BDSM and Burqas: an argument against the veil

 

When one thinks about BDSM, first things that come to mind are leather costumes, nipple-clamps, collar belts, whips, and so on. But believe me when I tell you that BDSM actually made me rethink my stand against ban on burqa.

I can assume that most liberal-minded (for the lack of better words) out there, even after being repulsed by the practice, would tolerate it as something confined to a private space, which is an individual’s sexuality (I sincerely hope so since I do occasionally indulge in it). What makes it so tolerable? The things that people do in the name of BDSM can be categorised as torture, slavery and even rape. There is a good amount of possibility that physical injuries will be inflicted. But there is one crucial factor that makes BDSM so radically different from torture, slavery and rape, and even tolerable for many. Consent.

But, questions arise. Why should consent sanctify something that is otherwise considered morally reprehensible? Thought experiments on consensual slavery is brought up, to drive the point home. But another crucial difference between a consensual whipping and inflicting of pain, and a hypothetical consensual slavery would be that the former allows one to retain their agency. When I enter into an agreement with a partner to be whipped or slapped, one thing is very certainly and explicitly agreed upon: I can unilaterally withdraw my consent at any point in the act, even for no reason at all. That’s why we have “safewords”. My point here is that, consent is only morally valid if the party concerned doesn’t have to give up their agency, i.e., the liberty to choose and the liberty to withdraw consent. It is such consent that differentiates (hypothetical) consensual slavery from any kind of unpaid labour, rape from sex, and BDSM from torture.

Now let me come to the Burqa and the bans instituted by France and Belgium, and reinforced by the EU court. One of the central arguments, or at least the ones I have come across, against the ban is that the right of a woman to choose to cover her face in public, even if she cites religious reasons. The big question that comes here is, while they “choose” to cover their face in public do they retain their agency? For me the answer was completely clear: No. It never has and it never will. Without a face, I’m pretty sure it’s extremely difficult for a person to assert their identity as an individual. And when that happens exercising one’s agency is very complicated. But if one assumes that a woman with her face covered can somehow retain their agency, then the assumption would entail a possiblity that the said woman can say no to the niqaab at any point? Notionally, it should, but it doesn’t. One only has to look around the world, to see that societies that doesn’t require woman to have a full face covering have very small proportion of women actually wearing the veil, and most of the time there would be external factors influencing the decisions of these women.

It is this lack of agency that one must take into account before defending the veil, no matter what you call it, burqa, niqab, jilbab, etc. But do I still support the blanket ban on face-covering by Belgium or France? I’m not sure. The anarchist in me is still reluctant to embrace it. If such a ban were introduced in India, I would have fought against it vehemently. Here I’m also considering my right to wear whatever I feel like, without having to give a reason to anybody, including the state.

The Inversion of Responsibility

“Be Responsible”, requests the sign. It’s titled “Hate Mongering” and was seen recently in the city of Pune:

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Sign seen at a traffic intersection in Pune (see article for text of the sign).

Who is it addressed to, you might wonder. Is it addressed to the terrorists of the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Hindu National Army”) who went on a rampage in the city last month and beat a Muslim man to death? No, it’s addressed to… people on Facebook. The sign advises its readers:

Choose carefully what you Comment, Like or Share on Social Media.

And it adds an upside-down image of a Facebook “Like” icon – i.e. a thumbs-down – for emphasis.

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A Retort to Bret Stephens

This WSJ article is making rounds declaring that “a culture that celebrates kidnapping is not fit for statehood”, referring to the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers. With an assertion that one has to ask uncomfortable questions, Bret Stephens (the author) demands to know why Palestinians condone and celebrate the violence committed by some people among them.

Two things that came to my mind while reading the article:

a. The decree that a purportedly violent culture doesn’t deserve statehood.

Whether or not the Palestinian/Muslim culture is violent is a separate question altogether, but the assertion that for statehood a nation has to be non-violent is laughable. The very fundamental of any given statehood is violence. It is in fact, described as a social community that monopolises violence.

And also look who’s talking: a person coming from a nation-state built on the legacy of mass-murder, mass-kidnapping, mass-thievery, and at least two centuries of chattel slavery. But the same is the case of every other nation-state in the world. Each has a legacy of unspeakable brutalities committed in their name, and none have actually repented or gone through “moral rehabilitation”. India, Pakistan, ChinaTurkey, almost every other Western European nations, and any nation-state you name will have its own baggage of violence.

The author cites post-war Germany as having gone through moral rehabilitation, which in itself is questionable, but one can’t help but overlook the fact that anti-semitism was neither an indigenous invention of the Germans nor was it a patented ambition of the Nazi Germany. There was a reason why Hitler, Mussolini and Franco came to power, and were allowed to do the things they did against the Jewish people. There is a reason why almost all of the European nations were keen to have them leave for Israel. And there is also a reason why most of the Jewish refugees either left for the US or were sent to Mandate Palestine. I hope Stephens do not forget that.

b. The expectations of moral integrity from Palestine, without expecting the same from the Israelis.

Are the latter not guilty of condoning everything that Israeli state has done to the Palestinians, including the virtual disenfranchisement of an entire population, occupation of Palestinian homes, killing and displacement and forced impoverishment? Or is it so that because it’s done by the military and not average Israeli citizens it becomes legitimate? Maybe I misread him but at one point it seemed like Stephens was implying that getting killed by the military is different than getting killed by average people. Such blanket absolution for sovereign state militaries is quite common. We hear it in cases like Kashmir, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. And it’s such normalising and legitimising of state violence that is problematic, because it sends out a message that violence inflicted by any powerful authority is fine and justified.

Also such high expectations put on the colonised to be peaceful and morally upright, is reminiscent of the expectations of moral integrity and non-violence that the British colonial discourse had put on the Indian anti-colonial movement, especially after the Chauri Chaura Incident of 1922.

On “India vs. Hinduphobia”

Mr. Juluri (“India v. Hinduphobia: What Narendra Modi’s Election as Prime Minister Really Means”),

Firstly, let me congratulate you for analysing the most recent elections in India and figuring out what the “youth” really want – a unified India, as opposed to Hinduphobia – which would apparently mean Mr. Modi losing. According to you, it seems to be a rather black and white issue – a divided India or Hinduphobia (the proof being “orientalist” articles in The Economic Times, The New York Times and The Guardian?).

I would like to disagree with you. I’ll admit it – when I read your article, it made me angry (we’ll come to that later) but then, it seemed ridiculous. I’m not going to lie, I laughed. I laughed at the utopian Hindu world you’ve experienced and lived (perhaps even live) in and I’m angry that this does not reflect my experience of Hinduism and “Hindu worldviews”, even though I was born in a Hindu household and bombarded with those worldviews whether I liked it or not. I laughed because my experience of these worldviews in Hindustan has been shockingly different. So you will understand, I think, if I try to put forward my perspective in response to yours.

We disagree on many points, but foremost amongst them has to be your assertion that respect needs to be accorded to the very little intellectual, emotional or moral purchase the “anointed” secular position has in “large sections of India’s young today”. Your belief seems to be that it is not really secular (“sickular”, perhaps) and has been anointed (but by whom?) and that a large majority of the voters (by association, youth) voted for Narendra Modi, secular criticisms against him have little influence or endorsement. Here, I want to point out that only 31% of the voters voted for him and no party has ever before won more than half the seats with a vote share of just 31%, which emphasises how fragmented the vote actually was this election. But I won’t go into figures and all that jazz now, since it seems that doing so only makes us hold on to our positions with renewed determination.

Apart from that, even if it were true that a large majority of “young people” (or is it young Hindus? Never mind) disregarded secular criticisms and viewpoints in the last general elections, does that automatically make it something which should be respected?

The “new way of being Hindu” which is being equated with everything nice, starting from tolerance to universal good – I don’t see that, I have never seen that.

What I have seen, however, is a resurgence of ideas which talk of how India is “finally” becoming the country it was “meant” to be – the Prime Ministerial candidate goes to temples, offers pujas and respects the Ganges. Have you ever seen anybody do that? No, sir. You haven’t. Here is a true Hindu, a real man who will finally show Muslims their place in the country and get rid of those bloody immigrants (only Muslim ones, mind you).

Yes, India will belong to the Hindus, to us. That seems to be the overriding sentiment when they talk. I don’t know how Hindus practice their worldviews in your (seemingly) utopian world, but these are their worldviews in mine.

And no, this does not exclude “young people”. Yes, most of us are not overt about it, but there is still an “us” versus “them” mentality. Very much so, we would like to hide it, hide from it, deny it – and we do. But that does not mean it is not present. It is everywhere. No, we are not what you think we are, at least not in my (admittedly not utopian) world. And this does not refer clear cut lines based only on religion. It extends to ethnicity, language, caste and class. In a country where you have a multitude of identities, you are bound to have a multitude of loyalties – especially since most social life still revolves around the identities assigned to us with our birth in a particular family.

Allow me to point out yet another assertion of yours I majorly disagree with and which is perhaps the whole premise on which your article is built. I don’t think this election can be as simple as “India vs. Hinduphobia”. Among the 31% voters for Modi, “Hinduphobia” was the least important worry on the minds of at least one camp. Incidentally, this is the “camp” that has the greatest number of “young people”. This camp has taken into account the accusations against him but satisfy themselves with clean chits and speeches where development is mentioned more than the Ram Temple, and how can Modi win without Muslim support (the number of Muslim MPs in the 16th Lok Sabha will be the lowest in 15 years. The BJP has fielded only 5 Muslim candidates but none of them have won) and the Gujarat model of development. We lust after jobs, security, no reservations and the Indian rupee. Many of us seem to have found in Modi a charismatic, interactive leader who portrays himself as being poles apart from Dr. Manmohan Singh, who has often been the butt of jokes due to the silent and formal nature of his interaction with the public. Hinduphobia is so far removed from the truth for them, it’s absurd.

However, to another camp, this election means something else. They are glad that there are only 23 Muslim MPs. They are against anything which does not fit in with their idea of “traditional, Hindu” values (read: gay rights, etc).

You state that different faiths divided by language, custom etc still share a land and history due to Hinduism’s “ancient legacy” of respecting all faiths more than the secular constitution India has. Do you not believe that Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains have a legacy of respecting all faiths? Even if we assume your statement to be true, peace and coexistence cannot be achieved if only one religion is doing all the “respecting” and “tolerating”. Taali ek hath se nahi bajti [you can't clap with one hand] as we like to say, you know, as Indians.

The government which is to preside over us for the next five years has just been formed, and trust me, all of us who have voted want nothing but the best for India, even though our ideas about what “the best” really is might vary. Let’s see the direction India takes in the next five years. Acche din? For everybody, I hope.

 

How to Say Hari Kondabolu

Hari Kondabolu posted an audio pronounciation guide for his name on Tumblr yesterday, adding:

My career goal is to make people say my name properly. This kind of success is called THE GALIFIANAKIS. Hopefully this post will help.

Hari is such an easy name I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t pronounce it correctly (after hearing someone else say it correctly). Kondabolu is harder, but just like Hari, there aren’t any syllables in it which don’t exist in English and most modern languages right? It should to be easy to teach yourself to say Hari correctly. Just say hurry. Or say hubby and replace the b sound with an r sound.

My experience in the UK was that most people said Soooo-nil for some reason – and it grated like hell. This despite them hearing me say it any number of times. The u in my name is actually pronounced like foot, and the i is pronounced either like eel or ill – I use the former, though most Sunils seem to use the latter.

I think it’s a basic courtesy to pronounce someone’s name the way they pronounce it, provided you can say all its syllables. If you can’t say them all, at least say the ones you can – make a “good faith” effort. If you’re not sure, ask! Some of my Indian friends don’t pronounce my name with the pronounciation I use either – I wish they would. (I also have friends who don’t say my name at all – I don’t want to think about what that means.) I’m not immune to this myself; but I try to correct myself. When realisation dawned that I’d been mispronouncing one of my oldest friends’ name for years, I corrected it overnight. When I had a colleague named Sarah I taught myself to say it – “say stair-ah and remove the t“. I’m not sure how to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s name, but I’m confident that once I hear someone say it correctly, I’ll learn that correct pronounciation.

The phenomenon of name mispronouncation takes on a more serious tone when the person whose name is being mispronounced belongs to an out-group – say immigrants or ethnic minorities. I did some searching on Google Scholar and came across this thesis The Racialisation of Names: Names and the Persistence of Racism in the UK by sociologist Emily Jay Wykes, which examines the racialisation of names including mispronounciation. It’s interesting stuff and there’s free access to the PDF, do take a look.

 

 

The BJP and Bangladeshis

With a recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Assam, the issue of Bangladeshi immigrants have been raked up with every party taking a stand on immigration.

One can see parallels between the “Bangladeshi problem” of India and the “Mexican problem” of the United States, with conservatives demanding for stringent immigration laws and deportation of everyone who they deem as a illegal infiltrators on one side and the liberals and the left accusing the former of being xenophobic (“communal” in India and “racist” in the US) and of fomenting an environment of fear and paranoia.

Now, whether or not immigration laws and enforcement of such laws are fair is a different matter altogether. What I am interested in is the Hindu Right’s obsession with the Bangladeshis. A friend of mine shared an article published in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn (Indian elections: What taking potshots at Pakistan really means)

When Giriraj Singh talks of sending all those who oppose Modi to Pakistan, he obviously does not mean the Hindus. He wants to say that if the Muslims don’t vote for the BJP, which they don’t normally, they are the enemy.

This should put in perspective how the BJP imagines a Bangladeshi to be and their distinction of a “refugee” from an “infiltrator”. It would be foolish to think that a party with a Hindutva background, a Hindu Nationalist as its Prime Ministerial candidate (whatever that means), and with clear intentions of favouring Hindu Bangladeshis over Muslims, would hold a secular and impartial view in this matter. Talking about immigration and its legality is entirely different from targeting people of a specific nationality. The latter has specific mala fide intention of targeting Muslim Bengalis in West Bengal and Assam. This fits well with the narrative of the “immigrant vote-bank” which has little substance, lots of xenophobia (which in case of Assam borders on racism) and a sprinkle of the usual fear-mongering fantasy: “they took our jobs“.

On Not Having a Good Hindu Name

I met up with a friend yesterday, who, like me, is an atheist but has a Christian last name. As often happens these days, the conversation drifted to the possibility of having Modi as prime minister. She told me about a friend of hers, who has a mixed background – Muslim father, and Christan mother. Her friend said that she was apprehensive about having a Muslim name in an India where Modi is in charge. There would be a sense of fear lurking in one’s mind. What if.

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The Kingkiller Chronicle – A Review of Sorts

It is easier to understand if you think of it in terms of music. Sometimes a man enjoys a symphony. Elsetimes he finds a jig more suited to his taste. The same holds true for lovemaking. One type is suited to the deep cushions of a twilight forest glade. Another comes quite naturally tangled in the sheets of narrow beds upstairs in inns. Each woman is like an instrument, waiting to be learned, loved, and finely played, to have at last her own true music made.

Some might take offense at this way of seeing things, not understanding how a trouper views his music. They might think I degrade women. They might consider me callous, or boorish, or crude.

But those people do not understand love, or music, or me.

The Name of The Wind - Cover

Source – Wikipedia
Used under fair use.

That is what Kovthe, the protagonist of Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle series has to say about women. It also sums up the how the series sees women – from the worst of the male gaze.

Is that a too harsh a judgement? I don’t think so. Our pop-culture reflects our patriarchal values. There are exceptions which are growing with time, but take any successful movie or a book and you’ll see the trend. This is even more so prominent in the sci-fi and fantasy genre whose traditional profit base have been men.

Given that background, it would be a big surprise if an author swims against the tide and risks upsetting his potential clientele. So in the two books of out of three released so far in the series you’ll find the baseline sexism and objectification and something beyond that.

The objectification is not casual, something you write down unthinkingly because of the setting of the story – in some old age in a different world where men rule the kingdoms and women exist to be wooed and won. That can be forgiven as lazy. You can’t expect an author to always pick up on the latest developments in ethics and factor them into their books.

But still, if you look at mythological paeans to patriarchy like the Ramayana, even after all the strict gendering of men and women, the women still manage to have far more agency than what you’d find in The Kingkiller Chronicle series which is a grand, epic story that spans a large many characters.

So the objectification is intentional. Whether it is because Rothfuss sees women that way or it is because Rothfuss wanted to write an old fashioned fantasy story with all the prejudices of its time is hard to say. Whatever it is, the end result is akin to you watching a beautiful scenery with someone sitting besides you constantly making a harsh, grating noise which you just can’t ignore.

The noise in the books comes largely by way of the metaphors used the by author. The full gamut of the patriarchal caricatures of women is put to use – beautiful, slender, frail, rousing, fickle, hard to comprehend, nagging, motherly, and powerfully destructive. These metaphors are found throughout the books and they can easily replaced with other non-sexist metaphors without losing any of the intended effect.

For example, to drive home the point that Kovthe’s inn was so clean, the author mentions that after Kovthe finished scrubbing it, the water in the bucket was so clear that a lady can wash her hands in it. The metaphor stands on the assumption that women are fastidious creatures who prefer tidy things (as opposed to men who are not so fussy and like to live uncomplicated lives). Even after conceding that the story was set in a time and place where women are expected to be like that, another metaphor could have been used that would still serve the same purpose. And it is like this throughout the book. Just when you thought the author hasn’t used one of those horrid metaphors in a while, he’ll drop another like someone who’s fastidiously punctual on deploying sexism and objectification.

And of course, there’s the crown glory quoted at the beginning of this post. It looks like the author anticipates that such a stark objectification of women will give rise to objections. So he uses the identification a reader typically develops with the protagonist while reading a book to explain away the objection; he presents an incontrovertible proof that such objectification is not really objectification. Because you, the reader, you who are Kovthe while you are reading, know how music is big part of your life. You know that though you can be a smartass at times, you really are a decent person. You know how you are kindhearted, just, reasonable and would never hurt another without reason. So the author asks you a direct question – are you a degrader of women? And you answer Of course no, I’m not that unethical. What a silly question! Okay says the author. Now you know that I don’t really mean to objectify women at all, right? All is well.

To sum up, The Kingkiller Chronicle series features some fine storytelling that is severely marred by the frequent resorts to sexism and objectification.

A Thought on “It’s Just a Joke”

Two days ago, Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson was found uttering the N-word in unaired footage (video):

In the unseen footage – which was later edited out of the show – the £1million a year TV host is seen swinging his finger between two cars, while reciting a racist version of a children’s counting rhyme. Clarkson can be heard chanting: “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe…” He then mumbles: “Catch a n***** by his toe”.

Clarkson initially denied using the word, after which the newspaper released the video footage proving it. Yesterday Clarkson made an apology video where he claimed that he knew it was a racist word which he “was extremely keen to avoid”, and that it “did appear” that he actually used the word and that he was moritified. And that “I did everything in my power to not use that word”, whatever that means. It’s hard to take him seriously when he and Top Gear have a history of racism, sexism, homophobia and just all-round harmful offensive marginalising shit. For example, just a few months ago Clarkson tweeted a photo of him sleeping with a sign saying “gay c***” pointing at him, with one of his Top Gear lads smiling smugly behind him. Or just a month ago when Clarkson refered to a Thai man as a “slope” – a racist slur referring to facial features.

But this post isn’t just about Top Gear, it’s more about people who say and do such things, and when others complain, they respond “it’s just a joke”. Here’s a thought I had on dealing with such people. When someone says “come on it’s just a joke”, ask them the following question:

Could you give me an example of something which you think should not be joked about?

Hopefully they do have such a thing. If they say no, there’s isn’t any such thing – and they really mean it – then this is probably a fruitless exercise, as this is someone who doesn’t have much intelligence or ethics. But presumably, for most people, there is such a thing. Then hopefully what you could do is get them to self-examine the premises behind their conclusion it’s okay to joke about X but not Y. They would have to come up with relevant dissimilarities between X and Y to justify their conclusion, and maybe if they do that exercise honestly, they’ll realise that actually there are many relevant similarities and few relevant dissimilarities between the two. So they ought not to joke about X either.

Maybe it’s a long shot, but hey a humanist can dream, right?

I’ll end this short post with one of my favourite comedy sketches ever – British comedian Stewart Lee skewering Top Gear. It’s excellent political comedy as well as all-out hilarious:

 

 

 

 

Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave

In the wake of the Tejpal rape case, some articles and comments in Indian media have propagated certain myths about how “true” rape victims “should” behave. These myths echo depictions of rape in cinema and television, and go something like this:

  • rape victims always fight back against their attackers;
  • rape victims always scream “rape” and display hysterical distress after the assault;
  • rape victims always give complete and consistent testimony to the police after the assault.

When one looks at the scientific research on victim responses to sexual assault however, it becomes clear that the expectations that all rape victims “should” behave this way are unfounded. So let’s take a look at the research.

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

The first resource to see, is this seminar from the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), titled “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault”. The NIJ is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice – it improves knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. The seminar is part of a series of seminars on translational criminology, which attempts to guide and improve criminal justice through scientific research. The speaker is Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who has conducted research on rape for the past twenty years – in particular on medical, legal and mental systems’ responses to rape. The seminar is an hour and a half long (and includes a lengthy Q&A with law enforcement and legal professionals); you can view all the slides along with the audio at the link above, and you can also read the entire written transcript here.

Here are the key research findings she shares during the talk, which are relevant to the above myths. She describes the neurobiology of sexual assault: the hormonal and emotional effects of the assault on the brain. Various hormones come into effect in the victim of a sexual assault – the catecholamines (one of which is adrenaline), cortisol (the “stress hormone”), endogenous opioids (like endorphins), and oxytocin. These hormones affect two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which modulates events that are important for the organism’s survival, and the hippocampus, which processes memory. The consequences of this on the victim are:

1) Tonic Immobility, also known as rape-induced paralysis. This is a muscular paralysis experienced by the victim during the assault, and explains why some victims do not fight back. As Dr. Campbell says, (emphasis mine):

The catecholamines are often going to be at very, very high levels during the assault. We talked about how these hormones are very helpful for the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, we’ve also hinted at a little bit that those hormones may not be the best things in terms of memory. The other thing that these hormones are not the greatest at is that they impair the circuits in our brain that control rational thought. So the parts of our prefrontal cortex that allow us to do “IF this THEN that” — that’s rational thought in simple terms — those circuits literally do not work at their optimal levels when catecholamine levels are high. So a victim under sort of normal levels of catecholamine — meaning not being victimized — might be able to look at a situation and say, “Oh, well of course the rational, logical thing for me to do is this.”

The victim literally can’t think like that during the assault. The catecholamines have caused structural cellular damage to those circuits. It’s not permanent; it’s temporary. But at the same time, they can’t do that “IF this THEN that” thought. So when they’re in the middle of the assault, strategies like “Oh, you coulda, you shoulda, you would have done this” — they can’t even think of the options, let alone execute them. So again, kind of a tragic situation where our body is working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, it can help here, and on the other hand it’s not going to help the rational thought mechanisms.

[...] And then finally, for some victims, it’s the corticosteroids that have dumped out at very high levels and actually reduces the energy available to the body. Now, I’ve been talking so far about fight-or-flight. It’s actually fight, flight, or freeze — that for some victims, they don’t fight back. They don’t flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the HPA axis. And it can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body. And the technical name for this is tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.” It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. [...] Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.

Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

[...] Because they had this reaction, they’re afraid of how it’s going to be perceived by others, so they’re very reluctant to seek help. And when they do come help, it’s always there in the back of their mind. They are dreading that question “What did you do?” Because their answer is one that they don’t think anybody’s going to understand and quite frankly they don’t understand, because their answer is “I did nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I just laid there.” When people disclose tonic immobility, when victims disclose it, family, friends and service providers often react very negatively to this. You got the, “Well you must have wanted it, because you just laid there. You coulda, woulda [skips] something.” They can’t. Remember, it’s an autonomic mammalian response wired into our brains to protect the survival of the organism. So it can be helpful to try to explain tonic immobility and normalize this. Fight, flight, or freeze.

2) The victims’ emotional response after the assault is not always “hysterical” and “upset”:

Opiates released in very, very high levels during sexual assault, again blocking the physical pain, the emotional pain. But morphine — if any of you have had major surgery — morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties. It’s out. It blocks the pain. So the affect that a victim might be communicating during the assault and afterward may be very flat, incredibly monotone — like seeing no emotional reaction, which again sometimes can seem counterintuitive to both the victim and other people. It’s like “This was a horrible traumatic event. Why aren’t you showing these kinds of emotions?” Opiate morphine is not letting it come through. It has been blunted.

[...] These neurobiological changes can lead to very flat affect, that sort of bluntness or what appears to them to be strange emotions, or huge emotional swings that over the course of the interview you can see them high, you can see them low, you can see them somewhere in between. And you can see that all unfold in a span of about 90 seconds or less. And then the cycle will repeat.

So the behavior that they see is due to a hormonal soup. Remember how we talked about how those hormones can sometimes even be working at cross-purposes. Which hormones are released at which levels? We don’t know yet. We don’t have data on that, but we know that there’s a lot — that those are the four main ones that are being released and that they can kind of put the body at cross-purposes. So what is often interpreted as a victim being cavalier because she’s just sitting there or interpreted as lying because she seems so cavalier and not upset about it, is very likely attributable to the opiate levels in her body, because those will be released at the time of the assault and they can stay very elevated for 96 hours post assault. So the key thing that practitioners need to know is that there is, in fact, a wide reaction of emotional reactions to sexual assault, and it can be helpful to normalize those reactions for victims, because they don’t understand why they’re behaving that way either.

3) Memory consolidation and recall is difficult for victims. The encoding and consolidation of a sexual assault into memory happens in a fragmented way. There might be several gaps in memory too, particularly if the victim was assaulted while under the influence of alcohol.

That’s why memory can be slow and difficult — because the encoding and the consolidation went down in a fragmented way. It went down on little tiny post-it notes and they were put in all different places in the mind. And you have to sort through all of it, and it’s not well-organized, because remember I told you to put some of them in folders that had nothing to do with this. I told you to put one in the pencil jar. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. It takes a while to find all the pieces and put them together. So that’s why victims, when they’re trying to talk about this assault, it comes out slow and difficult.

But the question everybody wants to know about is the accuracy of that information, okay. And what we know from the research is that the laying down of that memory is accurate and the recall of it is accurate. So what gets written on the post-it notes — accurate. The storage of it is disorganized and fragmented.

However, there is an exception — alcohol. If the victim was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, the encoding process might not have happened at all or in any degree of accuracy. I think in a group of this size all 21 and over, we can appreciate that alcohol impairs encoding across the board — not just for traumatic events, for a lot of events. So if you have a traumatic event that occurred under the context of alcohol, the information might not have been encoded, and it may not be consolidated, and it may not be transferred into long-term memory. So for victims who are assaulted under the influence of alcohol, they may not have anything to retrieve. So to speak, their post-it notes are just blank. They may not have it, okay? But for those who are able to remember it, either in pieces and parts, it does go in accurately, it does come out accurately, but it comes out slow, steady, fragmented and disorganized.

[...] How are law enforcement and prosecutors trained to handle something that looks fragmented and sketchy? They’re trained to believe that that is something that is not truthful, and their job is to hone in on it and look at it from multiple points of views and keep cycling back on it to try to ferret out what is true and what is false. And again, they interpret this victim’s behavior as evasiveness or lying. And again, what it really is, most often, is that the victim is having difficulty accessing the memories. Again, the content of the memory the research tell us very clearly is accurate. It’s just going to take some time and patience for it to come together.

Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive?

Here’s a second resource on the subject: the publication Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive? by the U.S. National District Attorneys Association. Again it examines responses to sexual victimisation, and how these responses appear “counterintuitive” to the general public. The authors are careful to explain what they mean by that term:

The term “counterintuitive” is used to explain how a juror may perceive a victim’s behavior and not the behavior itself. For local and state prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases, it is important to remember that labeling these certain victim behaviors for members of a jury as “counterintuitive” reinforces the notion that there is an appropriate or “normal” way to behave after a sexual assault and that anything outside the realm of a presupposed reaction is somehow inappropriate or abnormal.

The authors go on to present research on (1) how victims cope with sexual victimisation, (2) the variability in victim responses, and (3) rape myth acceptance.

The need of the day is for us to educate ourselves and others about these myths. As Campbell points out, the widespread ignorance about these issues is partly responsible for the secondary victimisation of rape survivors. The police and prosecutors themselves have misconceptions about victim behaviour, which leads them to not believe the victims’ story. In fact, many rape survivors themselves are not aware of these facts, and as a result end up feeling guilty or blaming themselves. Here’s Campbell again, quoting one of many emails she receives from rape survivors:

“I cannot believe I am reading this article. After years of blaming myself, questioning myself, feeling tormented, I now understand why I froze every time I was assaulted. It now has a name. I don’t have to wonder why or what’s wrong with me or why didn’t I do anything. I can’t tell you how much relief this article brings me. You must know how much your website and your work helps those of us who have suffered in silent torment and agony. You give us a voice. You give us compassion. You give us strength and hope. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel.”