Sexual Response During Rape
- - may be triggering - read with care - -
One of the most devastating after-effects for many survivors of being raped is when your body betrays you and responds by becoming aroused during the assault. This sets the stage for confusion, shame and blame and ultimately the loss of all self-worth and self-esteem in many individuals. It is probably the least talked about problem also, because simply revealing it causes an even greater embarrassment and shame and fear of not being believed as well as a fear of hurting partners or "becoming dirty" to them - it simply is held secret and the damage begins to grow and devastate the survivor, their partner and their relationship.
The Problem and the Journey into Despair
At the point of greatest need for understanding and support the survivor is instead left emotionally isolated and alone and begins to feel abandoned and their feelings of shame and loss of self-worth become blended with their sexual response. They remember feelings of arousal when thinking of the most horrifying thing that ever happened to them and without an understanding partner horror, shame, excitement and sexual arousal become confusingly mixed together. Sexual arousal and shame and loss of self-worth become combined, and healthy and "wanted" sexual relationships bring terrible memories and feelings of "wrongness" which prevent the satisfaction and "joining" which is so desperately needed for healing. A barrier rises between the survivor and the partner which neither understands, and each begins to feel "secondary" or "left out" and true intimacy is lost. The relationship then begins to die as each begins to blame the other for what they aren’t getting or aren’t understanding. Often the relationship is lost or suffers permanent loss of true intimacy. In these situations, emotionally the rape never stops.
Survivors usually go one of two ways - they may pull back from sex entirely or be very restrained and inhibited. Or they may become promiscuous as they desperately seek a "right" relationship or to replace the "wrongness" of the arousal during the rape with the enjoyment and intimacy they have lost the ability to feel. The lost relationship is replaced with another - and then another - and another - each adding to the abandonment and loss of self-worth. Partners are welcomed as heroes (idealized) and let in to the depths of the survivor’s heart as they seek rescue from the horror within which they live. Then each time they make love and true intimacy is sought, the arousal brings with it the loss of self-worth and shame from which they are trying to escape and slowly the partner becomes identified with that as well. The survivor becomes frustrated and angry at the partner and begins to view themself as being victimized again, holding the partner responsible and "splitting" the once upon a time hero into an evil villain. They blame themselves for allowing it to happen and for participating and for being emotionally and sexually aroused by such a villain - and the emotional fire grows even stronger and more consuming. The survivor eventually throws off the relationship and "takes back their life", despising the former partner as the cause of their increased distress. Then it’s on to the next hero - let the guard down again - be destroyed again - and again. The rape continues on.
The survivor has only half the loss here and suffers only half the pain, as agonizing as it is. Partner’s lives are destroyed also as the survivor travels on. The unaware partner doesn’t know how to act or what to do, and as they see themselves slipping from hero to villain they become desperate and needy and unwittingly contribute to the situation, often alternating from increased attempts at sexual intimacy which further damage the survivor to expressed frustration and bitterness and blame. Either response solidifies the survivor’s suspicions and fears. The partner then watches the object of his love begin to slip away and become increasingly sarcastic and angry - and then lives with the indescribable agony of losing one they often truly love and being falsely considered "guilty" of victimizing the very someone they sought and often put great effort into loving and helping. Partners who go through this often develop "secondary ptsd" and also lose the ability to trust. The ability to feel true intimacy becomes lost to them as well as to the survivor they loved and lost.
After a series of these doomed relationships the survivor loses all self-worth and begins to expect loss and abandonment as the norm. Often they begin to consider or attempt suicide and view death as a release from the cycle of despair brought about by aloneness, need, loss and unworthiness. Their condition closely approximates that of those having Borderline Personality Disorder - only their plight is much worse as they usually suffer from full-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Rape Trauma Syndrome as well.
Facts about Sexual Arousal and Rape
FACT: Being taken forcibly is a fantasy that most couples and people have and many have experimented with it and even found enjoyment in "rape fantasy". The difference is that the fantasy is desired and the subjugation and sexual arousal is an acceptable and enjoyable response. The mind knows the difference and finds being forced against it’s will terrifying and repugnant. But the body doesn’t know the difference and often responds. The result is confusion and loss of identity along with terror, arousal (often strong), disgust, fear of death and more often than not violence and pain. The survivor is left with loathing and disgust with their own bodies for responding against their will and if they have a partner, for betraying that partner. Self-worth becomes zero and they cannot talk of it - to do so would create an unacceptable negative self-worth. Even worse, if they have a partner they perceive the involuntary sexual arousal as a betrayal and feel extreme guilt as well. To reveal it to their partner would be to hurt and risk loss of worth to the partner as well and create a further loss of self-worth beyond what can be accepted.
FACT: Body responses are basically involuntary and programmed differently than conscious responses. Drinking causes a reflex called swallowing. Touching something too hot or too cold causes a reflex to pull away. Touching a small baby’s cheek or lips lightly causes reflexive sucking. Sexual touching or manipulation causes a reflex called arousal, which in many people is also linked to physical desire. In daily life these involuntary responses are controlled by conscious thought; the cause of the reflex is either accepted or rejected, thereby continuing the reflex or stopping it. Normal sexual touching can be either accepted or rejected by the mind and emotions, thereby controlling the process of arousal and desire.
In many victims the horror and shock and probability of violence and pain and possibility of death short-circuits the normal reflexes and they feel no arousal - but in many others the reflex exists and works as it was designed to do and they become aroused and may even experience bodily desire along with the horror and shock and fear and pain. THIS IS NORMAL AND IT IS NOT CONTROLLABLE. The mind and emotions paralyze in shock and desperately try to control, but in rape that control is taken away. The mind and emotions dissociate and the body responds in reflex while the mind and emotions are paralyzed with horror and abject fear. Confusion reigns as the mind watches the body respond against it’s will, and in the aftermath the mind must accept the reality of the arousal and desire it felt. Shame and blame and complete loss of self-worth flood in and sow the seeds of destruction that will stay with the survivor for the rest of their life and wreak havoc in their lives and relationships unless they receive deep counseling, understanding and love. This is one of the true horrors of rape - without help and understanding in many people it continues to damage them and all those who love them for years to come - in a sense a never ending rape.
If any of those reading see themselves in this, whether you have revealed it to your partner or anyone or not, please understand that you are not to blame and you are not responsible for what you felt. You could not prevent the arousal and desire any more than you could prevent the terror and horror and pain. Your body responded as it is designed to do against your will because it was forced. That does not make you responsible and if you have a loved one who you are/were intimate with, you did not betray them or take anything from them - your rapist did and raped them as well. It is not your fault for being criminally attacked nor your responsibility for how your body was manipulated and made to feel.
I know many of you can’t control the shame and blame and you feel dirty and used and worthless every time you become aroused. I feel your emptiness and despair as those to whom you open your heart and turn to for love and comfort appear to slide away after taking what you so bravely attempt to give and share without ever taking away your pain and aloneness or recognizing or filling your need. I understand why you come to despise and hate them even though they are no more able to understand what you feel than you were able to prevent what happened to you. My heart cries for you and for your partners - neither of you deserve what has happened to you and I hope there is a special place reserved in hell for those who raped you and stole your innocence from you both.
I understand because I lost my love even though she meant more to me than life itself. I watched in agony as she slowly moved from looking at me as her hero to identifying me as a cause of her shame and loss of self-worth. I never knew how she felt every time she made love or what she truly needed until it was over. She never told me the details or how she’d been made to feel and she hid how she felt after we made love in order to try to establish a true intimacy - a desperate attempt to feel truly loved and to love back in the same way - an attempt to have the innocence of a normal relationship. I didn’t know about her shame and self-blame or understand her complete lack of self-worth or know the depth of her despair and expectation of loss once she admitted to loving me. She tried to tell me - tried to save us - but the words she used meant a different thing to her than they did to me and her words and her body told two different stories. I didn’t know and I didn’t understand and I was confused about what she needed from me - I was giving everything I had from my heart and yet she directed anger and sarcasm at me and accused me af caring only for myself and not her. In my grief and bitterness I began to respond in kind and I lost sight of the love she gave to me. I became as desperate and needy as she. As we drifted further apart I tried even harder to make her feel truly loved by loving her physically, never knowing this was the very thing contributing to her lack of self-worth, shame, loneliness and despair. At the very end she finally did find the words to make me understand - but it was too late and she moved on without ever giving me the chance to love her truly as she needed to be loved. I failed her utterly through not knowing and not understanding the things above - yet how could I have known or understood? How could I have known her words had a completely different frame of reference? No one told me and there was no place to find the information. She was unable to talk to me because I was her lover and not her friend, she said. So I never knew what she needed until too late and I’ll go to my grave with the deep sorrow of knowing that even though I loved her with all my heart I failed her and I damaged her.
Because of that I have researched and put together all that I have learned from talking to other survivors on forums and in real life to try to prevent the same loss from happening to others. But there is one more step - not only do I know now what I did wrong as the partner of a rape survivor, I also know what I should have done right as a partner.
A Word to Partners and Survivors Together on How to Help Each Other Heal
While this section is especially directed towards the special grief and special need for understanding of those survivors whose bodies betrayed them and responded with arousal and even desire while they were raped, it applies as well to those who suffered in different ways, whether it was violence or fear - anyone who has been forced against their will.
If you are a partner of someone who has been raped, you are in it with them and you will find that you have been raped also, although not physically. Without your consent and against your will your life has been changed forever - even if your choice to love the survivor came after the fact. Many of the things which are healthy and help normal relationships survive and prosper are the very things which, without understanding, will probably destroy yours. You are now called upon to rise above yourself and place the needs of the one you love above your own, and the impact and cost to you emotionally may be almost as great as it is to the one who survived the rape. You must be able and willing to change - be able to build a life for you both based on "what is" and leave "what was" behind. This is the greatest test of your love and ability to sacrifice for them - a time to put all the loving words you have spoken into affect. You are together in a nightmare world and your only hope to survive together is to understand, listen, and love unconditionally beyond measure. If you as a partner are not willing or are unable to do that, you will lose or irrevocably damage your relationship. If you as a partner care enough to understand and place your survivor partner first you will in the end reap the benefits of a closeness most others can only dream of.
If you are a friend or supporter of someone who has been raped, much of this will apply to you also. Even though you are not in an intimate relationship your friendship may be called upon to stand in the place of one emotionally. If you cannot adjust and see to the needs of your friend in their time of need you will surely drift apart - if your friendship is deep enough for you to be there for them you will find that your friendship grows much stronger than most and both of you will benefit in the end. It will call for you to understand and place them first - maybe even give up some things and take time for them - but they need you, and in calling you "friend" in their time of need they honor you. And you honor them and make their changed life easier if you can rise to the challenge and truly be a friend.
For both survivor and partner the rules have been changed and what works in a normal relationship can cause the destruction of either or both of you. The survivor may not be able to give to you emotionally until they heal. They may vent their anger and frustration on you and tell you you don’t understand and you’re not listening. They are usually right - without having been there, we as partners have no way to understand except through them, and if (as is usually the case) they can’t reveal themselves to us we are left guessing or searching for real advice which it is almost impossible to find before it is too late. Even if a survivor talks to you as a partner there are almost certainly things that are considered too demeaning to tell, and often the words they use mean different things to them than they do to you. The survivor has been forced into a different world from you and is all alone unless you go to hers - without your understanding and help she will not be able to re-enter yours. It will take true love beyond measure and giving up the needs and desires of your world for you to enter hers and help her heal. In reality for her to become victorious you must both heal together - don’t neglect counseling for yourself so that you can better understand and meet her needs during this crisis while still valuing yourself. It is your self-worth which will have to stand for hers until she heals. I’ll explain that later. And once started on the path to healing with her, you must never quit on her, even if she throws you off - to do so would be to take away the last little bit of self-worth she has and damage her further. She needs to know she is worth someone’s commitment - that someone finds her worthy - in order to heal. Survivors can heal on their own - but it is much quicker with a loving and understanding and committed partner.
You must understand that your love for her has to be for her as a person and you may be called upon to suffer much or even lose her in the end - but if you stand by her and see her on her way on the journey to healing then you have given the greatest gift a friend and partner can give. Often relationships break as stress builds and becomes unbearable for her - but then reform with a depth and beauty never thought possible as she heals and begins to understand your sacrifice of love for her.
I learned the things above and below through much grief and sorrow as I lost the woman I love. I thought I was giving her what she needed - was listening to her words but not what she was truly saying. By the time I realized that it was too late and in her mind I was no longer the hero, but the cause of her pain. Although I have never quit on her or stopped loving her she quit believing in me and moved on. I don’t blame her - she needed something I didn’t know at the time and didn’t know how to give. As we broke up I took it personally and blamed her and hurt her - I know it took it all away from her to hear those words coming from one she had depended on to love her more than all the rest. After realizing that, my pain for her became almost unbearable and I have searched out everything I can find and talked to everyone I can talk to on every forum I can find to know what I didn’t understand and what I did wrong and what I should do right if I ever get another chance. I’m telling you what I found so that maybe someone else won’t suffer the same loss - won’t unknowingly damage the one they love and watch her move on. I may never have another chance to love her - but maybe I can make sure others have that chance with the one they love and can help them heal.For Partners To Know
Many of those who have been raped and suffered an involuntary physical arousal and response develop deep shame and feelings of unworthiness and may find it completely impossible to talk about it with their partner and only rarely can with friends. One of the kindest and most loving things you can do as a partner is to understand that this may have happened and not pressure the survivor for details, but do take all the time she needs to listen to the things she does tell you. Make the time if necessary - this is the most important person in your life. She is in an extreme emotional and identity crisis not her fault and not of her own making and how you respond can make a great difference in how well and how fast she heals. Statistics say it also will make the difference whether your relationship survives or not.
In the survivor’s mind and emotions the horror, pain and fear of rape and the physical enjoyment of sex are now confusingly mixed together. Self-blame and shame start to grow as every thought of the rape brings with it the remembrance of physical response and even physical desire along with disgust and revulsion. She feels unworthy of her partner and unworthy of being loved by them - feels she betrayed them, or in the case of a new partner, that her feelings are not letting her give them the intimacy and exclusivity they need and should have from her. Every attempt at making love brings with it the mixed emotions plus added guilt that she can’t fully belong to you and the anger that she can no longer feel the fulfilment making love used to bring. She is isolated and alone - even in physical intimacy - with no one she can tell and no way to find help. Usually one of two things happens within the relationship; the survivor begins to avoid sex to escape from what it makes her feel or she may try valiantly to give to you and make love often and frantically - hoping that in doing so she can lose the horrible mix of shame and guilt and anger and unworthiness and replace it with the closeness once there. In new relationships the survivor may look to you as the hero who will rescue her from this and make her feel loved - take it all away. Again in each new relationship, normally the survivor will avoid sex or commit to it desperately - they appear to be opposites but they are not - both are attempts to escape from the blending of horror and arousal and shame and unworthiness that is shattering their souls and keeping their heart in the fire.
Now the real damage starts. For those who hold back or abstain from sex true intimacy with you as a partner is damaged - in new relationships it never develops properly and the survivor experiences increasing isolation and aloneness - her sense of unworthiness and guilt grows as she has to accept that your needs aren’t being met. This becomes a pressure on her as well as a validation of all the unworthiness she already feels and self-esteem spirals to nothing. With no self-esteem the survivor can’t believe in or trust your love - they in their own minds are "bad" so why should you love them? Suspicion and lack of trust build on top of all the rest they have to bear and the relationship is strained or lost as the survivor gives up and begins to resent and then despise you for making them feel this way by having needs of your own. Then they feel guilty for being angry or resentful of you and at their own inability to be "normal", which increases the loss of self-worth and they begin a spiral down into a constant burning emotional pain that very few partners ever know or feel or understand. It is estimated that over 50% of survivors break the relationship because the pain of separation is more bearable than what they must live with in the relationship.
For those survivors who try to replace the "bad" confused and blended emotions of rape and unwelcome arousal with "good" or "clean" sex the result is much the same. Thoughts of the rape bring memories of unwanted arousal and desire - feelings of arousal and desire bring thoughts of the rape and then memories of the unwanted but real arousal and possible physical desire. For the survivor who had to experience this there is no escape from the feelings of shame and unworthiness. They lose themselves in lovemaking - often opening themselves completely to feeling the very same thing they experienced during their rape - hoping that with you it will be "good" and that they can love and feel loved in a right way once again. In the heat of the moment they can lose the feeling of unworthiness and feel desired and special and their shame is lost for the time - only to flood in even more strongly as the thoughts and memories return and the realization that they once more participated and enjoyed the act just as happened during the rape - thus validating their shame and feelings of being "dirty" and "bad" and worthless. But for a few minutes it was good - they almost felt right - so they try again, and again, and again. Every time the result is the same - afterwards the shame and disgust with themselves becomes much more intense and the fire which constantly burns their hearts becomes ever hotter. Over time sex with you - or any partner - becomes identified with the confused shame and arousal and disgust the survivor feels and they begin to dread it rather than desire it. They begin to look at you as the cause of their pain - frustration and resentment and sarcasm and anger flood in because they both need you for the moments of freedom from their pain and despise you for bringing it on them. To pull back, though, makes the survivor feel feel they have led you on or are letting you down, increasing the loss of self-esteem. Once again the relationship loses true intimacy and the survivor becomes bitterly alone with her pain - usually blaming the partner for not understanding, not caring, wanting sex only for their own fulfilment - for using and victimizing her yet again. Once again the pain of losing the relationship is less than that of staying in it and the survivor moves on - and on - endlessly looking for that "hero" who will give her back her innocence and make her feel loved and worthy.
A Path To Healing: for Intimate Partners
In the beginning of my relationship with the woman I’ll love for the rest of my life - before I lost her - she would tell me that she wanted me to say no to sex and then make intense love anyhow. Immediately following she would be withdrawn and often angry - sometimes saying I had betrayed her again and sometimes upset that I had held back from worrying how she was feeling. I tried to understand but didn’t - it was so confusing - her words said one thing and her actions another. I tried to agree with her to say no if she didn’t want to do it or felt bad and let her lead as to what she wanted - then I was accused of not listening and ignoring her to get what I wanted.
She was right - I wasn’t listening. I thought she wanted me to say no and not do it but do it when she wanted it and wasn’t feeling bad. Not so. The words meant a different thing in her world with her experience than they did in mine with my experience. What she meant was she needed me to say no for her and not allow her to progress to a point that she would end up feeling the awful shame and loss of self-worth combined with arousal and desire. She was saying that because of what she felt and because of her love for me she would become fully involved and end up paying a horrible price every time - a price she knew from past experience would destroy our relationship in the end. She likened it to being burnt by a fire that you could not escape from. That is where the name of this site was born - "Hearts in the Fire"
She finally made me start to understand, but only after it was too late. I realize now why she was always distraught that we had become lovers and she couldn’t talk to me. I realize now what happened to her and that for her to tell to the person she needed to love her a thing that made her feel completely unworthy and "bad" was impossible. Because I didn’t know I didn’t understand and it was only after I lost her that I began putting her words with those of people I talked to on the forums and it became very clear what she was saying in her world that meant something different in mine. She knew what she needed from me but wasn’t able to make me know.
For a person in this position to heal fully, the combination of the horror of the rape and disgust and shame at her involuntary response has to be unwound. That can’t be done by avoiding it until it goes away, and it can’t be done by trying to replace it with "good" sex. Both bring further damage and destruction of the people involved and the relationship. What is needed is for you as a partner to say no to that and to the survivor’s attempts to make love. You must just hold them - make them feel safe and wanted and loved without the sex. This might take a long time but eventually they will become safe and not make the rape connection that comes with arousal and they will begin to connect love and arousal once again.. Let them progress at their own speed - a small step at a time - only as far as they feel safe and loved. Your commitment must be to never let them go further than they feel "right" and safe - never let them get to the zone where the emotions become mixed and confused and bring the shame and unworthiness. NEVER! As time goes on and the survivor’s zone of comfort and safety grows and you get closer and closer to fulfilment, she herself is driving the confusing emotions out and replacing them with feeling loved and safe. It may be hard, but if you love her truly as a person then you will love her enough to be there for her and help her heal. When she has worked through it she will be fully healed and victorious, and you will have a love for each other that will never break.
I wish I had had that chance - wish I had known that loving my partner as she seemed to want was exactly the wrong thing and that it was damaging to her. We would have both enjoyed the holding back and growing together as she healed. Instead of an empty life I would have had a wife.
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