Consensuality in sex: experiences with rape in EMDR therapy

On Thursday, the Finnish government submitted to Parliament a draft HE 13/2022 on legislation on sexual offenses, which states that the definition of rape in the Penal Code will be changed to focus on consent and the lack thereof. The new law would define rape as having sex with a person who does not participate voluntarily. The new law would be a significant improvement on the status and rights of the victim and is expected to increase the number of criminal reports filed with the police. The law is designed for situations where a person has not denied sexual intercourse but has not given his or her consent. These are therefore situations involving sexual intercourse with a person who is not considered to have participated voluntarily.

I do weekly psychotherapeutic work with women who have experienced rape. I do EMDR therapy with them, in which an essential part of the treatment is for the client to recall the memory of the rape and attach a negative thought about themselves to it. The client is then given a bilateral stimulus to process cognitions, emotions, and body sensations, as a result of which the disturbing memory gradually integrates into a larger, adaptive memory network. Successful eye movement therapy has both neurobiological and psychological effects and makes the distressing and disturbing memory feel emotionally neutral, while at the same time binding a positive belief about themselves to it.

A considerable proportion of my clients have experienced sexual violence that would be classified as rape under the new law. What the cases have in common is that in the situation my client has been paralyzed for one reason or another. They may have been able to think and feel, but not to speak or act. As a psychotherapist, EMDR therapy gives me a perspective on clients’ feelings, thoughts, memories, body reactions, and interpretations in traumatic events. It teaches me a lot about how these women have experienced situations where they have had sex without wanting to participate. When I ask them what emotions the event and the images that represent it now evoke in them, the most common answers are “anger”, “sadness” and “shame." When I ask them what negative thought of themselves is related to the event, they usually answer “I’m guilty” or “I’m worthless”. The opposite of it is usually chosen as positive cognition, that is, an idea of themselves that they would like to associate with the event. “I’m valuable” and “It wasn’t my fault”. Positive cognition usually feels unreal on an emotional level relative to the event before treatment begins. The level of subjective disruption of an event is typically a nine on a scale of one to then.

Treatment involves asking the client to experience the traumatic event again on an imaginative level. A review is requested from the customer after each bilateral stimulus given. They are then asked to tell as accurately as possible what was happening in their mind during the previous series of eye movements or how their body was reacting. With the permission of my clients, I have listed below direct quotes from my clients’ experiences in cases which, at present, do not seem to meet the definition of rape, but which would do so with the reform of the law.


"No person who was done this to can be valuable."

"I was really in distress, I couldn’t stay up."

"I took a shower and was just panicking."

"It was pretty obvious I wasn't there to have sex."

"I feel so dirty."

"At no point would I have wanted to, was too tired."

"I should never have gone there."

"I don't consider myself reckless."

"I only managed to say that I want to go home."

"I said in the car that I would never forget this."

"Have I somehow caused it myself?"

"I told my mother and said I must be a whore"

"I woke up and it just invaded me and I stared at that stuffed animal in that bed."

"I felt safe and that's why I stayed there."

"It feels unfair because I didn't give any clues or promises about anything."

"It's gross when I remember how it felt."


"My confidence has been broken."

"I feel like I'm all alone and no one knows what I'm experiencing or thinking."


EMDR therapy allows the client to understand the loss of their own ability to function and the neutralization of the associated feelings of shame and guilt. In many cases, these trauma memories have been carried along for years or decades and have significantly impaired a person’s ability and possibility to live a rounded and enjoyable sex life. The good thing is that each of my clients has typically found an adaptive way out of the trauma with two EMDR treatments, which has manifested itself in the following thoughts, among other things:

"The fact that I have tried to empower myself afterwards shows that I consider myself valuable."

"I'm feeling lighter and I'm proud to have felt valuable in retrospect now."

"I have this feeling of overcoming myself, how I should value myself even more because of this event."


In all the cases described above, the act was committed by a friend, boyfriend or a so-called bar acquaintance. In treating my clients, I have found myself confused as to whether the men in these situations have not been at all able or willing to take into account the woman’s lack of willingness. Voluntary participation in sex can be expressed and interpreted in many ways, both verbally and by actions. At its best, sex is adult play, with both playing a participatory and active role. The signs of a woman's arousal are relatively easily identifiable and distinguishable from reluctance. Already as a child in kindergarten and school, we learn to interpret others in relation to who is involved in the play and who is not. The same should apply to sex.


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