January 14, 2020
Responding to Sexual Assault
by Ajah Hales
As the Harvey Weinstein trial continues, some experts stress that “freezing” and “fawning” are valid responses to assault—especially when there’s a power imbalance between the victim and the attacker.
Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial began in New York City on January 4, the same day that a criminal complaint against him was filed in Los Angeles for rape and sexual assault.
Weinstein maintains that every one of the interactions with the 100 women who have accused him of sexual misconduct, including the cases’ plaintiffs, was consensual. His defense team reportedly assembled a 57-page slideshow for the press last week in an attempt to reframe the narrative around Weinstein, as reporter Irin Carmon shared in The Cut on Monday. The document maintains there’s “no objective support” that Weinstein’s actions were nonconsensual because they resulted in “no physical injuries—even scratches.” Another subsection, titled “5 Illustrations Why HW’s Accusers are not Credible,” includes photos of accusers “smiling, flirting with Weinstein in public or at publicity events,” or working with the producer after the alleged assaults in order to position them as willing partners.
Weinstein’s purported defense is in key with the common misconception that victims who don’t explicitly say no or use physical aggression to try to prevent an attack, or who associate with their attackers after the event, have offered tacit consent. However, other responses to sexual assault attacks are common, and possibly more so than ones in which a victim struggles or fights. “The only way to respond to sexual assault is to survive,” said clinical psychologist Shannon Curry, and emerging research reflects that some victims’ bodies tell them to do this by “freezing” (becoming immobile or unresponsive), “fawning” (behaving amenably to an attacker), or other adaptive responses to fear, like playing dead or trying to flatter or bargain with their attacker.
How a person responds to an attack is contingent on a variety of factors, not all of which are under their conscious control. The human body is hardwired for certain neurobiological responses to perceived acute danger or stress. For most people, that response falls under what we know as the “fight or flight” model, a term coined by neurologist and physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon in 1929 and accepted as common knowledge still today. When the fight or flight instinct is triggered, the amygdala sends extra energy and adrenaline to the nervous system to prepare the victim to fight back or escape, a reaction which takes place before a person is aware of it.
When an abuser holds power over a person—either in the moment or in a more sustained sense—their brain may assume that the fight or flight response may put them in even greater danger or prolong the harm done to them over time. “When a sexual perpetrator is a man of status and power such as Harvey Weinstein, the fight response can feel futile,” said Sheri Heller, a psychotherapist and interfaith minister who specializes in trauma and complex post-traumatic stress. A person in danger may try to flatter, bargain with, charm, or otherwise pacify their assailant in order to redirect and eventually escape the situation, or to lessen the damage done, should escape be impossible. The actress Mira Sorvino said she “scrambled for ways to ward off” Weinstein without offending him as he groped her and “[chased] her around,” including telling him she didn’t date married men for religious reasons.
Some of Weinstein’s accusers have reported behavior aligned with a “freeze” response in their encounters. “I dissociated during the time he was having sex with me. I played dead,” actress Natassia Malthe told The Guardian. Film promoter Katya Mtsitouridze described feeling “frozen to the spot” when Weinstein allegedly isolated her in a hotel room.
In recent years, freezing, especially in instances of sexual assault, has been seen as increasingly germane to understanding fear. Though more studies on the causes of freezing on the brain are needed, researchers theorize that the amygdala “hits the brakes” on your body in order to assess the situation and decide what to do next if it doesn’t think you should fight or run. “Recognizing that we are in the midst of an inescapable and undefeatable force, we may simply freeze in place,” Curry said. “Our mind detaches from the moment to buffer our psyche from the full brunt of whatever may occur.”
Some members of the therapeutic community feel that, along with “fight, flight, or freeze,” there is a fourth response model to consider in cases of sexual assault: “fawning.” Forensic psychiatrist Carole Lieberman explained, “Fawning is a response where the victim tries to get out of danger by taking on a persona that tries to please the perpetrator.”
“When it feels futile to fight, victims may resort to the fawn response in an effort to assuage the perceived threat,” Heller said. “By behaving in a servile, obsequious manner, the victim of sexual assault achieves a locus of control. “She is seeking safety: If she is nice and flattering, perhaps this will de-escalate further violence.”
According to certified sex therapist Kimberly Resnick Anderson, “When a woman is fawning, there is a biological imperative to ‘make nice’ with her assailant by simply letting something happen. The amygdala becomes hyperactive during extreme stress. This produces a significant increase in the neurochemicals cortisol and norepinephrine.”
Curry described fawning as an “all-consuming and inexplicable urge to ingratiate ourselves to the dominant other,” and few in Hollywood were more dominant than Harvey Weinstein. This reaction is common in complex PTSD survivors and codependent people, though it can show up in anyone who finds themselves in a situation with no apparent way out, and especially those who perceive their attackers as powerful people with ongoing influence over their lives. “This response may be adaptive, as it can prevent a more violent or lethal outcome,” Curry said—meaning that fawning can develop in response to serial, longer-term instances of assault threatened over time.
Curry said fawners and others who don’t respond to sexual assault in strict “fight or flight”–aligned ways are highly unlikely to report, in part because of the shame that can come with not having responded in an “appropriate” way to an assault by immediately fleeing or aggressively fighting back. Responding by freezing or fawning can also lead victims to self-blame by recharacterizing assault.
“When we behave in a way that is incongruent with the anticipated or socially recognized response to a threatening situation, we will try to make sense of it by changing our beliefs about what happened or about our culpability,” Curry said.
This is consistent with accounts from some of Weinstein’s accusers. Some women described feeling unable to fight back at all, either out of fear of retaliation or parasympathetic response. Lucia Evans, as reported in The New Yorker, blamed herself after her encounter with Weinstein, during which she alleges he raped her, for this reason: “‘I tried to get away, but maybe I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t want to kick him or fight him… he’s a big guy.” Lucia Evans told the New Yorker in 2017. “I just sort of gave up. That’s the most horrible part of it, and that’s why he’s been able to do this for so long to so many women: people give up, and then they feel like it’s their fault.”
A person with a nonviolent response to rape or sexual assault is also more likely to convince themselves they were a willing participant in their assault than to unequivocally blame the person who assaulted them. According to Curry, “If we were polite to an attacker, we may change our thinking about the attack as the rape that it was to questioning if it was, perhaps, consensual.”
This ties into our broader cultural misconceptions about consent, which work in favor of sexual abusers. A freely and enthusiastically given yes is virtually impossible in a power differential like the one between Weinstein and his accusers. The potential consequences are too complex to just fight off or run away from, even if victims responded that way during an assault.
The rhetoric about sexual assault observed in Weinstein’s legal team’s PowerPoint represents an unscientific, intentional misunderstanding of the breadth of sexual assault responses. Though defenses along these lines have a long and cruel history of success in rape and sexual assault cases, the testimonies of Weinstein’s accusers themselves have been instrumental in leading the public toward a clearer understanding of sexual violence. Weinstein’s trial will illustrate whether the courts reflect a more dynamic, factual, and credible approach, too.