Last summer, when Republican candidate Todd Akin was quoted saying, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” he was, thankfully enough, met with incredulous public outrage. (Update: he regrets his foolish words!) However – as abhorrent as Akin’s comments are – they do reveal society’s general misunderstanding of how the human body, the brain, sexual assault, and arousal are scientifically interconnected.
Although most found Akin’s opinions on pregnancy to be fallacious, what would the response have been if he had instead addressed orgasm? What about the possibility of vaginal lubrication or erection? When rape culture so heavily influences our ideas of assault, when they were asking for it and they wanted it are still common justifications to violence, can we really be surprised when the mind-body connection is used to belittle the experiences of sexual assault survivors?
A 2008 case ended in Judge Johnson of Orange County ruling, “If someone doesn’t want to have sexual intercourse, the body shuts down,” basically parroting Akin’s statements.
Sexual assault is not a monolithic experience. The version most often illustrated by the media involves a victim grappling with their perpetrator, furthering the idea that unless the victim put up a vicious fight, they didn’t actually say no.
Science doesn’t lie though -- and it turns out the media is totally wrong. So is Judge Johnson, who was forced to apologize for his outdated remarks this year.
“Substantial ethnographic, historical, and comparative evidence suggests that the threat of unwanted sexual activity has been considerable over human evolutionary history,” report two scientists, Suschinsky and Lalumiere. Their conclusions show that the pattern of women becoming aroused during assault may be an “evolutionary vestige that served to protect women from the genital injury that can come from wanted sex.” Therefore, lubrication during rape is simply a physical reflexive response, something that cannot be controlled and has absolutely nothing to do with consent. In fact, it is unassociated with pleasure, but instead with protection.
Furthermore, sexual arousal is housed in the autonomic nervous system – the same “reflex-driven system that underlies heart rate, digestion, and perspiration,” as Jenny Morber writes in Double X Science. This is also where the fight-or-flight response comes from, which is the well-known physiological reaction that occurs when the human body senses a threat to survival. In one study with male participants, anxiety from the threat of electric shock was shown to enhance male erectile response to sexual images, resulting in an “excitation transfer.” This means that the subjects didn’t enjoy the shock at all, but that their body reacted to the threat of pain, which transferred to physical arousal.
Levin and Berlo write conclusively in the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine: “A perpetrator’s defense against the alleged assault built solely on the evidence that genital arousal or orgasm in the victim proves consent has no intrinsic validity and should be disregarded.”
Although many survivors know intellectually that arousal has nothing to do with consent, they often struggle with guilt and shame about their reactions afterwards. A British nurse-therapist reports that approximately 1 in 20 women who come to her clinic report orgasms during sexual abuse. “It is not detailed in professional literature because the victims usually do not want to talk about it because they feel guilty as people will think that if it happened they must have enjoyed it. The victims often say, ‘My body let me down.’”
One survivor says, “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.”
What can we possibly do to combat these harmful notions? One helpful course of action would be to try to eliminate the inaccurate theories that pop science propagates. If more people knew that arousal during assault is an uncontrollable, physical reaction, survivors would not have to contend with as much guilt afterwards, and judges like Johnson wouldn’t be able to get away with spouting such false information.
As many therapists use, a common analogy is tickling. “While tickling can be pleasurable, when it is done against someone’s wishes it can be a 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.”
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