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Consent and Unwanted arousal

During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’ve been focusing on dispelling harmful myths about sexual assault that lead to victim blaming and shaming. This blaming and shaming is not only done by others, but even by victims themselves. To me, one of the most important things we must do to create consent culture is to dismantle the misconceptions that lead sexual assault survivors to doubt and blame themselves.

Right now we live within a culture of coercion, what is also called a “rape culture”, in which perpetrators of sexual violence are protected, and victims of sexual violence are burdened with layers of blame, shame, silence, and isolation.

That shame and blame, and the isolation that they lead to, are thrust upon all of us through societal scripts and myths. One sexual assault myth that I have spent a fair bit of time on is the idea that it is only sexual assault if the victim yells, fights, or somehow resists physically. In reality the most common autonomic response to sexual assault is the freeze response, which makes resistance, fighting, or even saying no, impossible. You can read my blog peice about the freeze response here.

This myth of how a sexual assault victim should respond permeates society and leads to a lot of victim blaming and shaming when people fail to adhere to the myth. Most tragically, survivors who don’t know about the freeze response or understand why they responded the way they did are very likely to blame and shame themselves for not leaving or resisting. 

The myth I want to speak about today is very similar in that it also involves automatic physical reactions to sexual assault that are completely outside of the conscious control of the victim. These physical responses can be very confusing and also lead to shaming and blaming.

I first learned about arousal nonconcordance while reading Emily Nagoski’s wonderful book “Come As You Are”, which I highly recommend. (She also has a great Ted Talk on arousal noncordance that you can watch here.)

Arousal nonconcordance is a term to describe the very common experience of having your sexual arousal NOT match your actual wants and desires. This can go two ways. You could really really want to become aroused, but it’s just not happening. You can’t get your body to feel the way your mind wants it to feel, and you may end up getting a prescription for viagra, or hormonal supplements to help with that. 

But what many people don’t realize is that arousal nonconcordance can also lead to unwanted arousal, and even orgasm, during sexual assault. The physical response of the body is automatic due to physical stimulation and has nothing at all to do with the wants or likes of the victim. This can happen to anyone of any gender. 

Boys and men who are assaulted by men may already feel intense shame over being victimized and feeling helpless, and a misunderstood and unwanted erection during the assault may make the shame just that much more unbearable. No wonder it can be so difficult for men to report their experiences of sexual assault.

We aren’t taught about these potential unwanted responses as we learn about our bodies and sex. Instead we hear statements such as “the body doesn’t lie”, “her mouth said no, but her body said yes”, or “you’re just uptight or shy, but your body knows what you want.” 

Sadly, as with the freeze response, many police and courts are not aware of arousal nonconcordance, and make judgements on whether an act was consensual or not based on the reported sexual responses of the victim. As Emily Nagoski references in her Ted Talk, lawyers will still speak about an orgasm on the part of the victim as proof of consent, even with underaged victims.

Many survivors will never report the assault or abuse because without the scientific information they need, they feel ashamed of their unwanted physical response, and doubt or blame themselves.

When we are teaching our kids about their bodies and sex, we need to also be teaching them about arousal nonconcordance. They need to know that it is normal and common for the body to have automatic responses that are out of their conscious control. Hopefully we will have already taught them about the freeze response when they were old enough to understand about a deer freezing in the headlights, and how mammals respond to trauma. We can then build on that knowledge of autonomic, or automatic physical responses that are not made through conscious decision making.

Young people need to know that only they can decide if they want or like something, and if they want to know if someone else likes or wants something, they have to ask. An erection, or wetness, or any other sign of arousal does not equal consent.

In our book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators, we did not address the issue of arousal nonconcordance, but it is something I include in my workshops and presentations now.  Learn more about those workshops and presentations at my website:

Order the book here!

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