“What if my body had a sexual response during rape?”

Excerpted from the book “Resurrection After Rape,” http://www.resurrectionafterrape.org

What follows is a forthright discussion of a difficult topic. Effort has been made to treat the topic with dignity and respect, but the customary trigger warning applies, of course.

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To a degree far greater than in men, women express emotional sensations as physical ones. You may recall times when being depressed or upset resulted in the physical feeling of nausea, or a headache, or a tightened body. Food and appetite are often used as voices by women in distress, and a woman’s body is regarded in our culture as the primary means of judging her worth as a person. While you and I may personally reject the use of physical standards as the measure of a person’s value, we live in a society that generally does, and we cannot help but absorb messages that suggest to us that what we feel about our bodies is a reflection of who we are as people.

One of the least-discussed but most significant aspects about sexual assault is the possibility that some women’s bodies may experience a sexual response to the assault. While not common, it is quite natural that a woman would experience the physiological effects of arousal, and even orgasm, which can be extremely confusing and upsetting to her later. I have found that this single phenomenon can produce the strongest stuck points of all because of the guilt and shame it can cause the survivor, to the point that some have strongly resisted even discussing or reading about this experience.

Cassie had been in treatment four times with four previous therapists, but her substance abuse and self-injury persisted. She was in the throes of self-doubt because her earnest work hadn’t seemed to produce lasting recovery from rape, and her conclusion was that she must simply be a weak, defeated woman. As we progressed through therapy, though, we came to the issue of “stuck points” in her story. Cassie had come to trust me, and began to talk one day with a very familiar phrase: “I’ve never told anyone this before, but…” She then disclosed what she thought was the most shameful thing in her whole life: she had experienced orgasm during her sexual assault three years earlier.

Cassie’s stuck point was that she felt she had “led him on” by being sexually responsive during the assault, which stirred up a swarm of stinging thoughts she had kept to herself: Was it really rape? Was it something she subconsciously wanted or enjoyed? Was she guilty of causing what he had done to her? And if her body responded in such a way, did it prove she is profoundly mentally disturbed for such a thing? These thoughts made therapy with Cassie very challenging because they prevented her from accepting the truth that she shared no fault for her rape. Cassie was also extremely angry at her body, which she felt had betrayed her, and would angrily exclaim, “I f—ing HATE being a woman!” Cassie was trapped between two conflicted thoughts: “I hate what happened to me” and “what could it mean that I hated something that resulted in a sensation most people associate with pleasure?” Needless to say, this was a delicate matter requiring care and empathy.

Cassie’s story is her own, but it also typifies the kinds of mental “blocks” and inward guilt that women can feel when they have experienced this kind of physical response. When I asked Cassie to summarize what she thought this buried secret really meant, she thought and answered, “The word ‘no’ doesn’t seem to count. My own body didn’t listen to it. So it’s as if I never said it.”

Part of the answer to Cassie’s self-crucifying beliefs was a simple lesson in biology. She had believed that a physical sexual response to her rape meant that she had accepted, and even encouraged, her attacker’s acts of violence. But as awkward as it was for her to help me discuss the biology of her body, she trusted me and it was important for her to understand some facts she had overlooked. For example, the production of moisture in her vagina was not a result of physical or psychological desire for what was happening to her. On the contrary, it was a form of self-defense. Her body had adapted to the sexual assault by responding in a way that would minimize injury and reduce the sensations of pain by secreting fluid so that the invasion by a penis would be less physically severe. By doing this, her body was not betraying her, but sparing her from whatever agony it could. Her body had allied with her, not with him, in doing this.

She also learned that the clitoris is a bundle of about 8000-30,000 nerve fibers, twice as many as are found in a penis and more than in any other part of a woman’s body. During trauma, the sympathetic nervous system takes over physical functions of the body, and an evolutionary “fight-or-flight” response causes all of the body’s nerves to become hypersensitive. While this adaptation is useful in prehistoric survival situations, it is an anachronism in situations like rape—but no less natural. Is orgasm “proof” that a rape victim “enjoyed it?” Absolutely not! In fact, in this context it is proof that her body was traumatized and responding as such; all of her body’s physical systems become hyperactive for the sake of survival. The clitoris is part of the nervous system, and when it hyper-performs, it does so in a way that causes a specific physical feeling. This feeling is not necessarily an expression about pleasure, acceptance, consent, or desire; it is simply a physical reaction.

An analogy would be that when someone tickles you, even against your will, your body responds by laughing and smiling. These responses are programmed into the sensation of being tickled, but have nothing to do with enjoying or welcoming it; people will laugh during tickling even when they hate it.

Dr. Eliana Gil, a specialist in treating abuse and trauma, wrote about a brilliant technique to demonstrate this to an adolescent rape survivor she counseled. Dr. Gil’s patient, Anna, felt the same shame and betrayal as Cassie did in my sessions, and this caused a similar obstacle to therapy. Dr. Gil brought a fresh onion to a therapy session with Anna, and began to slice it apart. As she did this, both she and Anna began to cry. “What’s happening?” asked Dr. Gil. Anna described how the smell and fumes from the onion had caused her to become tearful. Dr. Gil pointed out that even though they were both crying, neither of them was sad.

This caused Anna to reconsider her beliefs about what a bodily reaction really says, or doesn’t say, about a person’s actual emotions. Anna was able to understand that sometimes the body has reactions that seem to represent certain emotions, but don’t; they are purely biological behaviors. “It’s like what happened to my body…when he touched me in certain places, I got wet, and I got off,” Anna realized. Dr. Gil summarizes, “She now had a way of understanding that her orgasm was not compliance with sexual abuse, but a way in which her body reacted…Anna now had a new narrative about her early experiences.” (Gil, Eliana. (1996) Treating Abused Adolescents, Guilford Press, New York, pp116-117.)

For many women, a sexual response during rape becomes a “trigger” for negative beliefs about themselves during later consensual sexual experiences. If you associate sexual response with assault or with “badness” in yourself, you may consciously or unconsciously suppress sexual sensations at all. Libido, sexuality, and even orgasm become misunderstood as immoral or dirty sensations that you do not want or deserve, and some women temporarily lose the ability to orgasm at all after a rape, which she previously may have been able to do. While some women become extremely sexually active in the aftermath of rape (which has nothing to do with pleasure-seeking or mora character), many become actively disinterested in sex at all.

These self-judgments can cause a woman to be fearful of sex, to have to be intoxicated to have sex, to dissociate during sex, and even to have sexual thoughts and fantasies that are inconsistent with her own previous sexual identity. Others may even have sexual arousal responses while reading a book or essay like this one, and may become horrified with themselves as “sick” or “perverted.” But that is not at all what that means; it simply means that the body has associated certain physical responses with the memories of rape, and it has nothing to do with desire or pleasure. This is also not a permanent damage; sexuality can heal after rape and even become enjoyable again.

Lisa was anally raped at age 12, and had difficulty even talking about the assault because she was so embarrassed by the details. But as Lisa came to trust me, she opened up emotionally and shared some of her self-shaming beliefs about her rape. Lisa’s rapist, an older boy, had groomed Lisa for rape by engaging in various forms of pleasurable touch at first. He had lavished positive attention on Lisa, and begun to affectionately caress her, and then kiss her. All of this felt good to Lisa, which made it hard for Lisa to cope with self-blame after her rape.

As a woman in her 30s, Lisa had become an addict of alcohol and methamphetamine, and had spent several weeks in a hospital after a suicide attempt. In therapy sessions with me, she was terrified to confess that at first she had liked the older boy’s physical attention, which had been soft and gentle, not vicious. Lisa’s stuck point was her belief that by responding pleasurably to these forms of touch, she had “sent the wrong signals” and “caused him to rape” her.

Furthermore, Lisa had subconsciously begun to link the pleasure of touch with the violence of rape. She shut off her body’s receptiveness to pleasure because she feared that if she felt pleasurably stimulated again, it would lead to her being re-victimized. She also shamed herself as “bad” for feeling any sexual pleasure at all because she had believed that rape was a consequence of her pleasure feelings; in Lisa’s mind, if she ever did want sexual stimulation as an adult, it would make her as sick as her rapist. Consequently, she tended to either dissociate during sex with her husband, or use drugs before sex.

In therapy, Lisa began to explore the differences between rape and sexuality. She had believed, for example, that being raped was her first sexual experience, and she was baffled when I responded that rape is not a sexual experience, and that she had not “lost” her virginity from rape. Lisa also believed that all sex was about power and control, which meant she expected rape-like feelings in any sexual encounter—even safe, consensual ones. Since she was either dissociated or drunk during sex, she had never really felt any sexual happiness that would challenge her beliefs. Because she blamed herself for “feeling good” during the victim-grooming stage before her rape, Lisa had carried intense shame for twenty years which deprived her of enjoying any pleasure from authentic lovemaking.

If any of this applies to you, do not avoid the issue in therapy! This can represent one of the most painful stuck points in your story, and until you can resolve your guilt and accept these issues as perfectly normal, blameless, physical functions they can continue to sabotage your recovery. Lisa had been in inpatient treatment for weeks without her story coming out. Cassie had attempted therapy four times before she was brave enough to address this stuck point, and the result was that four times she was unable to remain sober until this core of guilt and shame was exposed and extinguished.

(Cassie is also one of the letter-writing contributors to “Letters To Survivors: Words of Comfort for Women Recovering from Rape” at http://www.letterstosurvivors.com )

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