In recent years, people have become more and more familiar with intrusive thoughts. They’ve been the subject of social media trends, private conversations, and a growing understanding of mental health. But many experiences related to intrusive thoughts rarely come to the surface, simply because they’re especially uncomfortable for the people who experience them. Sadly, these thoughts may be the most important ones to talk about.
When we talk about intrusive thoughts, we’re referring to unwanted, distressing ideas, images, sensations, feelings or impulses that spontaneously and involuntarily enter our minds. I say “our” because intrusive thoughts are a normal part of human cognition and are experienced by nearly everyone at some point in their lives.
Intrusive thoughts about rape are a particularly distressing subset of these unwanted mental images. They involve involuntary and often vivid scenarios of sexual assault, and they can intense anxiety and guilt. It’s crucial to understand that experiencing these thoughts does not imply any intent or desire to engage in such behavior—this distinction is an important part of understanding how intrusive thoughts of any kind actually work.
Despite how taboo or disturbing intrusive thoughts can be, most people are able to quickly shake them off with little effort. But for some, the roughly 200 million people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), these thoughts stick and feel impossible to dismiss, becoming obsessions—the “O” in OCD.
By shedding light on the link between these unwanted thoughts and OCD, more people can access the help they need to feel better. Stigma is one of the reasons people with OCD don’t get an accurate diagnosis for an average of 14 years after the onset of symptoms. The good news, though, is that once that treatment begins, most people find a path toward understanding, management, and ultimately relief.
Understanding intrusive thoughts
Common themes in intrusive thoughts encompass a range of distressing scenarios, from violent acts to taboo sexual content and obsessive doubts. These thoughts may also revolve around contamination fears, relationship concerns, perfectionism, health-related worries, and sacrilegious content, all evoking significant discomfort and anxiety for people experiencing them.
Here are some common themes of intrusive thoughts:
Contamination: Fears of being contaminated by germs, dirt, or harmful substances
Taboo or sacrilegious content: Intrusive thoughts related to religious or moral beliefs, which may feel blasphemous or inappropriate
Health-related worries: Fears of illness, disease, or imagined symptoms
Sexual imagery: Involuntary, explicit sexual thoughts or scenarios, often contrary to one’s values or desires
The involuntary and graphic nature of these thoughts can create feelings of shame, guilt, and anxiety. Understanding that these thoughts are a common occurrence and are not indicative of one’s true character is an essential step towards managing and coping with them effectively.
What do intrusive thoughts about rape mean?
Intrusive thoughts about rape are a particularly sensitive and taboo subset of unwanted mental phenomena. Due to their explicit and distressing nature, people often hesitate to discuss or seek help for fear of judgment or misinterpretation.
It’s crucial to recognize that experiencing intrusive thoughts about rape does not in any way signify a desire or intent to engage in such harmful behavior. These thoughts are a product of the mind’s natural cognitive processes and do not reflect one’s true values or moral compass.
Simply put, intrusive thoughts about rape don’t actually mean anything—if anything, they’re simply a reflection of the value you place on sexual boundaries and respecting consent, as intrusive thoughts tend to cause distress because they oppose our actual values or intentions.
OCD and intrusive thoughts about rape
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition characterized by two primary types of symptoms: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are intrusive, unwanted thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, or urges that are hard to shake off and cause significant distress or anxiety. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts performed to alleviate that anxiety or prevent something unwanted from occurring.
While the general public associates OCD with obsessions about contamination and order, OCD is a widely varied disorder, and it can present in many different ways—including obsessions about sexual or violent acts. These are often some of the least discussed themes of OCD, as it can be difficult for people to open up about thoughts that are so strongly opposed to their actual values.
“When the #MeToo movement began, I saw an increase in clients of all genders whose obsessions were based around thoughts like ‘Maybe I did violate someone’s consent,’” says NOCD clinical trainer April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC. “It’s certainly not uncommon.”
Here are some examples of obsessions people might have that are related to committing rape or other acts of sexual violence:
- What if I somehow rape someone in the future?
- Am I capable of being a rapist?
- Could I have sexually assaulted someone and forgotten about it?
- Could I have been sexually assaulted and forgotten about it?
- How can I be 100% sure I’d never violate someone’s boundaries?
- Just having these horrible thoughts means that I can’t trust myself around others
- Am I a bad person just for having these thoughts?
As a result of these highly distressing obsessions, people with OCD engage in urgent and often repetitive behaviors, or compulsions. Here are some examples of the kinds of compulsions people might perform, mentally or physically, to reduce the anxiety they feel in response to intrusive thoughts about rape:
Avoiding triggers: Going to great lengths to avoid any stimuli, such as specific locations or media content, that may trigger intrusive thoughts about rape and sexual violence.
Mental review: Repeatedly replaying past situations in one’s head in an attempt to feel certain that they didn’t violate sexual boundaries.
Checking behaviors: Repeatedly checking on the well-being and safety of oneself and others to ensure that no harm has been done despite no evidence of an actual threat.
Seeking reassurance: Seeking constant reassurance from loved ones or mental health professionals or strangers online to confirm that one is not a threat or danger to others.
It’s important to note that these obsessions and compulsions are distressing and time-consuming, and they can significantly impact a person’s daily life and well-being. Seeking professional help can be highly beneficial for people struggling with these thoughts and behaviors—particularly because OCD is an especially treatable disorder.
How you can manage distressing intrusive thoughts
Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is a highly effective, evidence-based treatment for OCD and the distressing, intrusive triggers it’s associated with. It involves structured exposure to anxiety-provoking situations, coupled with the prevention of accompanying compulsive behaviors. By gradually facing feared situations without engaging in rituals, people learn to tolerate the distress and retrain their brains’ response patterns.
“In an ERP session, we’d probably practice purposely having thoughts about rape at some point,” says Kilduff. “We might write a worst-case scenario about it. We might read about a particular rapist or watch news about really severe rape crimes.”
“What’s really underneath it is debunking the idea that thinking about a thing doesn’t mean you’ll lose control and do it. Keep in mind that the reason OCD picks these themes is because they go completely against the sufferer’s values.”
Start getting better today
Even if you’re experiencing persistent, completely overwhelming intrusive thoughts today, please know that there is hope for you to get better. Thousands of people suffering from OCD—even the most taboo, distressing themes—have found the path to recovery through evidence-based treatment. You don’t have to feel this way forever.
If intrusive thoughts about rape are impacting your life and mental health, you’re not alone—you can speak to specialists who truly understand. I recommend learning more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treating OCD, and looking through our therapist network for a specialist who could be the right match for you.