Confusing? Certainly for some. For others it’s as clear as day. You know the #MeToo movement, you have seen the news, you know that sexual consent is on the radar in the public forum (finally), but what about when when consent appears unclear–as in the body is saying “yes”, and the words are saying, “no?”
*Trigger alert* The information I’m going to share is based upon clinical experience with survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. If you are feeling vulnerable while reading this statement, please save this post and come back to it later.
I have been working with survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault (“abuse” meaning the events took place prior to adulthood, and “assault” meaning after adulthood), for over five years as a Registered Clinical Counsellor. I am also Certified EMDR Therapist, the author of an introductory book on EMDR called, You NEED Therapy. EMDR: Real People, With Real Problems, Getting Real Help, and the owner of a boutique psychotherapy practice in Vancouver, BC., that focuses solely on using Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help my clients transform their suffering into strength. Rather than explaining what EMDR is, I encourage you to read my other blog posts on the topic, visit my YouTube channel, or visit my website–suffice to say EMDR allows me to work with tons of clients because it works so fast!
I get the privilege of helping survivors through dark thoughts and beliefs about themselves based upon how their body responded during a traumatic sexual abuse encounter. Some of my male clients tell me, “Well Robert, I got an erection during my abuse, so I must have wanted it right?” and some of my female clients have said, “I don’t understand, my mind said ‘no,’ I went stiff as a board, but I still enjoyed it…does that mean that I wanted it?” You can see how these statements – and believe me they’re more common than you might think – would appear confusing to the survivor.
I’m going to debunk a few common misconceptions right now:
1. The body responds to physical touch, whether we want it to or not.
For us males, if our genitals are being touched, caressed, played with (and for some even more violent means may fit as “playful”), the penis is likely to become engorged and an erection sustained – with or without our verbal consent. Furthermore, provide enough stimulation, and we will ejaculate. This does not mean that we wanted to. Every ejaculation does not mean we loved it, and when ejaculation is forced upon us, we are not enjoying it.
The same can be said for women too. Often, the right type of touch can create vaginal lubrication, and enough stimulation of the clitoris, G-Spot, and/or vagina can generate an orgasm (or at least “pleasurable sensations”). During stimulation, the body may respond in typical “pleasurable” fashion (i.e. movements, moans, goosebumps, etc.) – this does not mean women are consenting.
2. If the body is saying "Yes" but the words are saying "No," listen to the words and stop.
As I wrote above, just because the body is having a physical reaction that might suggest consent, it doesn’t necessarily mean consent has been provided. (Consent by the way means the other is agreeing to engage in whatever the act is.) Yet again, unequivocally, “no” means “no.”
3. If the words "Stop," "No," "I don't think so...," "I don't want to..." "Maybe next time..." "I'm not sure..." etc. occur during an attempt to initiate sex, then STOP.
Clearly the first four statements are pretty clear, but the last two, are a little less straightforward. Not everyone feels comfortable or confident or safe to clearly define their decline of a sexual initiation. Yes, it’s something they need to work on in therapy, but this does not give another human the right to take advantage of another’s verbal passivity.
4. The same goes for silence. The absence of consent and the absence of rejection, means STOP.
For some people, the initiation of sexual contact is incredibly overwhelming, and their response could be to “freeze” in the situation (you’ve heard of fight/flight/freeze). This is a natural response to an overwhelming situation.
5. The "freeze" response is a valuable response to threat if "fight" or "flight" are not options.
As soon as “fight” or “flight” become viable options, “freeze” often turns into one of the two. Imagine the rape victim who cannot escape their attacker, or when struggle creates more violence, “surrender” in the body (i.e. freeze) provides an opportunity to mitigate the damage and prepare for escape. Be very clear: in “freeze” the mind is still very active, the nervous system is on high alert, and the individual is looking for a way out.
There’s also a fourth response in extreme situations when “freeze” occurs too long or death appears imminent: “Shut Down.” In “shut down,” the body feigns death – meaning that the body prepares itself for “sure death,” by beginning to shut down the organs—it will become very limp, and the individual will experience a powerful analgesic effect. Should the brain interpret that the threat is “over,” the body will cycle back into “freeze,” and then “fight” or “flight.” Everyone’s body is equipped to respond to threats to their safety with fight/flight/freeze/shut down, therefore whatever happened to you is not your fault, it’s actually your body’s way of helping you navigate through a very traumatic event.
Should a person say “Yes” with both body language and verbally, get naked and stand in another person’s bedroom, and then say, “Stop,” it means stop. People can change their minds midway through a sexual exchange, much like they can through any other kind of personal exchange (just like your Starbucks barista wont force a latte down your throat if half way through the transaction you suddenly get the urge to cancel and go for bubble tea).
Rant over. I hope these points help to clarify that if you have survived sexual assault or abuse, but felt in someway that the event(s) were your fault—they weren’t. Even if you received physical pleasure or your body led you to believe you did, and you didn’t want the event to happen, then you didn’t give consent.
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse or assault, you can heal the damage that’s left over in the wake—negative thoughts, negative beliefs, even trauma that is stored in your body. In my opinion, EMDR can help survivors of sexual abuse and assault in a way that no other treatment can. It’s fast and forever—results are maintained and actually improve (according to research and clinical experience).
If you or someone you know is interested in seeing if EMDR might be a good fit, feel free to reach out for a free consultation. After a short visit, you could very well be on your way to a better life. We can’t undo the past, but we can transform how you live in the future.
With care and the utmost respect,