow and orgasm] as a result of non-consensual sexual stimulation. All of those misconceptions aren’t reflecting reality at all, and are of course not true. Sexual assault survivors are never to be blamed for a crime that has been committed against them, nor do they ever ‘enjoy’ being victimized. Whether stabbing or rape, there is a criminal on one hand and a victim on the other. A rape victim is always a victim, and a rapist is always someone that made the decision to commit a crime, no matter the circumstances. A rapist chose to victimize and traumatize. A victim never makes the choice to be victimized. Although this may seem like common sense, the ideas that rape victims may have ‘wanted it’ or ‘enjoyed it’ remain pervasive. Blatant misinformation and lack of information are largely contributing to a culture of shame and blame directed at victims instead of criminals; and that isn’t right.

Victims may react in different ways during and after a sexual assault. During a rape, some victims may resist and fight, while others may freeze due to overwhelming and intense fear. After a rape, some victims may be in shock, cry and share their ordeal, while some others resume their lives hiding their distress from people around them and avoid talking about their assault. Everyone reacts differently and develops their very own coping mechanisms depending on their personality and personal circumstances. There is never a ‘wrong’ way of reacting or feeling during and after a sexual assault. There is no ‘universal’ manner which should be used by every single individual having experienced a traumatic event, including rape. Some stabbing victims take pictures of their wound right after it happened, while others may faint, cry, scream or act as if nothing happened despite being severely injured. Yet, none of those reactions undermine the fact that a crime was committed against them, or mean that they wanted or/and enjoyed to be stabbed in the first place. Victims have the right not to be shamed, blamed and judged for reacting and feeling any way that helped them cope with their angst.

While great efforts are being made to create a conversation around sexual violence against women in order to help empower survivors by providing easy access to information and stop victim-blaming attitudes, there still is a topic that keeps being put aside from discourses. Women who have endured a sexual attack may experience sexual arousal –including orgasm- as a result of non-consensual sexual stimulation. Despite this aspect being documented and not uncommon at all, it continues to be a taboo. This, too, contributes to victims’ confusion and shame. There should be no taboo, and survivors shouldn’t feel that they are to blame, or that they were not ‘really’ assaulted. Sexual arousal during a rape does not mean consent, nor does it mean enjoyment; plus, it’s totally normal.

Helping women understand that they did experience a physical response as a means of tapping into the primal reflexes designed to protect them is crucial. This protective process starts with an autonomic response in the body generated by the same areas of the brain that control our basic survival responses. When an individual is attacked and feels threatened, their body shifts into a state of high autonomic arousal as a part of the fear response. Their brain releases massive doses of adrenalin to prepare their body to either fight back or run away. Their heart and lungs start working harder to provide increased levels of oxygen and sugar to fuel the large muscle groups in the arms and legs in an attempt to prepare for either ‘fight or flight’. The ‘fight or flight’ response is also called hyperarousal, survival mode, or acute stress response, because the release of adrenaline makes organs maintain a state of ‘high alert’. This increased general physical arousal can pair with non-consensual stimulation of sexual organs, and whether a victim is actively fighting, or frozen in fear, has the potential to lead to sexual arousal. During assaults, victims can experience a phenomenon known as ‘excitation transfer’, which occurs when the build-up of adrenalin and subsequent physical arousal transfers into heightened sexual arousal. Furthermore, the production of vaginal lubrication during rape may also protect women from experiencing further tearing or tissue damage due to forced penetration, and may actually be intended to lower the probability for a victim to suffer life-threatening internal injuries. Therefore, sexual arousal during rape is a by-product of the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism our body uses to keep us alive, and does not reflect the victims’ emotional response to the attack or indicate consent at all.

Additionally, the connections and specific mechanisms related to female sexual arousal in general still remain unknown or vastly misunderstood to this day. There is actually a bit of research that has been conducted by scientists attempting to understand the connection between mental arousal and physical arousal outside of a context involving sexual violence. These studies have shown that women can experience increased blood flow to their genitals and production of lubrication – generally referred to as sexual arousal – without being aware of these physical changes. Women can also become aroused while looking at material they find unappealing, disgusting, or boring, and can even experience sexual arousal and orgasm without any physical stimulation whatsoever. However, although the aforementioned observations clearly prove the belief that arousal only occurs as a result of consensual stimulation and enjoyment is totally false, there is no clear explanation for such phenomena.

The occurrence of sexual arousal during rape is completely normal and victims should never feel ashamed of their body’s automatic responses because those can’t be controlled. Using tickling as an analogy can be helpful; when a person who is ticklish is tickled, they will laugh and smile, even though they absolutely hate being tickled. Some automatic body responses are complex and may be caused by various factors, some of which are outside of our conscious reach. Some organs react a certain way when they are stimulated, whether we want them to react that way or not. While the disconnection between physical and emotional responses may be confusing and frustrating for survivors, they should not be afraid that their arousal somehow lessens the significance of their attack. Sexual arousal does not undermine a victim’s ordeal.

Unfortunately, despite evidence showing that sexual arousal during rape is in fact a normal and automatic response which does not equate to pleasure nor consent, the topic continues to be avoided. Such lack of information and education available both to victims and the general public can have negative consequences for survivors. Women who were sexually assaulted may blame themselves and feel ashamed due to overwhelming confusion, or believe that they were not assaulted at all because it is commonly –falsely- thought that sexual arousal only occurs as a result of consensual stimulation and pleasure. For women struggling to overcome the trauma of rape, arousal can represent an added layer of complication if they choose to make a report to law enforcement. The legal process can represent a daunting challenge for survivors, as law enforcement and legal representatives are fallible to the myths surrounding rape too, leaving victims reluctant to share their physical responses lest they be used to damage their perceived credibility. Survivors already struggling to share their story may decide not to seek professional mental help or/and report their attack and pursue pressing charges against the perpetrator/s as a result of such added layer of disbelief.

It is also not unheard of for a rapist to attempt to build a defence based on their victim’s sexual arousal indicating consent and enjoyment. However, as shown earlier in this post, this is absolutely not the case. Physical arousal is an automatic response, and can occur in the total absence of consent. Therefore, attempts by perpetrators to justify their actions based on their victims’ sexual arousal are to be straightforwardly dismissed, and shouldn’t constitute a barrier for survivors to come forward and seek justice.

The time for silence is past. We must embrace a future that does not blame and shame victims, but provides accurate information about all aspects of victimization both in support of victims’ healing, and better understanding among the general population. Sexual arousal during rape is not a sign of weakness or consent – it is a physiological reflex, a complex mechanism that needs to be a part of our conversations about rape. Society needs to collectively set aside its biased assumptions and openly discuss all of the physical and emotional responses that may arise as a result of sexual assault in order for victims to be able to navigate the complexities of healing from a place of power.

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