When Is It Sex, and When Is It Sexual Abuse or Assault?

Consent is the difference between sex and sexual assault

Chances are, many of you reading this have experienced sexual violence or know someone who has. Unfortunately, intense shame around sex confuses the path to healing for many people who have experienced trauma.

I want to clearly define the difference between sex and sexual abuse. My goal is to help everyone review their past and present encounters more accurately, and move towards self-compassion, healing, and meaningful relationships. You are entitled to a healthy sex life which you want and enjoy.

Many sexual abuse survivors feel shame, guilt or fault about themselves for what happened. They may feel this way for years after the abuse has stopped. Survivors may even become unsure whether a past experience was actually abuse or assault—believing they must have done something to “cause” the event to happen.

Sexual abuse can leave a person feeling mixed up about his or her own sexual feelings. Confusion blurs a person’s sense of healthy sexual desire and trauma-related fantasy. Self-doubt can persist especially if the abuse happened in childhood. Survivors may struggle to understand their own impulses, and question what is normal:

  • Did something about me bring this on?
  • Did part of me want it?
  • Is this how I get love?
  • I wanted attention – did I ask for this?
  • Am I too dirty for real love?

I don’t want anyone to experience this kind of shame, guilt or doubt around sexual violence. Rape, sexual violence, sexual assault, sexual abuse of any kind is never your fault! It was not your fault; you didn’t “ask” for it, and it wasn’t sex. It was abuse. The two are not the same.

Sex starts and ends with consent.

Sex is a consensual bodily pleasure. Sex is equally wanted between equally empowered people. Sex occurs with two consenting adults. I could not better explain consent than this brilliant video to fully understand consent:

Children can’t make consent because they are not adults. As an adult, you cannot consent when you’re drunk or passed out. Without consent, it’s NOT sex. Without consent, a “sexual” act is abuse and may qualify as assault, rape, abuse or molestation. It can’t qualify as consensual sex! Yes, the definition of sex is that straightforward!

“But my body responded in a sexual manner…”

Trauma survivors may report arousal, lubrication, or an erection during the act of abuse. This may make them feel betrayed by their bodies or wondering if they actually wanted it or enjoyed it.

If you haven’t seen it, I strongly encourage you to watch the TED talk, The Truth About Unwanted Arousal, by sex educator, Emily Nagoski. In this talk she explains “Arousal Non-Concordance.” In simple terms, the body naturally becomes aroused when touched in certain ways, even if the person touched doesn’t like it or want it! The physiological response to lubricate, get an erection, or even have an orgasm has nothing to do with consent. It doesn’t indicate whether a person wants or likes the sexual behavior happening to them. It’s simply the way a person’s genitals respond to an act that is sexually relevant.

The only valid proof that determines consent — proof that you want or like a sexual experience — is your free will and the decision in your brain. If you ever couldn’t stop coughing or sneezing during an interview, or you had gas on an airplane, or you were sweating profusely when you didn’t want to, you can understand that bodily functions don’t always match with what you want and like. Unfortunately, people get confused about intent when it comes to genital functions. This confusion can lead to misinformation, unfair pressure, and misplaced shame around sexual abuse.

Tragically, using a person’s genital response during sexual violence (saying “Well, you got aroused so you must have liked it!”) is yet more abuse. Your body responded against your will; denying this is a weapon that assailants use to make you, their target, feel shame and submit.

Popular culture can heighten confusion between desired sex and sexual assault.

An excerpt from the book, Fifty Shades of Grey provides a definition of assault by example. 

He caresses my behind gently, and it burns as he strokes me round and round and down.  Suddenly, he inserts two fingers inside me, taking me completely by surprise.  I gasp, this new assault breaking through the numbness around my brain.  “Feel this.  See how much your body likes this Anastasia.  You’re soaking just for me.”

 Although I didn’t read this book, my recent training with sex educator Emily Nagoski provided this passage as an example of arousal non-concordance. This quote essentially defines sexual assault. And as do many abusers, the speaker incorrectly believes genital sexual arousal is “proof” that the victim wanted or liked it. In this excerpt , the narrator describes numbness around her brain, and that she is taken “completely by surprise.” Yet he says, “See how much your body likes this.…” disregarding the powerless state of her mind. Unless you know the difference between sex and assault, this kind of material may fuel ongoing misconceptions that cause shame and guilt for assault survivors.

Be aware: Making fictional sexual assault popular and exciting in our culture doesn’t make it good or healthy for real life! This is not sex. This is not pleasurable. This does not sound consensual.

It alarms me how easily people may mistake a sexual response from someone with less power as a sign of love or desire for sex. This is not love—it’s abuse. The notion that she wanted sex because she was wet, or he wanted it because he was erect, is entirely wrong! That is the rape and assault culture speaking. This is the same culture in which nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 4 men report sexual violence in their lives (reports the National Sexual Violence Resource Center), and where 1 in 2 trans-identifying people have experienced sexual violence, says the Center for Family Justice.

What about Bondage, Domination/Submission, Sadism, and Masochism (BDSM)?

This Fifty Shades of Grey excerpt does not represent acts of BDSM, although it was billed as such. True BDSM includes consent. Everything that happens in BDSM is consensual—meaning the people engaging in the act agree that they want it.

Takeaways

  • Know that sex MUST include consent.
  • Know that everything else is abuse!
  • Know that children cannot consent to sex!
  • Know that the body doesn’t decide—the mind does. You do! The body may have experienced arousal non-concordance (arousal against your will) in an act of abuse—but that does not mean you wanted or liked what happened. Your body responded as it did because the act was sexually relevant. Just because your body responds does not mean that you want it.
  • Know that you have the right to say no, and to be heard and treated accordingly.
  • Know that you have the right to say yes to what you want, as an adult…whatever you want…and to be taken at your word!
  • Know that self-compassion is the way forward, to a place where you will KNOW that these statements above are true.

By understanding the difference between sex and sexual abuse, trauma survivors can understand that unwanted touching they experienced in the past was not sex. And that in our lives, we all, including trauma survivors, can choose to have sex (which is always consensual) in a way that feels safe and pleasurable.

The body does not decide. YOU decide. YOU consent. If—and only if—you WANT it.

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