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Involuntary Arousal Kelli Palfy
In consensual sexual encounters, arousal and the achievement of orgasm are welcomed outcomes. Under normal sexual conditions, experiencing an orgasm is the ultimate ecstatic state. Sexual arousal occurs not only as a physical state but as a mental or emotional state as well. In pleasurable situations physical and mental sexual arousal occurs simultaneously. However, it is important to distinguish that mental and physical arousal can and does occur exclusive of each other. Most adults know that it is possible to be mentally aroused (they want to have sex) without showing any physical manifestations of arousal (in males they can’t get an erection despite really wanting one); this is commonly referred to as a sexual dysfunction. Alternately, the reverse is also true. Physical arousal can occur without any positive mental stimulation, even when a person is experiencing extreme duress in the middle of a traumatic experience. During sexual assaults, it is not uncommon for both men and women to exhibit a physical (genital) manifestation of arousal without being positively emotionally aroused. In males, many heterosexual and homosexual boys and men experience what I refer to as ‘involuntary arousal’. Basically, while their thoughts are “I am scared, I am not sexually aroused, I don’t understand, or I do not want to be sexually aroused” their penis becomes erect anyway. The involuntary nature of this type of arousal can be understood through recognizing that sexual responses are directed by our autonomic nervous system, the same system that regulates our ‘fight and flight” response. During times of ‘fight or flight’, even the slightest physical stimulation along with an increase in stress or body tension can create erections even though no sexual stimulation is present. The nerve endings in a penis that are generally extremely sensitive to touch, simply do not know the difference between good touch/bad touch and physical stimulation occurs. We all have heard stories of poor unsuspecting males getting unwanted erections in math or gym class and giggle or think nothing of it. In fact, there is a very long list of differing stimuli that can bring about an erection in a male that is far removed from any emotional sexual arousal. The list includes (but is not limited to) being scared for one’s life, or having a fear of punishment (flight) or during athletic events or times of war (fight) etc.… Younger males who have little-to-no control over their erections are especially prone to involuntary arousal. Erection and orgasm is induced more easily in pre- and early adolescent boys than it is in older males. However, by default, when a male obtains an erection during an unwanted sexual experience, he often automatically assumes he was positively emotionally aroused as well and assumes personal responsibility for it. He adopts the idea that he must have had some sort of desire or control, that subconsciously he must have wanted it to occur, when cognitively he also knows that the opposite is true. This is very confusing for males. Alternately, many males recognize the involuntariness of their arousal and feel betrayed by their bodies. The shame and guilt both of these categories of males often feel is a strong deterrent to disclosure. Unfortunately, many professionals also still struggle to understand involuntary arousal and they too shy away from discussing it. Psycho-education around involuntary arousal must occur for this psychological barrier to seeking help to end.

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