Recently I had a conversation with the sweetest, most caring educator about a sexual assault at their school, perpetrated by one student on another. One of the things she said was:
“And it was definitely assault, because she said no five times.”
One of the common myths that we’ve all been taught and need to unlearn is that sexual assault is only assault if there is a certain level of resistance. Many people believe that assault always involves a lot of fighting, yelling, and saying no.
In reality, sexual assault often happens very quietly, as the most common response to it is the freeze response, meaning that the person being assaulted feels largely unable to speak or move. Here is my blog piece all about the freeze response.
This often leaves victims feeling confused and guilty about ‘letting’ the assault happen, without a frame of reference to understand why they shut down and were unable to act or speak. Even more confusing, and also very common, is the fawn response.
I haven’t written as much about the fawn response because I haven’t been able to find as much research on it, and I like to understand the science behind things. But what I have learned is that most experts on trauma recognize the fawn response as one of four autonomic stress responses, along with freeze, fight and flight.
A fawn response, also known as please and appease, is when the body decides that the best survival strategy is to give the assailant what they want, and not contradict them, in a bid to avoid further harm. Like the other autonomic responses it happens outside of our conscious control, within 15 milliseconds, and corresponds with all kinds of physiological changes such as shifts in blood flow and a rearrangement of brain function. Experiencing these autonomic responses often leaves people feeling dissociated from their bodies, exhausted, disoriented and confused.
As you can imagine, the fawn response is also a common response to sexual assault, leaving victims wondering why they were actually nice to the person assaulting them, and feeling particularly confused and ashamed.
I remember having a fawn response several years ago when I was surrounded by three large young men who were saying inappropriate things. A voice in my head was saying, “Why am I giggling at their stupid joke, when I’m really angry and scared?” But all I could do was smile and giggle. To me, my giggle sounded very strained and over the top, but I don’t think they noticed at all. But I didn’t put two and two together until learning about the fawn response years later.
Even if a person being assaulted is not having a fawn or freeze response, they should not have to scream, fight back, or even say no, in order to prove that they are not consenting. The law in most places recognizes this now, and society in general needs to catch up. It is up to all of us to make sure we’re getting affirmative, enthusiastic consent for intimate touch. Anything less than affirmative and enthusiastic consent is NOT consent.
Many people have a hard time saying no for a wide variety of reasons. I’ve written more about this in a
here. When a person has been assaulted and is already struggling with why they didn’t say no, the last thing they need to hear is:
“Did you say no?!”
“Did you say it loudly??”
“Did you say no more than once?!”
“Did they hear you say no?”
We really have to stop this victim blaming framework of investigating whether the victim resisted adequately. We should be asking the perpetrator:
“How did you know that you had enthusiastic consent?”
“How did you ask for intimate touch?”
“What made you think it was OK to do that?”
When victims disclose abuse, we need to listen non judgmentally, not rush them in their telling, and offer them calm and support. If they start to insist that they said no, we need to reassure them that it wasn’t their fault, whether they said no or not, that it was up to the perpetrator to seek affirmative consent, and that if they ever have a hard time saying no, that is not the same as saying yes.
If someone is disclosing an incident to us and talks about being confused by their own reactions, or ashamed that they didn’t say no, or even that they went along with what the assailant wanted even though they were scared, we can explain to them about the freeze and fawn responses and reassure them that in intense circumstances we cannot always control how our bodies react and that there is no ‘right’ way to react to being assaulted.
Even more uncomfortable to talk about, but just as important, is to make sure that young people understand that it is normal and common for people of all genders to experience arousal and even orgasm during a sexual assault. Again, it is an automatic reaction of the body, and outside of our conscious control. It’s important for young people to understand that experiencing an erection, or an orgasm, does NOT mean that they enjoyed the assault, or that they gave consent.
Another myth about sexual assault is that there is a ‘right’ way to react to it afterwards as well, with lots of crying, distress, and no desire to go out or be intimate with others. In reality, there are no ‘right’ or ‘normal’ ways to react to assault. Many people feel detached or robotic after an assault, and wonder why they can’t cry. There may be denial, dissociation, and distraction, with some feeling compelled to ‘party’ and find ways to numb their feelings.
These myths we’ve been taught lead to attitudes that are expressed as:
“Just say no!”
“Well, did you say no? Did they hear you?”
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
“If you got an erection, obviously it’s not assault.”
“How are we supposed to believe you’re a victim when you’re going out again already?”
And these attitudes are so normalized that we don’t even notice that we have them. So that even the most caring, well-meaning people can fall into the trap of unintentionally compounding the shame and self blame that victims may already be feeling.
We have to stop focusing on what the victims can do to assert their boundaries, and start focusing on the responsibility to get affirmative consent. We need to share and spread the understanding that many, if not most, people struggle to say no, especially in high stakes or intense situations. And if we are under enough stress it can even be physically impossible to say no. We need to help young people understand what enthusiasm looks like, and what a lack of enthusiasm looks like, and make sure that they know that only enthusiastic consent is true consent.
In the Consent Culture Intro workshop and the book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook For Educators, we focus on preventing harm by learning to have better interactions. We don’t specifically address sexual assault, except when talking about the freeze response. This is because we want to aim so much higher than just preventing harm, we want people to learn skills for healthy, respectful, and enjoyable interactions. But of course we want to prevent harm as well, and part of this is understanding and deconstructing the myths that underlie bad interactions, recognizing the barriers to better interactions, and then learning the skills to overcome those barriers.
To learn more about the trainings and workshops available, visit www.creatingconsentculture.com
Order the book here!