In the second of three blogs inspired by the recent #metoo campaign, I want to focus on the reasons why people respond in the ways they do during and after incidents of sexual harassment and abuse.
Often when people come forward to report abuse after years of silence, questions are asked:
why did they let it happen?
why did they put up with it for so long?
why only come forward after it has become public knowledge?
I noticed the #metoo campaign and the subsequent accusations against various prominent public figures in the UK and USA, elicited similar questions, suggesting doubt in the veracity of the claims and anger at the people remaining silent rather than speak out or stand up to the abuser in the past. Our society applauds women for standing up and fighting back against abusers, it wants to know that women aren’t going to allow themselves to be victimised anymore. But this takes no account of the processes involved in surviving assaults and harassment. As someone who has suffered harassment and sexual abuse at various points of my life, I found myself questioning my responses to those situations, and wondered if this would shed light on why others act during and after abuse?
Our principle driver in life is survival. We breathe, eat, sleep because these are essential things to keep us alive. Our personalities are structured in such a way as to help us survive. We are who we are because, from a very young age, we learn how to keep ourselves safe by how we behave. Biologically we are programmed to respond to perceived threats in one of 6 ways: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Faint, Submit, or Cry for Help. We learn which of these responses is effective through our experiences, so someone may have a greater tendency to respond to threat by running away if that has proved effective before. If a child is punished for being assertive, or there is an absence of help when they cry, then they are more likely to resort to other strategies such as freezing or submitting in order to stay safe in the moment.
Like many of my clients, as a child, I learnt that speaking up for myself could lead to trouble, it was far safer to keep quiet and comply. When faced with situations where someone treated me badly, I found myself freezing with fear, detaching from my feelings, and going along with things in order to keep myself safe.
In my first job after leaving school, one of the managers took a shine to me. I thought he was being kind by taking me to lunch and helping me with my exams. It was only when he started to touch me and try to kiss me that a cold fear struck me and I found myself frozen and cut off from myself. I hated him and what he had done, but was terrified of saying anything as I was just a trainee and he was a manager. It was also the 80s, when it was still a male dominated world where women were regarded as underlings and inferior. Part of me thought that I had no right to speak up, this was just what happens to women and I had to put up and shut up. Another part of me thought that even if I did speak up, no one would listen or support me. I would simply be exposing myself to more shame and humiliation. So I kept quiet, and when the opportunity to change branches came along I took it.
Years later, I was undergoing an Induction as a new member of a senior management team. One member of the senior team kept evading my scheduled meetings, to the point where I eventually agreed to stay late one evening in order to catch up with him. During that meeting he was charming and funny, offering support and encouraging of my position in the team. As the meeting wore on he began to behave in increasingly sexually inappropriate ways to the point where I found myself feeling scared and embarrassed. I noticed the familiar freeze coming on but this time I managed to get away (flight). For several weeks after this I had unnerving and distressing experiences with him turning up at my office, waiting for me by my car, even attempting to follow me home from work one night (thanks to my counter-terrorism training I was able to evade him in Tesco, seriously!). Older and a little bit wiser, I decided I needed to do something this time. I was still scared that I would not be taken seriously, or that anyone would think there was anything wrong with that man’s behaviour, but I went to my boss and asked his advice about how I could deal with it. He decided that we should raise a complaint with the man’s boss. I had to sit in a room with both the male bosses, and describe what I had found distressing and abusive about the man’s behaviour. I had to justify why this was not acceptable and why something should be done about it. I had to decided for myself how they should handle it. It was humiliating and terrifying. The man’s boss repeatedly made a point that the man was a respected professional and the behaviour I had experienced wasn’t really serious, after all he hadn’t raped me. Eventually the men decided to speak to him and tell him to leave me alone. The man told them he was just having fun and I was obviously over sensitive. Imagine sitting in senior team meetings knowing that you are being thought of as oversensitive and some kind of play thing! A few months later he was suspended following allegations of sexual assault against another female member of staff. She was so frightened it had taken her months to come forward, she too thought know one would listen to her.
No doubt other people will have responded differently in those circumstances because of the ways in which they had learnt as children to deal with scary things.
To stop someone from doing something to you requires you to believe that by taking that action you will be making yourself safer than taking another course of action. To fight means you believe you can overcome your opponent. To run means you believe that you can escape. To cry for help means you believe someone will listen and rescue. When you don’t believe those options will be safer, you freeze, faint, submit. BUT, this does not mean you are in any way agreeing with or enjoying what is being done to you. My husband told my sons recently, “the absence of a “Yes” means “No””. Some perpetrators deliberately and intricately set up situations in which it would be impossible for the victim to feel able to escape or fight. They deliberately manipulate their victims into complying, into believing that it is better to go along with them, that it is even their idea. They play games to leave the victim questioning their own feelings and actions, ie “you do know I’m only teasing, right?”, “I wonder what other people are thinking about us right now? Do you think we’re having an affair? How stupid is that, right?”. I will say more in my 3rd blog about the psychology of the perpetrator.
When we are threatened, the thinking part of our brain shuts down and we are unable to think rationally and plan ahead. All our brain is concerned with is surviving those next few moments. It is only when the threat is over that the rational part of the brain kicks in again. Sadly, that can be our trap, as our core beliefs about ourselves then kick in as well. If you believe you are worthless, a failure, shameful, deserving of abuse, isolated and unlovable, then reaching out for help after abuse is virtually impossible. Jeffrey Young’s work on Schemas demonstrates how time and again, people find themselves in the same situations because of how their beliefs and feelings about themselves (developed in childhood) prevent them from responding differently. If you believe others can’t be trusted then you aren’t likely to form close enough bonds to be able to ask for help. If you believe you are in some way defective then you will believe you somehow were to blame for what happened to you, and therefore too ashamed to speak out. This is heightened when the perpetrator is a “respected professional”, a celebrity, a member of parliament or royalty. Look at what the press did to people who spoke out about Michael Jackson, how the BBC handled complaints about jimmy Saville and others, how political leaders and police handled complaints about leading politicians.
To be angry, dismissive or shaming about someone who felt unable to escape or fight, is to lack compassion for the person trapped in a horrifying situation, and fail to understand the processes they have undergone to lead them to that point. Instead of blaming the victim all over again, for the way in which they dealt with the situation, let’s celebrate them for finally achieving their liberty from the secrecy of their trauma, and offer them the compassion and safety they so desperately needed in the midst of their terror.
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