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If your body reacted in a "sexual" manner, doesn’t mean you wanted it. It’s not your fault." Professional man, age 38, sexually abused from age 5-16.

Developing an erection or ejaculating during a sexually abusive experience can be one of the most confusing and distressing aspects of sexual abuse for men and boys. This page deals with the issue of male sexual assault and arousal. In it we will try to address some of the questions relating to physiological arousal and sexuality that men report struggling with.

Please note that, in addressing this topic, this page uses direct language relating to sex and genitals, as well as a detailed anatomical diagram.

Male bodies and arousal

Much of our body – our senses and nerve endings – is basically designed to respond to stimulation, particularly to touch or pressure. In fact, teenage boys especially can be extremely sensitive to touch anywhere on the body, not just around the areas we usually associate with sexual arousal. Having said that, obviously the genitals (meaning the penis and testicles) can be very sensitive, and so can the area around the anus.

Arousal, or the way our body responds to touch, is not always something that can be controlled. Most men (and almost all teenage boys) have had the experience of unwanted or unintentional arousal. A common example of this is the vibrations from riding on the bus, or sitting with a cat purring on your lap. Stimulation of the genitals (such as pressure, touching or rubbing) can very easily cause an erection, even when it is not intended or wanted.

The most difficult thing for me… has been to separate the physiological response I had during the abuse – my own arousal – from the victimization… For years I could not see myself as a young man who had been victimized because I had felt pleasure… My anger at this is something I am… now able to deal with." Will, 37, Pennsylvania (From Mike Lew, Leaping Upon the Mountains: Men Proclaiming Victory Over Sexual Child Abuse.

The mechanics

The area around the anus is very sensitive because it has a rich supply of nerves, which can also cause arousal when touched. If sexual assault involves some form of anal touching or penetration, it is common for the male body to respond by developing an erection and/or ejaculating.

The prostate gland is also involved in male arousal. Many people have heard about the prostate from education campaigns about prostate cancer. The prostate gland is located next to the bladder and the seminal vesicles, just past the sphincter muscles of the anus (the opening to the rectum). If the prostate gland is pressured or stimulated it will typically produce an erection (see the diagram below). It is a normal response for the body to produce seminal fluid when the prostate gland and the seminal vesicles are touched or pressured. (In fact, with men who have spinal injuries, a technique called ‘electroejaculation’ is used to collect sperm so their partner can try to conceive. In this procedure, the prostate and other glands and organs are electronically stimulated to achieve an ejaculation.)

To help put this in context, some men may experience some involuntary arousal when their doctor performs a digital rectal examination to check for prostate problems. This is a purely physiological reaction. It does not mean in any way that the man is sexually attracted to his doctor, or that he has a sexual preference for doctors in general! In the same way, developing an erection, or ejaculating, during sexual assault does not say anything at all about one’s sexual preferences or identity.

Male sexual assault and arousal
Diagram 1. Male sexual assault and arousal

It is also true that fear and arousal are very similar in a physiological sense. Both states involve the symptoms of increased heart rate, fast shallow breathing, and increased alertness, to name a few. The combination of fear, arousal, and touch can be overwhelming and confusing. People who commit sexual abuse usually know this, and take advantage of it.

People can work to encourage an erection

People who sexually abuse boys and men often use their knowledge about male bodies to deliberately cause an erection and/or ejaculate to occur. They do this because they know it is extremely confusing and embarrassing. They might also do it to try and convince the person being abused (and also themselves) that what is happening is not really abuse. Whatever the reasons, ultimately they know that if the boy or man is aroused, they might be less likely to tell anyone about the abuse due to feelings of shame and embarrassment.

Finding someone that you trust to talk to about this can be a step towards reducing this sense of shame.

Confusion

Image of a combination lock We normally think of erections and ejaculation as signs of ‘good’ arousal, and a pleasurable experience. Of course, when it is freely chosen, sexual activity can be intensely pleasurable for men; including when it involves some kind of anal penetration or touching.

However, when sexual contact occurs against someone’s will, or when they do not understand what is being done to them, it is incredibly confusing and can be overwhelming. It can also be physically very painful.

This combination of pain, confusion, and arousal can leave men with very powerful feelings of shame and disgust at themselves and their bodies. Physiological sensations are closely connected to our emotional and thought processes. When we experience a powerful, involuntary physiological sensations (and sexual arousal is a very powerful sensation), it is normal to have a strong reaction and to try and make sense of what is happening the best way we can. Such experiences of involuntary arousal can lead men to have questions about sexuality, and whether getting an erection or ejaculating meant he really liked it or wanted it. It can feel like their body has betrayed them, and it can make it difficult to enjoy sex as pleasurable, fun, or intimate.

Questions of sexuality

Following an experience of sexual abuse, some men try to avoid sexual situations altogether. The feelings of arousal can trigger memories of the abuse. Other men, in an effort to ‘reclaim’ their sense of sexuality, may seek out frequent sexual encounters that lack intimacy, and that leave them and/or their sexual partners feeling even more disconnected.

Concerns related to sexual arousal can impact upon men’s intimate relationships with their partners, who may not understand why sexual arousal and intimacy is so difficult and fraught with anxiety.

When the person committing the abuse is male, it can leave straight boys and men wondering if they are ‘really’ gay. They might also wonder if the person abusing them somehow knew this. As the information about automatic arousal above shows, this is not the case. All that arousal can tell us is that the boy’s or man’s body reacted in a normal way, and that the person abusing took advantage of their power and knowledge.

For gay men, or men who are sexually attracted to men, there can be confusion around whether the abuse ‘caused’ him to be gay. This is often linked to problematic and homophobic ideas in our society which denigrate same sex attraction as a somehow ‘damaged’ sexual preference. Same-sex attraction or ‘homosexuality’ is sometimes seen as something that needs to be explained, in a way that ‘heterosexuality’ does not. Having been sexually abused is suggested as one such ‘explanation’. In fact, same-sex attraction is part of human sexual diversity and is not caused by sexual abuse.

Some of this confusion is also fuelled when we forget that sexual abuse and healthy sexual arousal are very different things. Sexual abuse is a crime committed by one person or group against another. The sexual abuse of children or young people has nothing to do with healthy adult sexuality, no matter what gender or sexual orientation anyone is.


We don’t mean to say that untangling these complex reactions and feelings is easy. Hopefully having a little bit of information about this issue will help you begin to make sense of this, and perhaps open the door to conversations with your counsellor or your partner. You may want to ask them to read this page with you if you’re not sure where to start.

Working towards better sex: Enjoying becoming aroused

Everybody, including you, has a right to a healthy, satisfying, consensual sex life. One where you feel comfortable and enjoy becoming sexually aroused.

Developing a better sex life for yourself is entirely possible. Many people who undertake this work find that it is best when they are in a relationship with a safe, supportive partner who they can openly discuss and explore this with. For people not currently in a relationship or with a partner, some find it helpful to take some time out from sexual relationships. They can then concentrate on their own sense of sensuality, sexual arousal and pleasure. In either case, safety is crucial.

Sex works best when people feel safe and comfortable enough to experience arousal, and to let go of having to think and be in control. Although you may choose to take some risks as part of exploring and experimenting with sex, it is important that you feel a sense of control and choice over what happens. (Obviously, it is important that your partners also have safety, control and choice over what they do).

Make time for non-sexual intimacy – sex is only one part of intimacy.

Make time for yourself to explore your own body’s capacity for sensual (not just sexual) pleasure. This does not have to be genitally focussed or involve masturbation – in fact it might be helpful to explore your body’s ability to experience both sexual and non-sexual sensual pleasure.

In trying to become more comfortable with sexual intimacy and becoming aroused, it can be helpful to plan and make agreements with partners in advance. This can seem difficult at first, because of a common idea that sex should be spontaneous, and planning seems to go against this. Really, planning is about setting boundaries. Established boundaries mean that sexual play can be fun and spontaneous, and at the same time you feel confident that you and your partner do not feel violated or taken advantage of. This frame of mind represents the opposite to the dynamics of abuse.

Give yourself a break.

 

Sources & more info
  • www.secasa.com.au: South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault
  • Diagram accessed from Burke, K. and LeMone, P. (2008) Medical-Surgical Nursing: Critical Thinking in Client Care. 4th Ed. New Jersey. Pearson Education, Inc. (fig. 49.1).
  • Kozier & Erb (2012). Kozier & Erb’s Fundamentals of Nursing: Concepts, Process, and Practice. NJ, Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Smith’s General Urology (2008). New York, Lange Medical Books / McGraw-Hill, Medical Publishing Division.

 

12 comments

  1. Comment by Nathan

    Nathan Reply June 20, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    thank you
    I needed to read the information on this page
    which is releasing me from a lot of stuff that was holding back my recovery

    • Comment by tony

      tony Reply September 20, 2014 at 10:36 pm

      I started crying as I read and realized it described what’s happening with me

  2. Comment by Luckylarry1

    Luckylarry1 Reply January 22, 2015 at 6:07 pm

    Thanks for your info.

  3. Comment by Nick

    Nick Reply December 30, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    Hi,

    I didn’t know I was gay until I was raped.

    How can you stop an orgasm?

    • Comment by Jess [Living Well Staff]

      Jess [Living Well Staff] Reply January 11, 2017 at 10:22 am

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for your comment. I hope the info on this page (and this website) has been of some help to you. It’s not unusual for men to have a lot of questions and confusion around sexual violence and how it relates to sexuality. We’ve tried to answer some common ones on this page, as well on our pages Being a man (issues around gender, masculinity and sexual abuse), Unhelpful myths about the sexual assault of men, and others.

      In terms of your question, it’s a complex issue. Unfortunately an orgasm is largely a biological function over which we have very limited control, so it may be that there is no way to ‘stop’ this from happening, particularly in an abusive context in which you also have little or no control. As detailed in the article above, the fact that an orgasm has occurred does not mean the situation was wanted or enjoyed; nor does it necessarily have anything to do with the sexuality of the people involved. It is simply something your body does when it is stimulated in certain ways.

      If this is something you would like to explore more with a counsellor, please get in touch with us. Otherwise, all the best, and take care of yourself.

  4. Comment by Nick

    Nick Reply December 30, 2016 at 3:06 pm

    I am sure guys get raped.Orgasms are just nature.

  5. Comment by Concerned

    Concerned Reply March 30, 2017 at 9:10 am

    I would like some perspective on something if you have time. My boyfriend wants abuse sometimes with me, as he says it releases difficult feelings for him. He does not have any memory of sexual abuse in his childhood, but struggles with thoughts of being abused by men when he is having difficult emotions (like shame, self judgement, etc). He was encouraged to see a hypnotherapist to see if he could uncover a blocked out memory of abuse but this was unsuccessful. My question is, what is the likelihood of him having been abused and blocking the memory, or is it possible that these thoughts and desires happen for another reason? He did have a difficult relationship with a controlling step father, but no apparent sexual abuse there. thanks for your help :)

    • Comment by Jess [Living Well Staff]

      Jess [Living Well Staff] Reply March 31, 2017 at 11:30 am

      Hi Concerned, thanks for getting in touch.

      We find it is pretty uncommon for people to block out memories of the abuse, and would probably not suggest hypnotherapy or trying to ‘chase down’ these possible memories, as that can be confusing and sometimes misleading. Further, there are any number of reasons for unusual sexual fantasies, so it is very hard to say if these mean there was abuse.

      I’d like to recommend our page Common questions from partners of men who were sexually abused as this question (among others) is actually covered there in more detail. An excerpt from that page:

      Research shows that the majority of people who have experienced sexual abuse retain very strong memories of the abuse. It also shows that there are a number of reasons that people may not wish to talk about it.

      Having said that, yes, there are some people who have been sexually abused whose memories are not clear, or are absent, for long periods of time. These people may remember and piece together fragments of memories later on in life. In fact, many people have noticed that these memories seem to come back once they have started to feel more stable, more strong, and more confident. In other words, just when you start to feel you’re really doing well, the memories start to return.

      In this case, working through it may not be about avoiding the memories, or even trying to chase them down and confront them. It’s about building yourself up to the point where your mind can handle them, and has the strength to cope with them. It’s about being ready.

      A difficulty here is that you can only work with what is available. Searching for memories of childhood sexual abuse may lead to more distress, confusion and uncertainty. Memory in general is very fallible. It may be more helpful to try to work on acceptance of the uncertainty of the issue. In this case it’s about learning to be okay with not knowing for sure.

      In either case the emphasis should be on developing a strong, stable and confident sense of wellbeing.

      • Comment by Concerned

        Concerned Reply March 31, 2017 at 2:58 pm

        Thankyou so much for your response, this helps :)

  6. Comment by Kal

    Kal Reply March 31, 2017 at 7:58 am

    This article has allowed me to objectively understand the guilt, shame, confusion of my abuse. So much about what I had been living with and dealing with for so long. Now I am able to put things in proper perspective. It makes so much sense to now. This is real education and explains how someone with more knowledge can use that knowledge to take advantage of you and convince you to think that you are something you are not……One of the most powerful pieces that I have ever read on the Internet ever.

  7. Comment by Emmmauel

    Emmmauel Reply July 7, 2017 at 2:40 am

    Thank you , this was bothering me for so long . Questioning my sexuality and what it really means to have an erection and and actaully be aroused have been question answered by the article . I’m seeing a girl I like a lot now and I told her about my childhood experience and she understood . I was molested by both a man and a woman so it was really weird and misunderstanding . I thank you all who helped in making this article .

  8. Comment by James

    James Reply February 1, 2018 at 8:25 am

    I was sexually abused by my father until I was 13, when he realised I had had enough, since I warned him I would talk to people about him. He was always gentle as far as I can remember and I cannot know when the abuse started. When I was aged between 7 and 11 he would either abuse me when my mother was absent or give her an extra sleeping pill and assure me she would not wake up. I would look at my sister sleeping nearby and indicate he should get in with me, since he would get in with her otherwise. I remember he would smell fresh after a bath or shower and I would do what I knew aroused him. I do not remember most of what we did together and it feels like I fell asleep, but I must have dissociated or something. In the morning I would feel very tired and confused and was not able to remember why I was naked in bed. I did not like going to bed like that and always wore pyjamas. My father would tell me not to tell my mother what we had been doing and I had already forgotten most of it anyway. He would add that if I told her it would be my fault if she got ill again and went back into mental hospital. I accepted what he said, taking it as both fact and threat and never told my mother. My father told me to look after my mother and my sister and went off to work, due to return the following weekend. If my mother was in hospital we were delivered to a friends house early in the morning, where we stayed until he returned.

    I was wondering about this today and thinking about my feelings when I was left by my father and given this unreasonable responsibility. I was unable to look after myself and could not look after a severely depressed or manic mother, let alone a younger sister. My sister had me to look out for her, but it appeared to me I had no-one. My mother’s mood changed so often that I had given up trying to bond with her and my uncle was a bully, something he reserved just for me. I realised much later that he was careful that no-one, not even my sister, saw what he did to me. He would make me so angry that I would want to smash things, but I never let him win like that. When my father came back at the weekend I feel he gave me nothing, just used me for sex again, although he would sometimes bring me a present that I would not play with. Today, I seemed to remember some of the sexual abuse with my father, but when I consider how it has left my sister I pulled away from it quickly. I do not think it was traumatic, but I have sometimes felt that my body responded to the abuse. Today I developed a very hard erection, together with other sensations, when I was thinking about the abuse and events before and afterwards – I wonder if this is to be expected.

    I have been able to have sex, but I have had sex only with women – I have never felt attracted to men and no longer worry that I might be homosexual. I think the abuse would make it more than difficult for me to have sex with men, even if I wanted to. In spite of that, I used to have fantasies or flashbacks of being raped by men and have always been uneasy or afraid when in groups of males. This comes both from my father and from a teenager who repeatedly sexually abused me when I was 9 and made sure I knew he could punch hard – I took heed of his threats not to tell until I could not take it anymore. I used to hide the bruises he gave me, since I was greatly aroused during sexual abuse and I was ashamed. I felt guilty for wanting him to arouse me again, but I did not want the physical abuse. I have always found it difficult to relate to men and at the age of 10 did not know what to say to other boys. I did wonder if I should be sexual with them, but decided they would not like that and I did not want that either. I think that was the sexual abuse talking, not me. I think my poor parental support made me susceptible to sexual abuse when I was living elsewhere. I was often upset and crying when I was alone at age 9-10 and when I was 11 I flattened or suppressed my emotions and stopped trying to form relationships for a couple of years.

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