Genital arousal is a learned response, the way Pavlov’s dogs salivated in response to the bell.
In October 2013, shortly after I moved to New York, a hot Londoner struck up a conversation with me in Starbucks. We had dinner that night and met up for breakfast two days later, then I followed him back to his Airbnb while he packed.
I didn’t want to get too involved because he was leaving, and I barely knew him. So, when he leaned in to kiss me, I said, “Let’s not go further than this.” When he took off my shirt, I said, “No further, OK?” He didn’t seem to listen, because he then took off my bra and started kissing my chest.
Although I didn’t agree to what was happening, I was physically getting aroused by it. Once it became clear that my attempts to stop it weren’t succeeding, I figured all I could do to make the situation less unpleasant for myself was try to enjoy the arousal I felt mounting in my body.
So I laid back and made little sighs of pleasure. It was only when he grabbed my hand and put it on his crotch that I jumped up and told him to stop. “Sorry,” he said. “I guess it’s a guy thing.”
“At least he apologized,” I thought. I didn’t want to believe I’d been violated. And because of the satisfied noises I’d just made, it was a difficult thing to convince myself of anyway. Telling myself I’d just engaged in a normal, consensual hookup, I made out with him and gave a heartfelt goodbye as he hiked his bags onto his shoulders and caught a cab to the airport.
But I returned home confused about what had just happened. I had not consented to parts of that encounter, but I had gotten pleasure out of it. I didn’t want to go that far for emotional reasons, but physically, I wanted it.
My mind raced back to that infamous line from Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”: “I know you want it.” Perpetrators often justify sexual assault by saying the victim secretly wanted it. But did the fact that part of me desired his touch mean I had consented to it? Even if I hadn’t wanted to act on that desire?
As it turns out, many individuals describe feeling arousal and pleasure during sexual assaults. In one study—“Problems With Sexuality After Sexual Assault”—21% of women said they had a “physical response” to their assaults, and 10% felt attracted to their perpetrators. Additional research and clinical reports suggest that four to five percent of women have reported orgasm during sexual assault, but the numbers could be higher because people may not report this, according to a paper in the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine.
“I didn’t think of it as sexual assault for years because I had an orgasm, because I didn’t try harder to stop it when it started to feel good,” says Stephanie, a content creator in her 30s. “To this day, I call it ‘nonconsensual sex.’ And I’m a former rape victim advocate. I know what assault is. I didn’t want this to happen, I said no, I was very drunk and past the point of consent—there are so many ways I know this was assault.”I had not consented to parts of that encounter, but I had gotten pleasure out of it. Click To Tweet
And it’s not just survivors themselves who discount their assaults because of their bodies’ reactions. The professionals charged with the task of helping them often do the same.
The Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine paper quotes a doctor responding to a post in an online forum about a survivor who orgasmed during her rape by her estranged husband:
“For a woman to have an orgasm, she needs to be at least on some level, mentally and emotionally invested in the experience…Fear, repulsion and pain are not conducive to orgasm. Psychological acquiescence or complacency does not mean the woman did not enjoy the experience, and on some level, love her husband.’’
Similarly, male survivors of assault are very often doubted due to the misconception that if their penis was erect enough to have intercourse, they must have consented. I once told a sex educator about how I’d guilted an ex-boyfriend into sex, and she replied, “Guilted? Really? Was his dick hard?”
“Survivors’ genital response has quite literally been presented as evidence in court that they ‘consented,’ even if they said no, even if they were too young to give consent,” says sexologist Emily Nagoski, PhD tells me. This type of thinking is proffered all over the media as well. In 50 Shades of Grey, Christian claims that Ana’s wetness shows how much she enjoyed a spanking that she wasn’t actually into, Nagoski points out.
Such depictions reflect a widespread myth about how sexual arousal works: that in order to be physically aroused, you have to be mentally and emotionally into the whole experience.
“‘Liking’— pleasure—is one system in our brains, the opioid system; ‘wanting’—desire—is another, mediated by dopamine; and ‘learning’—physiological response to learned cues—is a third,” explains Nagoski.
“Genital arousal is the third—a learned response, the way Pavlov’s dogs salivated in response to the bell. The salivation didn’t mean the dogs wanted to eat the bell or that they found the bell delicious. It just meant that the bell was a cue that was associated with food. Genital response can happen in response to sex-related cues, whether or not those cues are wanted or liked. I’ve been doing work related to sexual violence for over two decades, so I’ve met many, many survivors who’ve experienced arousal and even orgasm.”
In fact, because fear activates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing blood flow throughout the body—it’s possible that it could even facilitate genital arousal, according to the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine paper.
Sometimes, perpetrators make a calculated effort to turn their victims on. “Pedophiles often groom children for sexual assault by first using ‘appropriate’ pleasurable touching (stroking hair, rubbing a hand) and then pushing and pushing boundaries, working up to sexual assault,” educational psychologist and sex educator Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD, LMHC tells me. “I have heard accounts in which a rapist tried to give their victim pleasure, perhaps as a way to rationalize their crimes.”
Another common situation where people feel aroused during their assaults is when they consent to one activity, but then another takes places without their consent, explains sexologist Damian Jacob Sendler, PhD, MD to me. “This sometimes happens with couples who are into BDSM, with one person going beyond the scenario that was agreed upon. Consent needs to be given for any kind of behavior that involves crossing the safe space of one’s body.”
It’s even common for people to have feelings for their perpetrators, especially if they’re assaulted by someone within a romantic relationship.
“It is possible for two opposing feelings to coexist: on the one hand disgust, rage, fear, or terror, and on the other, a genuine desire to merge with the assaulter, feelings of desire for them, and even longings to be taken care of by a person who seems more powerful,” psychoanalyst Claudia Luiz, PsyaD says. Sometimes, getting aroused can be a defense mechanism when the painful feelings resulting from the assault are too much to bear.
Many survivors feel as if their bodies have betrayed them for responding to unwelcome stimulation, says Nagoski. Some even view it as a moral failure to get turned on by something so horrific. “Can you imagine, walking around all day, every day, inside something that betrayed you? Needless to say, it comes as a tremendous relief for them to learn that their genital response just means something sex-related happened.”Many survivors feel as if their bodies have betrayed them. Click To Tweet
Often, people don’t even realize they’ve been assaulted, since they assume their physical pleasure must be evidence of consent.
“[People] have told me about an experience from childhood or college and what they are describing is rape, but they never viewed it that way before because of the physical response they experienced,” Stamoulis explains. “In fact, some straight males have wondered if they were gay because they had a physical reaction during an assault by a male abuser.” Even when people recognize the event as an assault, they may hesitate to report it out of fear that their arousal could be used against them.
This shame, self-blame, and confusion could be avoided if we learned about the complexities of sexual violence: that it doesn’t always involve a morally unambiguous criminal who the victim despises, and the victim can experience emotions other than pure disgust.
“If, while in sex education teaching people about sexual assault, we were taught about all the varied reactions to assaults, both physical and emotional, we would normalize this and people wouldn’t have to suffer in silence,” Stamoulis says..Sometimes, getting aroused can be a defense mechanism when the painful feelings resulting from the assault are too much to bear. Click To Tweet
Because I hadn’t learned about any of these aspects of sexual assault—physiological or psychological—I, too, thought my encounter that day in New York was consensual. I Facebook messaged with the man who violated my boundaries and felt a mixture of excitement and anger as he talked about potentially moving to New York and seeing me again.
But when he actually got a job offer there and proposed we meet up when he arrived, something clicked inside me. “Actually,” I replied, “what happened at your Airbnb last time wasn’t OK with me, and I’m not interested in seeing you again.”
“You’re joking, right?” he replied, as if my attraction to him made that statement unbelievable. But then, I thought back to his apology after that incident. He knew he’d done something wrong. And I wasn’t going to let him use my physical desire to eclipse that knowledge. I may have been aroused, but arousal is not consent.
No amount of blood flow to someone’s genitals should override what their mind—and mouth—is telling you.