Does This Mean I Wanted It?: Acknowledging Arousal in Sexual Assault

Andrew Pari, LCSW; QCSW; Diplomate; CCTP on Apr 07, 2022 in Treatment Orientation

This article is about the Wild West — the outer fringes of sexual assault work. Even within the field, this topic is little researched, little discussed.

Feeling arousal or experiencing orgasm during sexual assault is something which people who do the work I do are nominally aware of and don’t talk about, not anywhere near the extent we should. And most people outside the field, outside of most survivors, aren’t aware of it at all aside from grossly misrepresented depictions in pornography.

This letter I received highlights the problem:

"I talked to you a year ago and since then have come far in my own journey. I have been hired on as a sexual assault response team member and am currently undergoing my training. In the group, we were discussing the psychological fight, flight, freeze responses, and I asked if we’d be discussing the body’s arousal response to rape.

I was told in no uncertain terms (by the facilitator who is a therapist) that she has never heard of orgasm from rape and that if one experiences an orgasm, they weren’t raped.

I know from my own work now that she is wrong… but I feel like she just taught everyone in the room a horrible myth and I also saw about five people get super uncomfortable once she responded (so I am guessing she just invalidated a lot of people as well). I was hoping you may have some guidance… especially since it was you who really inspired me to begin with.

Thanks, Jill"

Unfortunately, this is a common message I hear, not only in regards to sexual assault response services but also with therapists and sexual assault investigators. Even when trained in sexual assault response, many are often not aware of nor know how to address the phenomenon of arousal and orgasm during sexual assault/abuse. In the legal world, police investigators will ask shame-inducing questions to gather what they believe is relevant information. Attorneys will use this information at trial and it has the effect of silencing victims, if they aren’t already discouraged from reporting in the first place.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to all therapists and investigators. I’ve worked alongside some amazing, sensitive people with insight and knowledge as to why a victim may have had a sexual response to their rape. Far too many are not so informed or well-trained, however.

From a response by a certified sex therapist:

"I don’t think a woman who is raped is at all likely to have an orgasm. Orgasm requires a certain surrender to the moment and a sense of safety. Orgasm isn’t about pushing buttons. For a woman to have an orgasm requires a whole complex set of circumstances, not just physical responses. One negative thought can shut off the whole response cycle."

The tone is reminiscent of Todd Akin’s 2012 comment, insisting that women cannot become pregnant by rape. The myth that a girl or woman’s orgasm means that her rape did not occur is just as dangerous.

Though the science and psychology behind it is more complex than this, arousal and orgasm occurs when the stimulation cause by the rape or molestation bypasses the higher-order executive function of the brain and triggers the primitive fight/flight response. It is a normal, adaptive response and does not indicate that the victim enjoyed or wanted the rape or abuse. After the assault, however, the analytical part of the brain is aware of what happened and begins a process of reinterpreting the rape through the sensation of arousal, warping the survivor’s perceptions of their responses.

This raises a wide variety of clinical concerns, such as self-doubt and blame, partner victim-blaming, increased severity of trauma symptoms including suicidality, and increased use of unhelpful coping such as substance use and sexual acting out. This is in addition to the suffering they already experience from the sexual assault itself. I’ve worked through this in treatment using a process I call “unlinking” to help the survivor disconnect the arousal response from the memory of the event intertwined with it.

I’ve consulted with recovery and awareness programs, advised on court opinion, and in the past few years, have begun speaking at forensic and clinical conferences to educate first responders and treatment professionals. In my travels, I have encountered no one who speaks professionally on the subject. The literature pool is even worse.

To date, there has been only one study, conducted in 2004, that acknowledges the existence of the phenomenon. It underscores the need there is for research, both to validate the experience for survivors as well as to provide more insight into how to address it. I’ve been told by sexual assault researchers that this is a politically sensitive area to study due to a social perception that it may validate the view that women enjoy sexual violence. I am currently working to correct the perception and practice with research institutions.

Social media has been an effective method to educate the public. Online, I conducted the largest publicly held discussion on rape and sexual assault. It reached thousands of people and contributed to several articles about the phenomenon. I am contacted by survivors and professionals alike who had never heard of arousal in this context or didn’t know how to raise or address it in treatment.

For years, I believed there had to be others aware of this issue, and it kept me from talking about it. My “Aha!” moment came while speaking at a conference. An audience member, a well-known trauma therapist, said that I may be the leading expert in this area.

I sat uncomfortably with that for a long time after. If it’s true, that I am the leading authority on what some survivors call the most horrific aspect of sexual assault, then it means one thing:

We have a lot of work to do.

It is my firm belief that if we can address this directly and remove the shame and stigma, then a lot more healing can happen.

Note: Research referenced is from "Sexual arousal and orgasm in subjects who experience forced or non-consensual sexual stimulation — a Review." Levin, Roy J. & van Berlo, W. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 11 (2004) 82–88.

Andrew Pari is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Website

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