My heart often sinks in despair for the sexual assault survivors whose courage leads them to the witness stand.
Although I have been raped three times over the course of my life, I have never faced any of my perpetrators in court. And I have mixed feelings about that.
Part of me wishes law enforcement had taken my rape reports more seriously instead of relegating them to the waste-bin. Not only might I have experienced justice, other women might have been spared suffering.
Another part of me experiences a sense of relief because no defense attorney ever had the opportunity to cross-examine me as if I were the criminal on trial. No court of public opinion foisted their shame on me. My sense of self was never shredded by the incessant and cruel interrogation of my confusion and terror during the assaults.
I worry for rape survivors who testify. But I also admire their fortitude. And I feel a debt of gratitude to them for bringing the complicated terrain of rape to the surface where we can all revisit and examine our assumptions and blind spots.
Because even though it is 2020, we are still shackled to an archaic paradigm that forged rape laws for the express purpose of protecting men’s property rights. Not so long ago, women’s bodies were literally owned by men. For that reason rape was not envisioned as an assault on the woman. Rape was considered a violation of the man’s ownership of that woman.
With the advent of the #MeToo movement we have seen a dramatic shift in the patriarchal terrain as women have come forward en masse to claim sovereignty over their bodies and to assert their sexual autonomy.
But while we are freeing our hearts and minds of the shame that was imposed upon our foremothers so many years before, and while we are asserting our right to control what is done to our bodies; society and the legal system have yet to catch up to a version of justice that accurately reflects our collective experience of sexual perpetration.
In this moment it is crucial we understand that we will not change the laws or society’s assumptions and judgments until we are clear about several little known factors that shape many survivors’ responses to sexual assault.
Once we are clear about these factors, many of us may breathe a collective sigh of relief, knowing that our feelings and behaviors were not experienced in isolation. We were in this together, even though our assaults might have taken place in the dark spaces of solitude and despair.
How the Body Responds to Threat
The first thing we all need to know is how the human body responds when faced with threats to its safety. While most of us may think we are in charge and able to make logical decisions about how we respond to danger, that is often not the case.
When confronted by a potential threat to survival, the brain shuts down the logical portion of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, and reverts to a more primitive part of the brain called the amygdala. This primitive brain only has four responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.
While most of us might believe we should fight or flee, if the threat precludes those options, the brain will choose to freeze or fawn.
What is fawning?
Fawning is an ancient survival mechanism resorted to by many non-human animals and humans alike. Very simply, the threatened individual assumes a submissive role with a potential perpetrator and may even praise, flatter or otherwise enlist trust from the threatening party. Dogs do this. So do chimpanzees. Anyone who is smaller and weaker than an attacker might employ this in order to minimize harm.
Does this help you understand why some rape survivors befriend their rapist? Does it shed any light for you on why you or someone you know might even have attempted to redefine a rape as a “misunderstanding,” and continued to date the perpetrator?
While most survivors who resort to fawning are not taken seriously if they then choose to report the assault, the fact remains that this is an ancient survival strategy, and one that is most likely to be employed by those who suffered abuse as children.
What is freezing? The word is fairly self-explanatory. If we are frozen, we are not moving. But most of us believe that freezing is a choice and that we can move if we choose to. While freezing might be a good strategy for minimizing harm, surely we can look for an opening to employ flight or fight.
No, not usually. In fact about 70% of rape survivors experience an advanced form of the freeze response called tonic immobility. This survival mechanism makes it impossible for us to fight or flee.
How does tonic immobility feel? Most survivors describe it as a complete inability to move their body combined with a sense of being out of their body.
Why would tonic immobility be a good survival strategy?
Some animals employ tonic immobility so that a predator will lose interest and leave them alone. For instance, opossums use tonic immobility to discourage a predator from eating them. For rape survivors, tonic immobility can minimize or eliminate further violence during a sexual assault and it can give the victim some distance from the immediate emotional trauma of a rape. While the victim may feel numb, confused and a degree of brain fog, the primitive brain will have successfully averted further harm.
Ignorance of Tonic Immobility and Fawning Creates Confusion and Harm
Of course this automatic and ancient response is often where the rape survivor suffers the harshest criticism. This is where we are most likely to hear things such as: “Why didn’t she just say no?” “Why didn’t she fight back?” “Why didn’t she run away?”
The simple answer is that tonic immobility makes speaking, fighting and fleeing impossible.
Are you beginning to see how unscientific and fallacious most of the questions posed to sexual assault survivors really are?
It’s tantamount to asking an opossum why it “played dead” when the cougar attacked it.
We are mammals and tonic immobility is a normal mammalian response to danger. Asking a sexual assault survivor why they didn’t fight, or didn’t run away, is not just victim blaming. It also ignores the body of science pertaining to innate responses to threatening situations.
Our collective ignorance about tonic immobility and fawning have made it much more difficult for those of us who have been assaulted to understand what in fact took place, and to fully recover from the trauma.
That ignorance also continues to shape our legal systems so that victims’ rights are overshadowed and sometimes obliterated by outdated and inaccurate assumptions about sexual assault and how it impacts victim behavior during and after an assault.
Interpreting a lack of resistance as consent to have sex is stupid. We would never use that standard to determine if someone was robbed. No one insinuates that a robbery victim wasn’t really robbed if they failed to fight back.
But all too often we still employ that standard when it comes to rape. Many of us still harbor the unexamined assumption that “good women” fight back. But that isn’t how the brain works. And fighting back isn’t even a wise course of action in many situations.
Perhaps the most difficult concept for us to wrap our minds around is why survivors may resort to fawning after an assault. Why would a sexual assault survivor say flattering things to her assailant after the fact? Why might she go so far as to develop a relationship with the perpetrator? If she really is afraid of him, wouldn’t she run as far away from him as possible?
Yes, some survivors do exactly that. But many do not. There are many reasons for this.
Sometimes it comes down to economic realities such as the fear of losing a job or the financial support provided by an abusive husband. But often the survivor is subconsciously motivated to regain a sense of control over her situation. That can take the form of denying the rape and attempting to either construct a romantic relationship where none existed before, or maintaining a romantic relationship or marriage despite the assault. This amounts to a futile attempt to pretend “nothing bad happened” and to regain a sense of control.
In most cases, the rape trauma will eventually surface and the survivor may have to admit to herself that she was in fact raped. This is an agonizing journey and by the time the survivor has broken free of her denial, she will in all likelihood have no credibility in the court of public opinion or in a court of law.
This is ironic as well as tragic because current law acknowledges marital rape. While we expect unmarried sexual assault survivors to cut off all dealings with their perpetrator, we do not make the same demands of a wife who is raped by her husband.
We seem to intuitively understand how violence in a marriage can limit a woman’s ability to leave. What keeps us from extending that same understanding to survivors who are not married to their perpetrator? Given that the vast majority (80%) of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the woman knows, trusts and even loves, isn’t it finally time we did?
A New Vision for Fair Rape Trials and True Consent
As you can see, ignorance of how the human brain and body operate when faced with a dangerous threat, especially from someone we know, leads to victim blaming, lack of consent and rape trials that perpetuate rape myths.
Of course, it’s important that anyone accused of sexual assault receive a fair trial. But we can achieve that without resorting to the shaming and blaming of sexual assault survivors.
We must ground our laws in the science. Additionally, we need a better definition of consent.
Today, we have competing definitions of consent that vary from state to state and in differing cultural contexts. While some believe that affirmative consent is the only way to ensure that sex is consensual, others tout “enthusiastic consent” as the solution to acquaintance rape. Still others insist that women need to proffer a “firm no” to eliminate any confusion. Others would foist an additional burden upon women by assigning them the responsibility to “not put themselves in a dangerous situation.”
None of these approaches to consent address the root causes of most sexual assault. The truth is that our assumptions and expectations about gender roles and romance shape our attitudes about rape and consent.
Even today, many men and women are still operating from the assumption that men are meant to “take whatever they can take” and “get by with whatever they can get by with.” In fact, a man who fails to “make the first move” or “initiate sex” is often viewed as being less than manly.
And that can make sex a battleground predicated upon manipulation, coercion, dishonesty and ulterior motives. It precludes the expression of female sexual desire and turns sex into a guessing game for all participants.
Will we ever get to the point where we understand that when men “get sex” from a reluctant partner, the man is not just violating consent but also cheating himself? Will we ever realize that if sex isn’t mutually desired, it’s not only abusive and harmful, but also demeans the man who uses manipulation and coercion? Will we ever come to realize that true satisfaction is only found in couplings that derive from and express the desires of both parties?
Of course it will take a vast overhaul of how men and women relate to each other sexually. But if we want to reduce the amount of unwanted sex and sexual assault, as well as increase the sexual satisfaction of both men and women, isn’t it worth the effort?