Last weekend, allegations that now-suspended MSU football coach Mel Tucker had sexually harassed anti-sexual assault advocate Brenda Tracy hit the news and, as always when a prominent man in the world of sports is accused, X/Twitter and other social media platforms were besieged by those speculating about how Tracy’s actions reflect on her credibility. Because Tracy accused Tucker of harassing her over a video call — Tucker has denied any wrongdoing — “why didn’t she just hang up?” was a common social media refrain and a reason to doubt Tracy’s version of events. See an example from Ivan here, who I will go on out a limb and guess doesn’t have any sort of actual training or education in trauma response or sexual assault:
Here’s another insightful take from Allen, who definitely knows what he’s talking about.
Sadly, these kinds of comments aren’t anything new. If you ever decide you hate yourself and deserve punishment, you should read the social media replies under any report that an athlete engaged in violence against a woman. I promise, you’ll feel much worse about humanity afterward.
One question that comes up repeatedly is “Why didn’t the victim scream/fight/run/call for help/etc.?” This response stems from the misconception that there’s any one way a real sexual abuse victim should behave, or that a victim’s behavior after the fact tells us whether sexual violence actually occurred. And it’s absolutely the wrong way to talk about violence against women (and men, too, as one out of every 10 rape victims is male).
So let’s talk about why victims often “freeze” during a sexual assault (or, in this case, alleged sexual harassment), instead of acting in a way that seems rational to those of us sitting at home.
One of the first things advocates for sexual violence victims will tell you is that there is no uniform reaction to trauma. Some people are able to scream and fight. Some people comply in the hopes they won’t be subjected to further physical violence. Some try to scream but find they have no voice. Some people freeze. And it’s important to remember that not every act of sexual misconduct is the equivalent of being grabbed and assaulted in a parking lot by a stranger. Too often, those committing the act are known, and sometimes even loved, by their victim.
A recent Duke University research paper explores the issue of why some rape victims freeze and came to the conclusion that there is neuroscientific evidence that freezing “is an involuntary response to a threat which can prevent a victim from actively resisting, and that it occurs throughout biology.” The paper goes on to point out that non-human animals often have the same reaction to severe, urgent threats, and that even pilots sometimes display a “lockup” state during an aviation emergency.
Rape Crisis for England and Wales describes freezing in this way: “(G)oing tense, still and silent. This is a common reaction to rape and sexual violence. Freezing is not giving consent, it is an instinctive survival response. Animals often freeze to avoid fights and potential further harm, or to ‘play dead’ and so avoid being seen and eaten by predators.”
Aside from the biological reaction, there can also be a delay in the time a victim comes to terms with the fact that they have been victimized, sometimes by a person they trusted. Society socializes us early to blame victims, and that affects the way victims view the assault, as well. It can take days, weeks, or even years for a victim to accept that they were assaulted or harassed, and sometimes that realization comes only after discussing the incident with others.
Back in 2013, I wrote about my own sexual assault for this site. One of the things I didn’t include in that story was that I carried on a perfectly genial conversation with my rapist the night after he assaulted me. At the time, I blamed myself. After all, I was drinking, I left a bar with a strange man. In my mind, “it was my fault”. It took me years to call a man holding me down with his entire body weight and forcing himself inside me “rape.”
Unfortunately, the same can often be said for sexual harassment, which has been even more normalized in our culture than sexual assault. Women who work in male-dominated fields sometimes learn to simply chalk up sexual innuendo and overt come-ons as the price of doing business in the industry. According to the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children, “Studies also show that different women deal with sexual harassment differently. This includes denying it, minimizing, or ignoring it completely.” I once had a boss who used to kiss me hello every day. Why did I put up with it? I guess because I liked my job and I genuinely liked him. It grossed me out, but not enough to rock the boat over it. And the more distance I got from the job and him, the angrier I became that I let it go on. But victims not making the best decisions for themselves at the time of the abuse does not mean the abuse didn’t happen.
If we ever want to stop asking the question “Why didn’t she report/tell someone?” we’re going to have to change the way we discuss allegations of sexual misconduct as a society. We’re going to have to shout down the armchair psychiatrists who cast doubt on victims’ stories because they seem counterintuitive to what they think they would have done in the same situation. And we’re going to have to educate ourselves and those around us that trauma often informs a victim’s actions long after the abuse itself occurred.
If you’ve been the victim of sexual assault or harassment, you can get confidential help 24/7 by calling RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE.