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.”

Related post: How Rapists Manipulate Their Victims

How Rapists Manipulate Their Victims

(Content note: contains numerous quotes from rapists, taken from Project Unbreakable.)

I’ve been following Project Unbreakable (tumblr, facebook) for almost two years now. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an American initiative started in 2011 by then nineteen year old Grace Brown, which photographs sexual assault survivors holding posters with quotes from their attackers. There are over two thousand images to date. Every post is like a hammer blow. The posts that chill me the most are the ones where the pattern of manipulation becomes apparent – i.e., the way the attackers manipulate their victims. They do this before the assault, after the assault and even during the assault. Accounts like these corroborate the research which shows that rapists are not “accidental”, there is no “misunderstanding” (see these two links for more). They know what they are doing – they just want to get away with it, and they don’t want society to consider them rapists.

Over time I started bookmarking these posts, because seen together one can clearly see the pattern. So here they are, about fifty of them. I’ve copied out the quotes from the rapists (and some comments from the victims), and the quotes link directly to the photographs, or in some cases to the facebook post:

“Just the tip.” “It is your fault because you make me so hard.” “I’m sorry for what you think I did.” A year and a half later: “I’m sorry for any hurt I caused you.”

“No, stop, this will make it feel better.” (He is married now with a daughter.)

“You’re FINE. You’re FINE.”

“Shhh, just lay back. You can’t say ‘no’ now.”

“You scared me… I thought I did something wrong.” (You did.)

“I know you were uncomfortable.” (Then why did you keep going??)

“Shh.. sweetie… it’ll be over soon.” - My first attacker, while 4 others encircled the bed, waiting for their chance.

“Don’t regret it in the morning.”

“I’m just trying to show you how much I love you.”

“You never said anything.”

“Things like this just happen, and we should just forgive and move on and learn from it, I don’t know why you’re so unwilling to do that… you make me sound like a monster.” (2 days after)

“Stop playing hard to get.”

“If I do that again I want you to slap me as hard as you can, okay?”

“I would have been fine without anything happening but it did. Now somehow, it’s my fault for treating you the way you presented yourself?”

“If you really loved me, you’d do it, regardless.”

“I can’t help it/Don’t you know that I love you?/Why won’t you show me that you love me?/If you loved me, you’d let me.”

“I love you. I know it’s early, but I know I’ll marry you.” “I want to fuck you so bad.” “Oh god – I’m suck a fucking asshole – I won’t do it again.” “How does that feel against your pussy?” “I’m a monster.” “You’re so wet.” “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” “I just masturbated in your bed, I had to release – you just turn me on so much.” “BUT I LOVE YOU!!” “You should masturbate – you don’t know your body at all.” “I just want to please you because I love you so much.”

“If you don’t want me to, I won’t.” (He lied)

“Don’t exaggerate. It can’t hurt that much.”

“Is this okay?” (No.) “Do you like this?” (No.) “You’re lying.”

“Stop whining, you’re acting like I raped you.”

“Why are you crying? You know you want this.”

“Just relax, trust me.”

“It’s your own fault. If you didn’t want it, you should have said something.”

“You’re not going to, like, call the cops or anything right?”

“I did it because I love you.”

“It’s already happened now you might as well let me finish.”

“You said no too quietly, it was basically a yes.”

“You wanted it too.”

He heard me say “No!” but he said “You didn’t sound certain.”

“We’re cool, right?”

“You can’t stop me now.”

*laughs* “I’m just playing with you… stop moving away from me.”

“This is what you wanted.” “Stop moving, it will hurt less.” (Afterward) “Don’t you dare tell anyone I raped you.”

“I thought you were just teasing when you said no.” (I repeatedly said no and struggled.)

“‘NO’?! Come on… just relax and stop fighting! I know you want it.”

“It’s not rape because we are married.” “If you love me you’ll let me do it to you.”

“You still bitter about a simple misunderstanding?”

“You’re a champ.”

“I don’t want you to think that I took advantage of you.”

“Don’t you love me? Don’t you trust me?” / “I can’t believe you’re gonna be MAD about this.”

“It hurt even for me.”

“It’s OK. You’ll like it.”

“It was just a joke.”

“Relax… it’s all just part of a joke. Others do too. You have nothing to worry about.”

“It must have been the alcohol, I didn’t even realise what I was doing.”

“Just do it, you’ll like it.” / “It’s okay, it will feel good.”

“Please come back on the couch. It’s OK.”

“I love you…” “We’re married in god’s eyes now…” “Stop crying…” “It won’t hurt if you relax.” “You have no idea how good this feels.” “Just let me do it.”

“I’m sorry about last night… I hope we can still be friends.”

“You can’t do that. Don’t worry I’m almost done.” (after I asked him to stop)

“Was that good for you?”

“It’s okay.”

“Shh… it’s fine.”

“I don’t want people to think I’m a bad guy.”

“You said ‘yes’ already, you can’t change your mind.” / “Don’t you trust me?”

“Just try to forget.”

“Hold still, you’re safe.”

“Don’t worry, we can wait until you’re ready.” (and so I let my guard down)

“You know I would never do anything that would deliberately cause you distress or harm.”

“Shhh, it’s okay.”

“Just trust me?”

“Don’t cry, you’re going to make me feel bad.”

“Please, just once.”

“It’s a good kind of hurt.” / “I’ll stop eventually.” / “You never said no or stop.”

“I’m your boyfriend, it’s not a big deal.”

Related post: Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave

 

 

 

In Defence of Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross)

A white woman from the University of Chicago recently published an account of her unfortunate encounters in India. She was sexually harassed and assaulted on several occasions. The story received widespread attention, and Rose Chasm had many sympathizers, but as all cases of sexual assault stories go, she also had to face severe negative backlash.

One might say that is to be expected, seeing as how sexual assault victims haven’t exactly had the kindest audience. However, what was surprising about the Rose Chasm case was that she faced severe backlash from women, who know perfectly well what it’s like to be at the receiving end of such abuse.

Let me start with this article written by Polly Hwang which says “People who generalize are evil”, thereby making… a generalization. In her article, she says:

Not to chastise Rose Chasm in anyway but she should not have been dancing in the Ganesha street festival known for its hordes of extremely drunk young men. She should not have stayed in cheap shady hostels in Goa which I’m sure had no positive online reviews. She should not be flipping fingers at locals and most importantly, she should have left after her first incident of sexual harassment, instead of staying for over 90 days and developing PTSD. I’m not victim shaming in any way, the pigs who tormented Rose Chasm take 100% of the blame. However as foreigners, it’s our responsibility to be aware of how to behave and live in the local culture.

That’s a whole bunch of “She should not have…” statements followed by a cautionary “I’m not victim shaming.” Did the definition of victim shaming change while I slept in a cryogenic chamber for about one thousand years? I don’t understand how telling someone what they shouldn’t have done, and including a clause about leaving a place after experiencing one instance of sexual assault so as to not “develop PTSD” is not textbook victim blaming. I live in India, I’m a victim of sexual assault and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t appreciate this “advice”. It is patronising, misleading, and misogynistic. There is nothing victims can do to “prevent” sexual assault. If Rose had stayed in a not-shady hotel instead of a “shady” one, there would be no telling if she would be safe. Out of the 244,270 reported sexual assault cases in 2012 in India, 98% pointed to trusted friends, family or acquaintances as the perpetrators of the crime. That’s a staggering statistic. So, what should Rose have done? Should she have never visited India? On one hand, Polly’s article makes the case against generalizing Indian men, and says:

By implying that every man she met in India is a pervert and by not giving any examples of good decent Indian men, she is indirectly stereotyping Indian men in a very harmful way.

And then she implies that Rose should not have stuck around. Great, then we could all gang up on her again and say she generalised from one bad experience and decided to not stay. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Should she have been clairvoyant and known she’d get PTSD? Also, why should anyone suffering from that wretched trauma-inducing medical nightmare have to go out of her way to make commendable statements about Indian men? It makes no sense. If I were suffering from PTSD, while writing about my experiences and battling my trigger-prone brain and depression, the last thing on my mind would be appending a statutory line about the goodness of the hearts of the scores of Indian men who really are nice people. It is not Rose’s responsibility to include a clause so as to not save all the men in my country from coming under bad light.

Polly wasn’t the only one. Here’s another such seemingly empathetic post from another woman called Dilshad Master. Dilshad says:

Getting out alone, on foot, would be equivalent to…well let’s say, you and your friends dancing at the Ganesh Chathurthi festival on the streets of Pune. What in the world were you thinking? Oh, hang on, you weren’t thinking.

Life pro-tip:  To express your sympathy/empathy for someone who was tortured in your home country, do not adopt a sarcastic tone that is condescending towards the victim.

She then goes on to say:

I’m not quite sure which “lovely hotel in Goa” you stayed in. Did anyone recommend it to you on Trip Advisor or perhaps your friends on Facebook? Did you actually go through the comments on either or did you click on reservation, letting price and availability be your only guide? You see, we wouldn’t do that In India, not anywhere in the world. And if we did (like I did in Chicago), then we’d do it fully aware of the consequences.

More condescension and perfect 20/20 hindsight introspection for a sexual assault victim. This poster really is asking if Rose took enough precautions, implying that if she didn’t, she should have and that it would have made her life easier.

Then there was another article published on the same iReport section of CNN as a response to Rose Chasm, written by “twoseat”. In it, she says:

I want to address the consequences that arise from writing that lends itself to careless generalizations. The problem that this article has is that it ends up blaming an entire population for the actions of some.

The problem that ^that article has is that the article it references, does not, in fact, blame an entire population for the actions of some. Rose Chasm never insinuated or stressed that Indian men are all horrible, raging beasts. She only recounted her painful experiences and yet, twoseat thinks it is Rose’s responsibility to “articulate both sides”.

And then there have been those countless posts that are quick to point out that sexual assault also happens in the USA. Just read the comments section on any of the aforementioned articles. How is it okay for people to think Rose Chasm was playing the blame game here? She did not intend to demonise India, so why are people asking her to reflect upon the problems within her own country? Does the fact that there’s sexual assault in the USA negate Indian problems? Does it make people feel any better to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who rape and plunder!”? I can’t think of any other reason than derailment.

Although all these articles were written in good faith, they are perfect examples of how good faith can pave the road to hell. A sexual assault victim should not have to listen to multivarious accounts of what she should or should not have done. She shouldn’t have to listen to “advice” masked as apologia. She shouldn’t have to be told that she wasn’t prepared “enough”. She shouldn’t have to be coerced into acknowledging all the kindness and beauty in the world when she is trying to recuperate from acute trauma.

In a lot of ways, articles from these women are reminiscent of some statements made by Indian “leaders” that essentially place the onus of safety onto victims. Statements that dissect every action of the victim in hindsight and provide no comfort except obligatory platitudes.

Candle-light marches, prayers, and aggression don’t mean anything if we aren’t willing to admit that India has a problem (which is also prevalent in the rest of the world, no doubt, but that’s hardly the point) which can only be solved by a conscious, collective effort not make the women more liable in “preventing” something that really isn’t in their control. This is a nation where one rape is reported every 20 minutes, and that’s not counting the unreported cases, and other forms of sexual assault.

Considering the fact that science has actually associated demure behaviour to be what most sexual assault perpetrators look for in a victim, we should question whether we’re putting women at significant risk by advocating modest clothing and submissive behaviour. We should acknowledge that by contributing to an already enormous narrative of teaching women to not “get raped” rather than teaching men (and in some cases, women) to not rape, we’re tip-toeing on a dangerously thin rope. We’re promoting rape culture that makes rapists feel at home, while making the victims feel guilty. We’re completely neglecting a victim’s state of mind while we chide her choices without understanding the “neurobiology of sexual assault” (here’s a transcript of that video) and how “secondary victimization” can further a person’s trauma.

We owe it to our sisters to educate ourselves about a persistent, ugly social evil and really empathize with their struggles.

TL;DR: Do not blame the victim. Be brilliant like these men in Bangalore who wore skirts in solidarity for women, thereby making a bold statement about clothing (or anything else) never being an “invitation” for sexual assault.

Terrific Icelandic Film on Sexual Consent (plus interview with filmmakers)

Fáðu Já! (“Get Yes!”) is a fantastic educational film from Iceland on sexual consent.

GO WATCH IT!

The film is 20 minutes long. (Update: have updated the image below to point to the landing page instead of directly to the video.) You can find versions in other languages as well. And after you watch, come back to read a short email interview I did with Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir, one of the filmmakers.

Young man and young woman sitting awkwardly on a bed, partially undressed.

A scene from the film (image used with permission). The image shows a young man and a young woman sitting awkwardly on a bed, partially undressed.

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