There is a culture of silence when it comes to sexual assault in this part of the world, and the fact that assault is shrouded in so much silence limits us from fully exploring the realms of what this violation entails.
This limitation means that we are faced with just one narrative and cluster of associations surrounding rape that we find it difficult to accept new narratives. For instance, the idea that rape is always rough; or, a woman can’t rape a man; or, the belief that it is impossible to be sexually aroused while the assault happened. These are narratives that we have been taught or picked up subconsciously due to what we have been fed either in pop culture or media.
I know I’m about to take us into unfamiliar grounds and debunk a certain belief that I dare say is a taboo, but, stay with me and let us unpack this new idea together.
Sexual arousal and pleasure during a sexual assault
Before we begin, let me clarify that pleasure and sexual arousal is not synonymous. Pleasure is a mental state that humans experience as positive, enjoyable and worth seeking; while sexual arousal is a set of physiological & psychological response gotten during the performance of sexual activities or in anticipation of impending sexual activities. However they bleed into each other as sexual arousal can lead to pleasure, which manifests as pleasurable sensations but there are many cases where one can be sexually aroused but find no pleasure in the act. This fine line is often blurred; hence we must be careful not to conflate the two.
Quite a number argue that one cannot feel pleasurable sensations while being assaulted because that goes against everything an assault stands for – for the reason that if you were aroused or worse pleasured then it was not assault . This is where you hear things like “it’s not rape if you cum” or the story that went viral about a man who divorced his wife because she moaned while the thieves who broke into their home violated her.
And if we are being honest, you can’t fault that logic because how can something so awful arouse someone or get someone to an orgasmic state. It seems bizarre and inappropriate and a slap to the victims of “real assault”
But to unpack this, one must first challenge what we mean by “real rape”- the cultural narrative tends to present rape as that sudden violation initiated by a stranger hiding in a bush or finds cluster of associations that do not necessarily reflect what assault entails. This means that often we have a specific definition of what rape is/should be, hence one who does not fall under the strict definition is seen not to be “really raped”, and because very often we are inclined to believe that sexual assault is that thing that destroys a person’s life, in our bid to gain justice, we insist on pushing a chronicle that the person sees the crime as the ultimate loss and devastation, which re-victimizes the victim because society begins to see them as damaged, impure and corrupted.
So we have one, who society deems as impure dealing with a dilemma, they begin to ask questions like– how can this thing seen as dirty and violating arouse me? Does this mean I secretly want this? Or am I just a deviant being? And as you can imagine this creates a vacuum filled with guilt and shame.
The reality is that a large number of people do not feel pleasure during an assault as that feeling of pleasure is deeply connected to their ability to consent; but on the other hand, there are people who do, as their body reacts without their consent.
This is often the best- kept and most deeply shameful secret of many survivors
As humans, our body has an involuntary response to stimuli, therefore even when you are being assaulted and its awful and quite violating your nerve endings still respond to touch.
This is why some refer to it as their body “betraying” them.
In the book Americannah, the lead character found herself in a situation where she ended up in bed with a white man who had a fetish for black women. She was disgusted with herself and the act but she couldn’t control herself as she found herself sexually aroused and pleasured when he fondled her breasts. This guilt we know ate her up as she ended up calling it quits with her long-time partner.
During a sexual assault, we feel “good” because our bodies respond when touched in certain ways. For instance, when someone gently caressing your arm, many people get goose bumps whether they want it or not; So If you tied the person down and gently caressed their arm, they will still get goose bumps.
This applies with tickling also; for many people if you tickle them they laugh, they can’t help it. However if the person does not want to be tickled, it can cause pain, becomes invasive and annoying but guess what?
They still laugh! This form of tickle torture was used by the Chinese- they used this because it left no discerning mark or lasting damage on the victim.
The fact that rape can be potentially pleasurable makes it more traumatizing for the victims.
We know that this dirty trick is sometimes used by abusers to make their victims feel responsible; they know that if they are stimulated in the right way, they might just enjoy it. Hence, when they believe they have gotten the victim to respond physically to their touch, it helps with alleviating their guilt.
This is seen very often in sexual abuse in children. We believe that most paedophiles use this as their modus operandi and grooming process, as this “delicate” touch centers around breaking down the child’s inhibitions and defences to the physical sexual act, so these stimulations allow the child accommodate the abuse and also feel complicit in it.
This is why children who get a pleasurable sensation from the touch keep going back to their abuser and when they do realize that they were being abused, it becomes conflicting for them. We hear of some who feel like they are sexually deviant for finding pleasure in the act.
But let’s change gear a bit and look at men, because they are victims of this as well. But it is quite different with this sex, because there’s no tear or force except the boy/man is being violated by another man.
If this assault is being perpetuated by a girl/woman, the man most likely gets an erection and orgasms after; which leads to a pleasurable sensation, releasing dopamine in the brain.
We know that one of the most prevalent abuse occur between maids/care givers and boys; but sadly many don’t see that as a problem. They might know itÂ’s morally wrong but are not necessarily bothered by it- as how can something so “bad” feel so “good”.
But what happens when the assaulter is of the same sex as the victim. One can quickly conclude that the person is a homosexual for responding to touch but again that is a fallacy.
Their body is just responding to physical stimulus. I know many of us will find it difficult to reconcile this when the people in question are of the male gender, but when the penis is being rubbed, it does not discriminate based on gender. This as expected causes a lot of shame and guilt for the male victims, because feeling aroused or ejaculating signals to them that they were willing participants who enjoyed it.
But what if the victim is actually gay? They fear their sexuality was born out of their assault which makes it difficult for them to feel comfortable with their identity. I would be lying if I said there are no such cases, where one’s sexuality is influenced by assault, which is why I strongly insist that people in this predicament visit a therapist to help resolve the dilemma to allow them embrace their identity.
Lastly, we have the rape that is not even recognized in the law “marital rape”, this type of rape is so blur that many don’t even believe it exists, and hence the issue of pleasure during this form of assault seems justified.
When we have cases of marital rape or rape between people in an already existing sexual relationship, they can feel pleasure/orgasm in between episodes of rape, and abusers can use this against them “you seem to have enjoyed it last night”, “but you said you weren’t interested” etc.. This makes them feel like willing participant and allows them believe that maybe the assault wasn’t really an assault.
We can all understand that this can very shameful to speak about or admit to oneself but many times this shame can manifest in different ways as we try to mask the pain and guilt attached to it. Below are some of the vices that people engage in to mask it-
Sexual self -injury:
This is a compulsive act where they make themselves available for degradation /put themselves in harm’s way in order for them to have a repeat of what happened. For example purposely walking alone at night
Addiction to Violent Porn:
In a bid to trigger themselves or connect with the feelings of the assault some watch violent porn.
Masturbating compulsively to abusive fantasises /abuse memories:
This can be highly addictive and also an outlet for emotional pain; as they are trying to recreate the feelings of sensation they felt during the assault. Sometimes the thought creeps in when they are masturbating but instead of getting turned off, they get turned on, after the deed they end up feeling dirty and ashamed. This becomes a vicious cycle.
Avoiding sex completely:
When something like orgasm that’s meant to bring pleasure to you is hijacked by awful memories, it can be difficult to engage in sexual intercourse. You feel shame after, sometimes orgasms triggers memories of the abuse, while some engage in sexual intercourse but stop half way for fear of orgasms.
I know we as a society are not interested in hearing the painful realities of what assault victims go through, not just physically but emotionally and mentally unless it fits the narrative we have been taught for years and this resistance shames people who have realities different from the mainstream narrative from seeking help.
However, I urge us all to be more tolerant and understand that there is no one size fit all when it comes to abuse. If you have/are experiencing this, please seek professional help and if you do not have the funds for professional help; use the internet. There are so many people who have experienced this and are sharing their stories; there is a comfort in knowing that you are not alone.
Written by Lolo Cynthia. Lolo Cynthia is a public health specialist and is a producer on Rave TV.