JANUARY 7, 2011 12:01PM

Apparently, sexually-assaulted women get aroused

Rate: 7 Flag


Important Notice: If you're one of those people who believe that women enjoy being raped or sexually assaulted, stop reading right now and go somewhere else. This is not what this post is about.

Every week, I get an e-mail that summarizes the latest papers published on injury prevention, because often they include studies related to my line of work dealing with motor vehicle safety. While browsing through the latest published research earlier this week, I came upon a Canadian study titled, "Prepared for anything? An investigation of Female Genital Arousal in Response to Rape Cues", recently published in the journal Psychological Science. I thought this was kind of odd, given that I subscribe to a listserv for articles about injury-prevention. I was also a little…surprised, to say the least, that anyone would conduct this kind of research, which examined sexual arousal as a function of rape signals. Therefore I decided to take a closer look at this intriguing (and on the surface, pretty disturbing) paper.

Just to be absolutely clear, the authors of the paper were not studying whether or not women enjoy being raped. They were trying to test the hypothesis, based on previous research, that women get aroused even during non-consensual and violent sex acts as an automatic and purely physical response in order to protect themselves from genital organ injuries. For this study, the researchers recruited thirty men and women between the ages of 18 and 28 who agreed to have their genitals 'monitored' for signs of arousal during the study (with the consent from the University of Lethbridge human ethics committee). The curious reader is referred to the original article about how the genitals were gauged…

Once the apparatus was put in place, the participants listened to 2-minute audio recordings that were narrated by a woman. The narratives focused on three elements: consent, violence and sexual content. In total, six categories were examined and the genital responses were compared to the baseline condition (neutral):

  1. No Sex, Violence, No consent
  2. No Sex, Violence, Consent
  3. Sex, Violence, No Consent
  4. Sex, Violence, Consent
  5. Sex, No Violence, No Consent
  6. Sex, No Violence, Consent

The study results showed that women were sexually aroused (statistically significant) for all categories involving sex with and without violence and with and without consent. The women did respond more, however-- that is, they had more highly elevated genital responses--when the sex was consensual and without violence. The results seem to support the hypothesis outlined above, that a woman's body will automatically prepare itself for sex to avoid injury, regardless of the circumstances.

You'll be happy to know that the men primarily responded when violence was not involved and when the sex was consensual.

Like all research studies, there are always some limitations, which in this case include the fact all the subjects were relatively young and all sexually active. This means that the study results may not be generalized to other groups. The sample size is also relatively small.

Given how strict the Institutional Review Boards (IRB) are in the US, I'm wondering whether such research would be feasible here.


Additional information about sexual assault prevention can be found here:

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)

Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (Harvard University)


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When I first saw this, i thought, "What the devil?!" Now I see how we are built to save ourselves from the worst of any attack, I begin to believe the body is a marvel, worth studying further.
You have taken great care to be clear here, something which I am relieved to see, and I thank you for it.
PW: Thank you! Yes, I was very careful about describing this unusual study. Thanks for dropping by.
Interesting, to say the least. Although your note of caution about the limitations is important.

And, yes, I was glad to see "the men primarily responded when violence was not involved and when the sex was consensual".
Boanerges Redux: I agree about the caution. With these kinds of studies, other researchers often try to replicate the study results using larger samples or different groups.
Jeez, what was on those audio tapes?
noah: Very good question. The paper describes a little bit more about what was the audio tapes contained. Perhaps we should contact the authors of the study, so that they could give us a sample.
I like seeing what females who were not attacked look like naked, whether in sexual situations or not, so I'd be happy to help with further research.

Plus, there might be other factors that play a part in this for women. Even under violent circumstances, if they haven't been getting any sex (consensual) in the weeks prior to the attack, that could play a role in arousal. Something else to think about.
I.C. London: I'm sure some men (and perhaps a few women) would like to volunteer their services for further research. ;-)

You also have a good question about the effects of sexual activities prior to the study. I assume however that this aspect may have been previously studied.
The human body is an amazing device that's for sure.

Tink: I agree. It's quite impressive.
I guess DNA is smarter than I thought. Interesting read.
Paul: Thanks!

I believe the topic may make many people a little bit uncomfortable.
I wonder if there wasn't some evolutionary advantage to surviving rape given the way cavemen are depicted as choosing mates...women who had the ability to be physically aroused despite being attacked for mating were more likely to survive another day (without injury, the consequence of which I would assume to be injury or infertility) as well as reproduce and pass along that response.

In a way it makes perfect sense, yet disturbing in modern society, as you noted.
I meant infection or infertility in the parenthetical.....gah
Alicia: This is an interesting hypothesis. One way to find out would be to study the mating behavior of primates (our closest cousin). I was told that it has never been confirmed whether our ancestors were violent in this regards. Perhaps there is some research that has been done on this topic.