Back when it happened, I heard a lot of discussion about Todd Akin’s remarks about “legitimate rape” and pregnancy. There are so many different ways that his remarks were offensive and incorrect, but one thing that I have not heard addressed is how stress, trauma and anxiety can affect a person’s body during rape, assault and abuse. Underlying his remarks is that idea that a woman’s body will not respond to a rape, either by arousal or by pregnancy, and if it does, it wasn’t really rape. He claimed that a woman's body would just shut that whole thing down. This is patently false.
We don't shut that whole thing down; we respond.
Anxiety, fear and stress cause physiological arousal; it is the fight or flight response. Our bodies are designed to activate under situations that feel like attack, and that high level of activation can result in sexual arousal, too. The increased blood flow, higher heart rate, changes in respiration, the takeover of the limbic system…these are all that same changes that lead to lubrication and erection. When we are threatened, our sexual organs can become aroused and activated just like the other systems in our bodies. This is one of the reasons that anxiety fuels premature ejaculation; stress and worry feed that arousal system. So rather than “shutting that whole thing down,” our bodies are designed to react and engage during attack.
There is no shame in our body's response to trauma. It is meant to protect us.
Victims of rape and abuse can become aroused and can even reach orgasm. Not understanding that this is a normal physiological response has caused people tremendous shame. There is an underlying belief that arousal is evidence that they “wanted it” and that they “liked it.” Debunking that myth is an important part of the therapy process for many victims; they need to understand that their bodies can respond independently of their hearts and minds, especially when under stress.