A woman’s believability when reporting sexual abuse is undermined by the very automatic neurological responses that are in place to protect her.
When women report a sexual assault, they’re often faced with skepticism about how loudly and seriously they said “no.” Police, judges, and other observers investigate the quality of that “no,” looking for evidence of screams and fighting back. If they didn’t say “no” loud enough, women are often held accountable for their own assault.
There are a lot of obvious problems with this, starting with the fact that a weak “no” is not the same as a definite “yes.” But the most important problem is also the most insidious: Passive acceptance, not fighting back, can also indicate that someone is gripped with fear.
This is why, in recent years, activists and feminists have shifted the conversation from “no means no” to “yes means yes.” “Enthusiastic consent” has become the go-to approach adopted by colleges and universities across the U.S., and by sex education advocates in general — an alternative to the model where “consent” means “acquiescence” or “just not saying no.” A woman who enthusiastically wants sex will always be able to affirm consent, but a woman who is frightened, confused, or intimidated won’t always be able to refuse.
Passive acceptance can indicate that someone is gripped with fear.
Unfortunately, many first responders, law enforcement officials, attorneys, and even the general public remain confused about the ways in which a woman might realistically respond to an assault. They believe outdated myths that cause them to doubt many victims’ testimonies. They are confused when it seems that a woman has “allowed” an assault to happen. They are confused if she does not seem broken enough. They don’t understand the ways in which a body can protect itself. They don’t understand the ways in which a switch can be flipped in the brain when a woman is faced with danger. In this way, a woman’s believability when reporting an assault is undermined by the very automatic neurological responses that are in place to protect her.
The Mind-Body Response to Sexual Assault
There are a number of neurobiological responses to trauma that serve to protect us. The freeze response is one of them. This happens almost instantly after the amygdala — a set of neurons in the brain that plays a key role in both our fear and pleasure responses — detects danger. When this occurs, we stop, and our sensory mechanisms go into vigilance. Our eyes get bigger. Our pupils dilate. Our ears become more sensitive. “Everything becomes focused on perceiving what the threat might be, and what the possibilities are for escape,” says James W. Hopper, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who advises and trains a variety of professionals on the neurobiology of trauma.
After this initial freeze response, if a person comes to the conclusion that resistance is futile — which can be an automatic and involuntary appraisal by the brain’s fear circuitry — they may go into one of a couple different states of immobility. One possibility is tonic immobility, wherein someone is literally unable to move, speak, or cry out, even if they try. “It is an extreme survival reflex,” says Hopper. “The body becomes rigid. The muscles become tense and rigid. In this state, one can’t move or speak.”
There is also collapsed immobility, which is akin to “playing possum.” When the predator has you in its jaws — or, in the case of sexual assault, when the perpetrator has restrained and overpowered or penetrated you — the body goes limp, and the blood pressure and heart rate drop. In this state, one may feel “sleepy” or faint and, in some instances, may even pass out.
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Another common reflexive response is dissociation: Again, based on the brain automatically appraising the situation and determining that resistance is futile, the victim enters into a mental state in which they feel disconnected from what is happening.
“All of these different, automatic responses are baked into our brain by evolution,” says Hopper, “to protect us from predatory attack and increase our chance of survival.”
These automatic responses are well-established; in fact, says Hopper, they’re even accounted for in military training. This is why soldiers must undergo countless drills before being sent into battle. The techniques learned during these drills eventually become habit, so that, “when the bullets are flying and people are dying and they can’t think straight and they’re in this terrified state, they have new habits to fall back on.”
Women aren’t trained to resist their natural instinct to shut down when threatened — and they’re socialized to avoid threats passively rather than aggressively. “[Women] are taught how to politely resist someone making unwanted sexual advances without angering them,” says Hopper. “They learn how to say no without coming out and saying no.” Once that resistance is ignored, the amygdala’s response takes over, and it’s too late. They’re under attack and their brain, controlled by fear and running on instinct, leaves them at the mercy of the perpetrator. “And then they blame themselves for the assault,” says Hopper, “and other people blame them for not reacting more effectively. But would they blame a man who’s been sent to the front line with no combat training?”
And this is to say nothing of the fact that we shouldn’t be blaming victims at all, instead of the perpetrators of assault and abuse.
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Fear-based immobility isn’t the only automatic response that is seen as weakening women’s testimony. Several years ago, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, explored women’s genital arousal in response to rape cues. They posited that physical signs of arousal, such as lubrication, were not indicators of desire; rather, they prepared the body for penetration regardless of intent, in order to protect the genitals from injury. There has since been much more research that has torn apart the misguided conflation between arousal and desire, and it is now common knowledge (among scientists, at least) that both men and women can experience physical arousal even in instances where they feel no desire. There are still many, however, who assume that any sign of arousal is a signifier that the woman “wanted it.”
“Our bodies are made up of a nervous system that has thousands of nerve endings, particularly around the genitals,” says Melanie Bliss, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in issues of trauma. She explains that, even when someone does not want to have sex, if the body and nerves are being stimulated, a physiological response still sometimes occurs. “There’s a tremendous amount of shame people experience,” says Bliss, “because they don’t understand why their body is responding as if they do want that encounter.” Later, this physical response can be used against the victim. “If the perpetrator says, ‘well, you had an orgasm or indicated some other physiological response of arousal,’ it’s difficult for the victim to feel she can explain that. And that physiological response can further complicate a victim’s disclosure because it messes with people’s assumptions of what sexual assault looks like.”
Women Are Undermined by Their Own Neurobiological Responses
Unfortunately, while all of these tactics and reflexive responses can serve to protect a woman in the moment, they can also make it difficult for her to later find justice. “For a perpetrator,” says Bliss, “the best defense is to say the sex was consensual. Then it’s up to [the victim] to convince authorities otherwise.”
And people seem so eager to blame the victim. “People are very judgmental,” says Bliss. “They judge sexual assault victims for not fighting back or for not somehow securing their own safety or for putting themselves in a position that was later deemed unsafe.”
“And other women can’t help but think on some level: that could be me,” adds Hopper. So they convince themselves that it couldn’t happen to them. That the victim did something wrong. “It’s a way of defending themselves against the horrible realization that it could’ve been them,” says Hopper. “For a woman, especially, there’s the knowledge that, at some level, they’re vulnerable to this. So when they’re confronted by it, there’s that automatic tendency to tell themselves that it must have been something [the victim] did.”
There are many initiatives now in place in which first responders are trained to recognize the signs of trauma. And more and more universities are initiating consent education programs, with a shift toward “yes means yes” versus “no means no.” This is a crucial distinction that must be made when — in the midst of danger — women are often unable to say no or to put up a significant amount of resistance. It remains to be seen, however, how long misguided myths about sexual assault victims will persist. For the moment, women continue to grapple with the reality that surviving an assault means losing control of their personal narrative.