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    Sexual Assault Survivors in the Pursuit of Pleasure

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  1. Sexual Assault & Orgasm During an assault, a Sexual Assault Survivor (SAS) may feel overwhelmed with feelings such as exposure, terror, helplessness, worthlessness, and isolation – yet amidst all this annihilating havoc, experience a degree of sexual arousal. This leaves many wondering: why does this happen and how does it effect a SAS's experience of sexual pleasure going forward? Each of us oscillate between “approach” and “avoidance” coping strategies in our quests to reconcile our experiences. Among SAS, this can present as oscillating between extremes of hypersexuality (i.e. high initiation of sexual behaviour) and hyposexuality (i.e. low initiation of sexual behaviour)(Covington & Müeller, 2001). Let's explore what each of these look like: Hypersexuality When an individual experiences orgasm during an assault, they encounter a rule of sex: increasing pain can increase pleasure. Sexual satiation is defined as the tipping point at which sexual tension begins to dissipate, typically following the climax of sexual excitement or stimulation (Bancroft & Vukadinovic, 2004). Because the brain is motivated to achieve equilibrium, it responds to extreme pain with a heavy release of opioids to regulate subjective experiences of distress and thereby produce a sense of calm (Tracey & Leknes, 2008). This anxiety-relief pattern is itself a “tipping point from peak tension to pleasure” and the SAS may come to understand that this is what sexual satisfaction is. During a period of hypersexuality, a SAS would likely describe the experience of rewarding sex as an energetic rush which culminates in a moment of “blacking out”, followed by a calm. As Freud conceptualizes it, it’s as if great tension in the body produces an urgent psychological drive towards satiation which results in climax in the psyche rather than body (Stoléru, 2014). For the hypersexual SAS, there is a pattern of overwhelming negative affect (i.e. feelings/emotions), alexithymia (i.e. the inability to identify or verbally describe ones feelings), and compulsive sexual behaviour (Walton, Cantor, Bhullar, & Lykins, 2017). Compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts, of which the purpose is to prevent or reduce anxiety and distress. That is, they are ways of controlling the terror of lacking control. In this way, the SAS may learn to use sex as a way to medicate their distress. Although not particularly pleasant for their body, this compulsive anxiety-relief pattern produces an inherently reinforcing and potentially addictive “high” (Schwartz, Galperin, & Masters, 1995)(Bancroft & Vukadinovic, 2004) Hyposexuality When desperately trying to escape unwanted sexual stimulation, the SAS learns yet another rule of sex: decreasing pleasure can decrease pain. Dissociation is “the loss of the usual sense of self, time, and space, as a result of intense attentional focus or absorption in the environment, in feelings, in physical sensations, or in creations of the imagination” (Bird, Seehuus, Clifton & Rellini, 2014). In sex, a certain degree of this is helpful in order to remove the distractions of the external world, get out of our heads, and into the sexual experience of our bodies. Powerful psychological distancing effectively allows an individual to use another person’s body to masturbate, allowing for a climax in the body rather than the psyche. The hyposexual SAS would likely describe sexual satisfaction as an enjoyable physical release – similar but pronounced to a massage or scratching of an itch. In the hyposexual stage, the alexithymia associated with the hypersexual stage is reversed – that is, negative affect is consciously understood as being associated with the trauma, rather than confused as part of the “excitement” of the moment (Schwartz, Galperin, & Masters, 1995). To cope with this, the hyposexual SAS may avoid sex all together, or employ defence mechanisms to bypass awareness of emotions, bring sex to a tolerable level, and focus on the body rather than the whole of the self, other, or situation (Schwartz, Galperin, & Masters, 1995). Such defences can be employed to various degrees, for example – during sex the SAS may find they are immensely enjoying themselves one moment, then suddenly board (i.e. high defence), tearful (i.e. medium defence), or overcome with panic – thrashing wildly as if reliving an assault (i.e. low defence). A SAS may be familiar with their potential to fluctuate between these states, yet be unable to anticipate which if any of these will emerge. This lack of control over potential distress may be why a hyposexual SAS isn’t particularly inclined to initiate frequent sex. Furthermore, a heightened sense of trust tends to dissolve defences, which are crucial for preventing potential triggers in the environment from eliciting traumatic affect (Schwartz, Galperin, & Masters, 1995). This means that a SAS may respond to feelings of safety in the sexual context with the potential for an equal unmasking of their underlying sense of vulnerability to anticipated harm. For this reason, becoming too close to sexual partners may be registered in the SAS brain as dangerous, therefore they may prefer partners which they are in some way estranged to. Stepping Beyond the Cycle These “rules” of sex that may be learned within the context of assault, can be applied in healthy ways. The key is for the SAS to become aware of the forces that are driving them and begin to extract what they have discovered about pleasure from the horrors in which it was bread. Find out more about this in our next blog post, by entering your email below. To learn more about this study click: here. To pursue therapy with Sarah click: here. To be notified when part two of this post becomes available, enter your email below! References: Bancroft, J., & Vukadinovic, Z. (2004). Sexual addiction, sexual compulsivity, sexual impulsivity, or what? Toward a theoretical model. Journal of sex research, 41(3), 225-234. Covington, M. V., & Müeller, K. J. (2001). Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation: An approach/avoidance reformulation. Educational Psychology Review, 13(2), 157-176. Schwartz, M. F., Galperin, L. D., & Masters, W. H. (1995). Post-Traumatic Stress, Sexual Trauma and Dissociative Disorder: Issues Related to Intimacy and Sexuality. Stoléru, S. (2014). Reading the freudian theory of sexual drives from a functional neuroimaging perspective. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 157. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00157 Morber, 2013. What Science Says About Arousal During Rape. Retrieved by: https://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-05/science-arousal-during-rape Tracey, I., & Leknes, S. (2008). A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(4), 314-320. doi:10.1038/nrn2333 Walton, M. T., Cantor, J. M., Bhullar, N., & Lykins, A. D. (2017). Hypersexuality: A critical review and introduction to the "sexhavior cycle". Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(8), 2231.
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