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Sexual Arousal During Abuse and the Shame of the Survivor

Think about the last time you sat down to eat. Maybe you finally managed to sneak a lunch break at work. Or maybe you got home for the day and had a nice family dinner. After you got done eating, you probably decided whether or not it was a good time for your body to digest your food, right? You thought to yourself, “I think I’d rather digest my food later. I just don’t have time right now, so I’ll put it off.” Wait, that’s not what happened?

Why? Because your body does lots of things automatically, without any thought from you. When you eat, your body immediately starts digesting your food, giving you nutrition and energy. It’s a natural, physiological process.

Sexual Arousal Is a Natural Process

The same thing is true of sexual arousal: it’s a natural process in our bodies. Ellen Bass and Laura Davis explain, “Our bodies are created to respond to stimulation. When they are touched sexually, our whole physiology is designed to give us pleasure. These are natural bodily reactions over which we do not have control.”1

Yet survivors still feel shame and guilt if they experienced sexual arousal during abuse, and that shame can have an impact on current relationships and experiences. For example, one survivor said:

I remember times when I became sexually excited during the abuse. Afterwards, I’d feel so upset, ashamed, and disgusted with myself . . . Now when I become sexually excited with my husband, I’ll freeze as if to stop myself from having any pleasure during sex.2

Abuse can create confusing and conflicted reactions for survivors. On one hand, you wanted to scream out and make the abuse stop. On the other hand, your body possibly experienced pleasurable sensations.

There Is No Shame in a Natural Response

You should know this: If you experienced sexual arousal or pleasure during your abuse, it doesn’t mean that you consented to or enjoyed what happened. You didn’t encourage the abuse to continue. And it doesn’t mean that sexual pleasure is bad. Put simply, if you experienced arousal or orgasm, it means your body did what bodies are supposed to do. Another survivor commented, “I had to realize I didn’t get off because I liked it . . . My body responded to touch. That was all.”1

Sex, intimacy, trust, and betrayal are connected in complicated and confusing ways for survivors. Untangling those connections will take time and work, but find comfort in knowing that the natural responses of your body are just that—natural. You don’t feel shame that your body digests food without your permission, and there’s nothing shameful about any of the other natural things that your body does.