Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sexual Arousal, Sexual Abuse, and Consent

Sexual abuse is a public health epidemic that has garnered more and more attention from the media in recent years. This is due in part to high profile incidents such as the Jerry Sandusky case, as well as recent revelations of significant deficits with how sexual abuse investigations are being handled in the military, on college campuses, and in our communities. Popular Science recently reprinted an article entitled What Science Says about Arousal during Rape that brings focus to a topic that is scientifically proven and clinically recognized, but not often discussed. Sexual abuse is a traumatic event which impacts survivors in a many ways, and experiencing sexual arousal or orgasm during a sexual assault may cause significant confusion for the victim which can negatively impact healing and/or contribute to a perpetrator believing that a sexually assaultive experience was consensual – two important reasons to examine this topic further.   

First, it is worthwhile to ask the question “what exactly is sexual arousal?” Sexual arousal occurs in two ways – as a mental state (e.g., emotional, cognitive, fantasy) and as a physical state (e.g., increased genital blood flow, enhanced tactile sense, endorphin release).  In mutually enjoyable sexual experiences, sexual arousal typically occurs in both the mental and physical states simultaneously. However, it is possible to be mentally aroused without showing any physical indications of arousal and it is possible to be physically aroused when not experiencing mental arousal. Arousal states can also occur in various orders (e.g., mental arousal followed by physical, or vice versa), as well as shift or change during an experience.  Indeed, it is even possible to feel disgusted by the physical manifestations of arousal when the physical arousal is in response to distasteful or repugnant sexual stimuli (e.g., becoming physically aroused by seeing a family member naked, to a violent scenario, etc.).

Experiencing sexual arousal or orgasm during a sexual assault is likely under-reported and almost never discussed due to the obvious embarrassment, confusion, and potential response from others – wouldn’t any type of arousal mean the victim accepted and/or enjoyed the sexual assault?  It is a sad reality that society often engages in victim blaming and frequently responds inappropriately to survivors of sexual abuse; however, a victim is never responsible for being targeted and sexually abused by another person – even if physical arousal may have occurred during the assault.  It is an evolutionary fact that genital arousal (i.e., increased blood flow to the vagina or penis) is linked with our sympathetic nervous system, which also controls our fight or flight response.  So, for some people when they are frightened (as would occur during a sexual assault), there is increased blood flow to the entire body, including the genitals, which may cause genital (physical, not mental) arousal – and, just like our fight or flight responses, this physiological response is not within our conscious control. It is important to note that this is true for both males and females – a male obtaining an erection during a sexual assault does not mean the male consented to or enjoyed the abuse, simply that his body experienced an ingrained evolutionary response to physical sexual stimulation. 

This information is extremely important for professionals who work with survivors or perpetrators. Survivors commonly blame themselves for the abuse they experience and this can extend to the arousal they experienced against their will. Providing education and information about the physiological aspects of sexual arousal, primarily that sexual arousal can be an automatic response such as breathing, pupil dilation, or eye blinking, may provide context and help survivors heal. 

For some sexual abuse perpetrators, indications of sexual arousal or orgasm experienced by the victim during a sexual assault may be used as evidence that the sexual assault was consensual and/or as a way to minimize or rationalize their behavior. Clarifying in treatment that arousal during the assault does not equal consent or enjoyment can be of assistance for both those who have abused and been abused alike. 

For additional information on the science of sexual arousal, see Levin, R.J. & van Berlo, W. (2004). Sexual arousal and orgasm in subjects who experience forced or non-consensual sexual stimulation – a review. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine, 11, 82-88.

Katie Gotch
Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers