2. Sexual assault is often accompanied by sexual arousal.
This is a difficult topic to talk about, and so it is all the more important that we do. The basic truth is this: A significant amount of nonconsensual sexual experiences is coupled with a physiological experience of arousal on the part of the survivor. By arousal I mean anything from hardened nipples, vaginal secretion, and erection (of the clitoris or the penis), to ejaculation and orgasm.
This physiological phenomenon of arousal can happen to survivors of any gender, any age, and under varying circumstances: The sexual violence may be physically aggressive or not, a single occurrence or ongoing. And the survivor can have all kinds of different relationships to the perpetrator(s): They may be partners, strangers, family, friends – anyone.
What arousal is and what it isn’t
Arousal is a physiological response and not always a cognitive one. Even though you can bring about an arousal response in your body through cognitive paths (like thinking, fantasizing, reminiscing), there are many other paths to sexual arousal.
Sexual arousal can happen when you’re asleep, when you’re unconscious, and even when you’re in a coma. It can happen when you’re watching porn you find distasteful. It can happen when you hear a recount of something you find vile and violent. It can happen when you recall a sexual experience you disliked or regretted. It can happen for no reason at all. In all of these cases there might be sexual arousal. But in none of these cases is there necessarily the experience of pleasure.
That’s because pleasure is a cognitive, meaning-making phenomenon. It happens when we ascribe a positive value to an experience. Pleasure is often very simple, and can be reduced to “feeling good”. But pleasure is also complex. For instance, pleasure can be physically painful (like getting the tattoo you’ve always wanted, being spanked consensually, or running a marathon). And pleasure can be emotionally difficult (like feeling a sad and satisfying smallness in contrast to the universe, being terrified in a well-executed Hallowe’en haunted house, or taking revenge on an archenemy). Pleasure is highly personalized: what is powerfully pleasurable for one person may be awful or negligible for another. And pleasure is contextual: A cold beer might be heavenly on a hot day but not when you’re hung-over, and the same sex act can feel good or bad depending on... well, everything.
In other words, pleasure belongs in the world of meaning. It’s the story we tell about the facts. There’s no such thing as a universal pleasure. Even love is not always pleasurable: Many of us, many times, have to push it away with disdain, fear, or exhaustion.
Arousal, on the other hand, is an automatic response. It follows stimulation. Often, sexual arousal is brought about by stimuli that you also deem pleasurable. In the case of sexual violence, however, the stimuli are shock, distress, intense fear, and/or pain.
Arousal during violation is a response to shock, distress, fear, and pain
It’s scientific fact that shock, distress, fear, and pain all heighten sympathetic nervous system response. Studies have shown that the anxiety from threat of electric shock increases penile erections, and that sexual arousal is similar to other automatic responses like sweating, increased heart rate, and heightened alertness.
If you have an arousal response during sexual assault, it means your body launched a fight or flight response under stress. It does not mean you liked it, wanted it, accepted it, caused it, asked for it, brought it on, encouraged it, or deserved it. The basic tenet about sexual assault remains no matter how big or small of an arousal response your body reacted with: It was assault. So while you can will yourself to arousal, your body in arousal does not tell you much about your will or consent.
Arousal is not consent
The conflation of arousal with pleasure is not only inaccurate, it does further harm to survivors of sexual violence. The conflation is both a cause and effect of rape culture: if sexual violence is arousing, and arousal equals pleasure, survivors can be (erroneously) blamed for wanting or causing it.
So, we must make it a point to distinguish between arousal and pleasure (feeling good), between arousal and desire (wanting it), between arousal and consent (deciding to participate). And in order to make these distinctions, we must start talking about how arousal responses can come from sexual violence, which has mostly remained taboo. We must normalize it so that those who experience(d) it can make sense of their experience. We must normalize it so that our collective imagination can better understand how bodies work. And we must normalize it so that survivors are not repeatedly re-victimized when this phenomenon is used against them.