Saturday, May 02, 2009

Physiological Sexual Response Is Not Consent

I've been catching up on reading my RSS feeds and came across a link to a NY Times article entitled What Do Women Want? from late January written by Daniel Bergner about research done by Meredith Chivers who is a professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The research looked at the study participants questionnaire responses to different images about their arousal and compared those responses to the participants' genital physiological responses.

The title of the NY Times article makes the assumption that a person's physiological response is an indicator of what that person, specifically a woman, wants. And since women had a higher physiological response to watching bonono sexual interactions than men that would mean according to this premise that women want to have sex with bonono apes.

Hopefully, it is clear that it cannot be claimed accurately that those women wanted to have sex with a bonono ape.

I wouldn't think anybody could make that type of leap until I found the link on Sex Crime Defender's blog where he mentioned that he would file this research away until it became useful in his work. But the only usefulness of this research in the defense of a rape case is to try to use the alleged victim's physiological response as a substitute for genuine consent. This strips away the alleged rape victim's humanity and with it, that person's basic human rights.

This strategy could be attempted not only in acquaintance rape cases it could be used in stranger rape cases where the victim is accused of regretting an unplanned random hook-up.

If this strategy were based on the real findings of this research then it could only be applied when boys and men are the alleged victims since their reported arousal and physiological arousal were strongly correlated. But again the problem is that arousal in whatever form it takes is not consent.

Despite many stereotypes used to dismiss sexual violence committed by boys and men as being out of their control and therefore not their legal responsibility, they can be aroused without acting on that arousal. If they couldn't then the men in this study who were aroused would have raped the first likely target they encountered after being shown these erotic films. Not surprisingly, to me at least, there were no reports of attempted rapes immediately after the study sessions.

A physiological response is just that and nothing more. Yet many rapists successfully claim that this is true consent and use this physiological response to nullify words and actions which communicate that there was no consent. This allows clear lack of consent to be called a mixed message or consent.

While the subjects watched on a computer screen, Chivers, who favors high boots and fashionable rectangular glasses, measured their arousal in two ways, objectively and subjectively.

This description of the physiological response as objective while the conscious response is subjective is not true. Full arousal is about far more than a single physiological response. However, it does show that if you are trying to measure physiological arousal then you need to measure physiological arousal.

This linkage between what women want and their physiological reaction does make me think about my rapist's rationalizations in a new way. Several times before I was raped by my boyfriend during our consensual interactions (kissing, touching) I had physiological responses which he tried to use to justify doing more than I was allowing him to do.

My physiological response helped him rationalize his decision to rape me, but what he did was still rape and it was a conscious decision on his part. In truth he didn't care whether I was consenting or not because his decision was all about him. His decision to rape me twice eliminated the possibility that I would ever consent to have sex with him, but if he had respected my humanity and been willing to wait until I did consent I might have eventually delightfully consented numerous times.

His violence and the betrayal behind that violence was in no way lessened because I might have eventually consented. I was raped later that same year by someone I just met and that trauma was much less -- physically and emotionally.

If used properly in a rape trial this research would only be used to prove that arousal doesn't equal consent and that it doesn't communicate what someone wants to do.


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posted by Marcella Chester @ 8:04 AM   5 comments links to this post


At May 02, 2009 9:18 AM, Anonymous m Andrea said...

"She smiled at me after I kissed her, so of course I thought she wanted to have sex."

He smiled at me after we shook hands, so course I thought he wanted me to take his wallet.The amount of self-denial required to justify rape boggles the mind of a reasonable person.

At May 02, 2009 1:58 PM, Blogger Rj said...

Your posts are always good, Marcella. But this one...ooooh, this one goes platinum. I feel it on a personal level. I'm going to write it up.

At May 02, 2009 3:16 PM, Blogger JENNIFER DREW said...

The late UK feminist academic researcher Sue Lees in her book Carnal Knowledge, which is a well researched book on how the UK legal system prosecutes men charged with rape, has numerous examples of male-centered beliefs that female physiological arousal supposedly supports male rapists' claims 'but she consented.'

Of course such claims can be used to claim men who were raped by another man apparently consented due to the raped man's sexual organ physiologically responding. But medical science has demonstrated many men and boys sexual arousal in their sexual organs, either due to intense fear or simply because of an unrelated stimulus.

It is not physiological 'arousal' but whether not a woman experiencing this arousal acts on it or agrees to participate in any sexual act. No one can control their physiological reactions all the time. For example when a person's face turns red this can mean a number of things, such as embarassment or a physiological response to intense heat.

Yet time and again rape apologists and the male-centered legal system continues to promote the misogynistic myth women do not know themselves whether or not they are sexually aroused and also are supposedly incapable of making an informed and rational choice whether or not to engage in sexual activity.

Only men apparently have this mythical knowledge of knowing precisely what women want and surprisingly when it is a rapist he will assert he knew precisely what the rape survivor wanted and it was identical to his demands.

At May 03, 2009 7:12 PM, Anonymous Jet said...

Great post. That article rang all sorts of alarm bells for me when I read it months ago. Thanks for articulating some of the reasons why.

At May 04, 2009 2:35 AM, OpenID berryblade said...

This is a really great post. It helps make things a lot clearer for myself when trying to analyse my own experiences.


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