I have worked primarily with child sexual abuse since 1984, treating both child victims and adult survivors, probably about 100 of each, if I had to hazard a guess. In this time, I have learned a startling, as well as somewhat obvious, effect of child sexual abuse:
Perpetrators who sexually abuse children achieve whatever response they are seeking in the child. Perpetrators have the advantage of time and power, power by way of their relationship with the child, and/or intimidation, and/or entrapment. Perpetrators wear children down until they respond as they wish. There are very rare exceptions to this “rule.” Although these responses may be “held” in the consciousness of only particular dissociated “personalities” of the child, apart from the consciousness of the normal day-to-day outside self, these responses will reliably occur.
- If the perpetrator seeks to terrorize the child, the child will be terrorized.
- If the perpetrator seeks to cause the child pain or injury, the child will suffer pain and injury.
- If the perpetrator seeks a romantic partner in the child, the child will become a romantic partner.
- If the perpetrator wants a child to perform for the camera, the child will perform for the camera.
- If the perpetrator wants the child to perpetrate against other victims, the child will comply.
- If the perpetrator seeks a responsive sexual partner in the child, the child will become just that.
- If the perpetrator seeks to induce orgasm in the child, the child will, in time, become orgasmic.
- If the perpetrator is knowledgeable about dissociated identities and how to induce these to form, new dissociated identities will be induced to form in the child.
The child has no choice in any of these responses. Perpetrators simply continue until they wear the child out and the child complies, or splits off a new self-state who complies.
When a perpetrator nonviolently sexually stimulates a child with the aim of inducing orgasm, the child may initially resist. Young children often fear these frightening unexplainable sensations. Older children may desperately fight not to experience sexual pleasure with the person who is sexually assaulting them, especially if it is a parent or sibling, etc. However, such perpetrators continue until the child is exhausted and understands that the perpetrator will continue until this response occurs. The child has no choice but to give in. Children, even babies and young children, can experience orgasm if exposed to enough sexual stimuli. This is the typical response of sexually abused children when their perpetrators have orgasm as a goal. And when this response occurs, perpetrators usually accuse the child of liking the abuse and/or sadistically mock and shame the child for responding.
The next subject I will address is more challenging to understand. This is the phenomenon of sexual responses, including orgasm, during brutal rape, sadistic rape, and torture.
In 2004, Roy Levin and Willy van Berlo published a review article on the Subject: Sexual Arousal and Orgasm in Subjects Who Experience Forced or Non-consensual Sexual Stimulation – a Review, in the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine (Issue 11, 82-88) to examine whether unsolicited or nonconsensual sexual stimulation of either males or females can create unwanted sexual arousal even to the induction of an orgasm. Clinicians’ reports were their primary source of information. They concluded that this response does occur and that “the induction of arousal and even orgasm does not permit the conclusion that the subjects consented to the stimulation.”
This subject has been receiving increased attention in more recent years. This 2013 Popular Science article by Jenny Morber: What Science Says About Arousal During Rape: Yes, orgasms can happen to rape victims includes many statements by therapists who have found this to be a common response in both child and adult victims of sexual assault, both girls and women, and boys and men.
Such responses may be referred to as “unwanted sexual responses” and “arousal nonconcordance.”
In this video, sex educator Emily Nagoski explains “arousal nonconcordance” as “a disconnect between physical response and the experience of pleasure and desire.” See her Ted talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/emily_nagoski_the_truth_about_unwanted_arousal
Here is Dr.Nagoski’s dissertation: https://scholarworks.iu.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2022/7351/umi-indiana-1460.pdf;sequence=1
In it she explains that perceived sexual threat activates both the sexual inhibition system (SIS) and sexual excitation system (SES) and that:
“Whether a sexual response then occurs will depend on the balance between SIS and SES. In the presence of a weak SIS, sexual response may not only occur but also be augmented by the effects of the threat-induced general arousal increase (i.e. excitation transfer).
Excitation transfer theory was originated by Dolf Zillman in 1983. It purports that the emotional and physiological excitation (sympathetic nervous system arousal) to a stimulus lingers, thus amplifying the emotional/excitation response to a subsequent stimulus, even if they differ in emotional valence.
Emily Nagoski applies excitation transfer theory to co-occurring stimuli during sexual threat, suggesting that fear-based heightened sympathetic nervous system arousal can induce sexual arousal.
As Morber explains:
“Quite simply, our bodies respond to sex. And our bodies respond to fear. Our bodies respond. They do so uniquely and often entirely without our permission or intention. Orgasm during rape isn’t an example of an expression of pleasure. It’s an example of a physical response whether the mind’s on board or not, like breathing, sweating, or an adrenaline rush. Therapists commonly use the analogy of tickling. While tickling can be pleasurable, when it is done against someone’s wishes it can be very unpleasant experience. And during that unpleasant experience, amid calls to stop, the one being tickled will continue laughing. They just can’t help it.
Morber also connects this to excitation transfer theory:
“Adding to the issue is that sexual arousal and orgasm appear to originate from the autonomic nervous system– the same reflex-driven system that underlies heart rate, digestion, and perspiration. Our control over sexual arousal is no better than our control over the dilation of our pupils or how much we sweat. The presence of sexual arousal during rape is about as relevant to consent as any of these other responses. In violent assaults, intense physical arousal from fear can heighten sexual sensations in a process called ‘excitation transfer.’ In one laboratory study, anxiety from threat of electric shock enhanced male erectile responses to erotic images. The men in this study were not looking forward to the shock. They did not enjoy the shock. Their body’s heightened state of physical arousal – anxiety about the threat of pain – heightened sexual arousal as well. Sexual arousal is just one more component of the ‘fight or flight’ state.
A related possible explanation for female sexual responses to rape is “the preparation hypothesis,” which posits that “nonspecific and automatic genital responses in women may serve a protective or preparatory function, readying women for sexual intercourse whether it is desired or not.” (See: Suschinsky, K.D. & Lalumière, M.L. (2011). “Prepared for Anything? An Investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues”, Psychological Science 22(2) 159–165.) In other words, women may have evolved to lubricate and otherwise sexually respond to rape to reduce injury because forceful penetration may be a considerable factor throughout history and prehistory.
To explore this theory, Suschinsky and Lalumière (2011) studied 15 men and 15 women recruited from a university campus, between 18 and 28 years old, and reporting themselves free from mental illnesses and sexual dysfunction. They exposed them to narratives of sexual encounters, consenting and non-consenting, and non-violent and violent, and measured their sexual responses. They found:
“The results support the preparation hypothesis: Men showed the greatest genital arousal in response to narratives depicting consensual, nonviolent sex, whereas women showed similar responses to all the narratives involving sexual activities, including those describing a sexual assault.
I also wonder if rape victims may somehow “catch” their sadistic perpetrators’ frenzied sexual intensity through their mirror neurons, etc., and/or if they may learn to focus on the sexual vs. painful sensations while being raped as an adaptive means of psychological survival during the assault. In other words, victims may be able to dissociate from the pain of rape (and co-occurring torture) by intently focusing on any sexual sensations that occur. This may be one way that dissociated sexual self-states form.
Why does this matter?
Both child and adult victims of sexual assault have great difficulty allowing memories of such sexual responses into consciousness. These memories may be dissociated for many decades, often relegated to deeply buried personalities. To respond sexually to assault is frightening, embarrassing, confusing, often a basis for believing that they consented or enjoyed the sexual abuse and a deep-seated fear that they are sexually perverse/sick and morally bad. This can be a source of self-injury, often including genital self-mutilation. In many cases, such victims become averse to all sexual contact, are disconnected from their bodies, and cannot conceive of sexual pleasure. Or, specific dissociated personalities may be able to engage sexually, but often only as a submissive victim or reliant on pain or humiliation to have a sexual response. If conscious fantasies of rape have become a long-term source of sexual arousal, the shame is further amplified.
Sexual assault victims need their therapists to understand the normalcy of sexual responses to sexual assault. They their therapists to be able to explain it to them. This is one of those times when therapists need to do a lot of the talking, a lot of psycho-education, until clients are comfortable enough to remember and to share their feelings with us.
It is bad enough that sexual assault victims have had their bodies and souls violated, that they feel defiled, and that they condemn themselves for their terror and helplessness to defend themselves. It is heartbreaking that they search endlessly for an answer to the illusive question, “Why me?,” when the responsibility lies fully with the perpetrator. It is devastating that most victims withhold disclosure for years, even decades, for fear that disclosure will only make things worse – and it often does. All of these victim responses are completely understandable, but horribly unfair. The more we – therapists, partners, loved ones, and victims themselves – understand about the normalcy of unwanted sexual responses to sexual assault, the more we can ameliorate this painful list of reasons that victims unfairly condemn themselves.