Sex and Trauma
Some trauma sufferers experience sexual arousal during a trauma. This can include:
- Orgasm or ejaculation during an unwanted sexual act
- Arousal and orgasm for heterosexual people during a homosexual act
- Ejaculation during non-sexual trauma
Many trauma survivors question these responses, sometimes concluding that it meant something about them, such as “I must have wanted it.”
However physiological sexual response and desire for sex is not always connected. The technical term for this is non-concordance – your body is not reacting the way your brain is. Your brain is not experiencing desire, yet your body is experiencing sexual arousal.
Sex educator Emily Nagoski discusses the concept of arousal non-concordanace in her book, Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life. She also discusses it in her writing on medium, she describes it as such:
“Arousal non-concordance is the well-established phenomenon of a lack of overlap between how much blood is flowing to a person’s genitals and how ‘turned on they feel’.”
Trauma survivors understanding that a sexual response can be about nerve endings being stimulated, not about desire is important.
One analogy that many people can relate to is being tickled. One can be tickled, despite not wanting to be tickled, yet will still laugh. This can happen despite struggling. If nerve endings are stimulated the result, is laughter.
Emily Nagoski also gives a clear analogy of the disconnect that can happened between brain and body when it comes to sexual assault.
If I told you my mouth watered when I bit into an apple that was wormy and rotten, would you think, “Well if her mouth watered, she must really enjoy eating wormy, rotten apple”?
Of course not. You’d know that salivation is just an automatic response.
You’d believe me when you said, “My mouth watered, and I was totally grossed out.”
Genital response, too, is an automatic response, unrelated to whether or not we enjoy something.
In a large meta-analysis with a total sample size of 2,505 women and 1,918 men Meredith Chivers, and colleagues (2010) described studies reporting that:
- Some men report feeling sexual arousal without concomitant genital changes (pg5)
- experimental manipulations can increase penile erection without affecting subjective reports of sexual arousal (pg5)
- Some women show genital responses without reporting any experience of sexual arousal (pg5)
- Women can experience genital response during unwanted sex (pg 46)
The connection between psychological sexual arousal and desire for sex is not a given. If a client has a sexual response during a traumatic event it is important that they understand it does not follow that they wanted the event to happen, or were complicit in the trauma.
Chivers, M. L., Seto, M. C., Lalumière, M. L., Laan, E., & Grimbos, T. (2010). Agreement of self-reported and genital measures of sexual arousal in men and women: a meta-analysis. Archives of sexual behavior, 39(1), 5–56. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-009-9556-9
Nagoski, E. (2019). The Come as You Are Workbook: A Practical Guide to the Science of Sex. Simon and Schuster.