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Sexual Arousal, Rape, and Victim Blaming

Warning: This post may contain triggers, particularly concerning rape, sexual abuse, and trauma.

Note: Spoiler alert for Push by Sapphire

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Today, we need to talk about something important. We need to talk about rape.

Many colleges educate students about the dangers of rape. Students may be required to complete Title IX training through an online program. Speakers confronting rape culture teach students about the importance of consent. Students can attend sexual abuse panels to earn extra credit. But there’s one thing I haven’t heard people talk about: sexual arousal during rape.

Recently, I read Push by Sapphire, and it’s definitely an eye-opening read. Precious Jones, the narrator, is raped by her father her entire life and has two children by him. Sometimes, Precious orgasms when she’s raped, and this is confusing for her because she hates her father and what he does to her. She is also sometimes aroused when thinking about being raped, as it is the only type of sexual experience she’s ever had.

Now, this is a sensitive topic; saying a victim can experience any sort of physical pleasure while being raped could be easily misconstrued; in fact, rapists may use signs of arousal to justify their actions. The rapist will say that if a victim (often a woman) is aroused, then she is enjoying herself, and the act is not rape. Of course, we’ve all heard that it’s more difficult for a woman to orgasm than a man during consensual sex, so we might be tempted to believe this. However, sexual arousal and orgasms are simply physiological reactions.

There’s a great article written by Jenny Morber that was originally published on DoubleXScience and later shared on Popular Science’s website.

Just as Todd Akin (and hundreds of years of science) was so wrong in thinking that rape can’t lead to pregnancy, I and many others were entirely wrong about arousal and climax during rape.

She compares it to how some people laugh involuntarily when they are being tickled. Likewise, both men and women can experience arousal and orgasms when sex is nonconsensual.

Studies agree, although few have researched this topic. Roy J. Levin and Willy van Berlo reviewed existing studies in 2004, saying that although an orgasm usually has both a mental and a physical component, one aspect can be present without the other. Arousal may be a fear response, or it may be a physical —not mental— reaction to sexual stimulation. The review concludes that neither being sexually aroused nor having an orgasm equals consent.

Survivors who have experienced arousal during rape might feel guilty or ashamed. They might feel that they’re psychologically unwell and may find it difficult to share their experiences. And if this describes you, please just know it’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible person, and it doesn’t mean that some part of you wanted the rape to happen. It doesn’t mean you gave consent, and above all, it does not mean you enjoyed it.

It’s time we stopped being silent. The longer we’re silent, the longer people will be surrounded by lies. The longer we’re silent, the longer survivors will feel ashamed and confused. And the longer we’re silent, the longer rapists will use lies to hurt their victims even more than they already have.

If you need to talk to someone about rape and other forms of sexual violence, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

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