Written by Westland Researcher Adrianna Xue Content/Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
“What were you wearing?”
“How drunk were you?”
“Did you lead him on?”
These are unfortunately many common and well-known examples of victim blaming that come up in conversations around sexual assault. While the shame attached to statements around victim-blaming is very real, a lesser-known and very confusing circumstance that many women struggle with is the occurrence of vaginal lubrication and orgasms in the female body during sexual assault. This experience reveals the complexities in sexual assault. Unfortunately, orgasms and vaginal lubrication during sexual assault contributes to self-guilt and victim blaming, which in turn inhibits motivation to seek help and report assault.
The sad reality is that many victims of sexual assault encounter barriers to reporting their experiences. In one study, only 11.5% of college women reported their rape experiences to authorities, with only 2.7% of rapes involving drugs or alcohol reported (Wolitzky et. al, 2011). Another study by Sable et. al (2006) discovered that motivations to not report a crime include “shame, guilt, and embarrassment” and “fear of not being believed” (p. 159). Society and media tends to question situational circumstances in assaults (what was worn, if intoxication was involved, etc.). With the stereotype of the sexually suggestive female “leading a male on” and other types of victim blaming, many victims feel a sense of responsibility amongst themselves in this “gray area” of debate. However, the belief and rationalization of these “gray areas” reinforce the idea that rape can be justified, and ignores the reality of consent. This is a toxic message of sexuality.
The experience of vaginal arousal, lubrication, and even orgasm often adds to the feelings of guilt that the victim may already be experiencing, in addition to situational contexts. Levin and Burlo (2004) explain the possibility of genital manifestations of arousal without mental arousal. There appears to be an autonomous mechanism that creates arousal at a sub-cortical level (i.e., not perceived) to activate and increase vaginal blood flow, which thus increases the production of vaginal lubricating fluid (Levin & Burlo, 2004). In fact, a study done by Suschinsky and Lalumiere (2011) revealed that women showed genital arousal to all types of stimuli presented- including nonconsensual and violent narratives – even when experiencing unpleasantries and anxiety. It is argued that the nonspecific arousal of female genitals prepares the body for sexual activity, functioning to protect genital organs against injury. This is referred to as female genital non-concordance. Thus, the body’s physical response does not signify sexual desire, nor consent.
However, misinformed and vulnerable victims may not know of this, and may experience mixed feelings that further contribute to self-blame. Moreover, adrenaline plays a large role in the sexual response cycle. Vaginal lubrication induced by adrenaline may add to the formation of neurogenic transudate fluid (Sun, 2014). During the assault the victim may experience a rush of adrenaline and as a result, a release of this vaginal fluid. With this we see a struggle between the mental will of non-consenting sex and an uncontrolled bodily reaction. Unfortunately, this can create feelings of conflict and apprehension towards one’s perception of the validity of their own experience.
Levin and Burlo (2004) mention that in 4-5% of (female) sexual assaults that occurred, an orgasm was induced. However, they believe that these figures are underreported due to embarrassment or judgment that may result in reporting them. Victims may feel conflicted, especially with media messages of an orgasm being the “ultimate end game” and indicator of sexual pleasure and fulfillment. The occurrence of sexual arousal and orgasm also creates a potential risk of exploitation by sexual offenders and rape-justifiers, which further perpetuates rape stereotypes and consent assumptions. Consequently, victims may feel less inclined to seek rape relief services and help due to their own self-doubt about their experience. As stated above, the body may act in ways that the person may not want it to. As a result, victims may experience a lower self worth, feel undeserving of love and pleasure, and extreme guilt. Rape culture perpetuates these feelings, and therefore may further inhibit the seeking of mental health services or pressing charges against the perpetrator.
In reality, there is no “gray area” when it comes to consent. It simply is black and white. Either partner, regardless of marital status, relationship, or situation, can revoke consent at any given time. Each person possesses the human right to set their own personal boundaries and reinforce them to their own comfort level. By eliminating rape culture and myths, we are advocating for a fundamental respect of others. We hope that this topic will prompt further comprehensive education on both consent and the underlying details that occurs before, during, and after sexual assault.
Levin, R. J., & Berlo, W. V. (2004). Sexual arousal and orgasm in subjects who experience forced or non consensual sexual stimulation- a review. Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine, 11(2), 82-88. doi:10.1016/j.jcfm.2003.10.008
Suschinsky, K., & Lalumière, M. (2011). Prepared for Anything? An Investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues. Psychological Science, 22(2), 159-165. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/stable/40984623
Sable, M. R., Danis, F., Mauzy, D. L., & Gallagher, S. K. (2006). Barriers to reporting sexual assault for women and men: Perspectives of college students. Journal of American College Health, 55(3), 157-62.
Sun, Q. (08/01/2014). Journal of sexual medicine: Activation of β‐Adrenergic receptors during sexual arousal facilitates vaginal lubrication by regulating vaginal epithelial cl− secretion Blackwell Publishing.
Wolitzky-Taylor, K. B., Resnick, H. S., Amstadter, A. B., & McCauley, J. L. (2011). Journal of american college health: Reporting rape in a national sample of college women Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation.