How defensive responses manifests after sexual assault.
I’m starting to see consent as twofold. It is both the foundational structure from which we build up, negotiate and renegotiate the space that exist between sexual partners, sets the boundaries that distinguish acceptable from unacceptable sexual behaviours and sets out the expectations that are present within the erotic space. But it is also a resource that we use within the relationship. It allows us to take what it is we need and to give what it is our partner needs but also maintains that sense of safety, security, belonging an, validation, mutuality and respect that contains both the individual and the relationship.
And so when this dual consent exists between us; even the “us” that is a dominant/submissive relationship, we are able to feel safe and as we are safe we respond to both our partners and our relationship in adaptable predictable and forward thinking ways.
But when this doesn’t exist it is easy to fall into less adaptive more reactive and defensive responses, what we commonly think of as fight, flight freeze.
So what is it that creates our defensive structures?
This one is a tricky one to answer. Why? Because there are so many variances in who we are a individual human beings, and every single one of these differences combine to create the way that we respond to harm, danger, distress and hurt. And this variance continues into the more intimate and/or sexual relationships that we inhibit.
Childhood experiences of abuse and neglect. Socialisation – especially the ways that we are socialised around gender. What has worked for us in past relationships. And what it is that we need to do to keep us safe and nurtured within the relationship that we are in now. All of this combines to create the structure from which our defence mechanisms manifest.
Most of us have healthy and flexible psychological responses to danger, harm, hurt and distress. We’ve all heard of the 3 dominant responses: flight, flight and freeze.
But did you know there was a fourth?
Fight – in response to harm I fight back.
Flight – in response to danger I flee.
Freeze – in response to hurt I become rigid and fixed.
Fawn – in response to hurt I aim to gain favour and exaggerate affection or responses.
If you were to go to the dictionary and look up the word fawn you will get something like:
“To exhibit affection or attempt to please”
“To seek favour or attention by flattery and obsequious behaviour”
This fawn response, like all of our defensive structures comes from our need to survive. We are born dependent on the adults around us for our physical and emotional needs, the things we need to survive. We all have memories of being dependent, be in it childhood (none of us could drive ourselves to sport, cook our own dinner or pay the bills) or later on in life (our need for validation in our friendship groups, the need for our boss to pay us on time so we can pay our bills or the need to depend on our partners when we are ill). And we have all created (in psychology we call this accommodation) conscious and unconscious scripts of rules about the way we survive and thrive. These scripts tell us who we are, what we need in order to be who we are and what we can and can’t (or should and shouldn’t do) if we are in relationship with another.
It’s important to understand these ideas and theories so that we can begin to better understand the complexity of and nuances between the responses that manifest after sexual assault and/or living within domestic violence.
When we are within a problematic relationship, one with overt domestic violence or one with an absolute inequitable distribution of resources (and I would argue that consent is a resource that we use within our erotic spaces to not only meet our own sexual needs but to keep us safe, validated and respected), we often run on an unconscious sense of survival, we are in unhealthy relationships. Unhealthy relationships becomes stressful and in a lot of cases traumatic. The situations we face, the violence we experience and the stressors we live with all exceed our natural resources, our abilities to respond in adaptive and authentic ways and most importantly, how we begin to view ourselves as whole women.
Often we become co-dependent. In that the dependent one will strive to do whatever it take to maintain their sense of safety, security and the physical and emotional nurturance that we get from our intimate partners. Sometimes the most innocuous scenario can resemble something that was or currently is, experienced as a trauma, and we trigger our psyche’s defensive structures; the flight, fight, freeze and fawn responses. At other times we encounter a new scenario – say a physical or sexual assault and these responses are triggered and we respond in ways that are designed to protect ourselves – by responding aggressively, in ways that create distance between us and the harm, by fleeing physically, or dissociating and fleeing emotionally. Or in the case of the fawn response, to act servilely, to shy away from more conflict (because this will create more hurt, harm, danger and/or distress) and to pacify. She does this not as an adequate or authentic response to the scenario or to questions asked, but as a defence mechanism aimed at protection and diffusion of harm, hurt, danger or distress.
Peter Walker writes a great example of this fawn response. He writes that a toddler can quickly learn that “protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation, and so she relinquishes the flight response, deleting “no” from her vocabulary” And it’s easy to take this learning; that protesting or challenging will lead to more hurt, harm, danger and distress, and apply it to women who have been sexually assaulted.
Let’s say that Mary has been sexually assaulted by Louis. Louis and Mary have been in a dominant submissive relationship for a few months, where the continuing theme is boundary pushing. In this particular dynamic Louis established early on that he knows exactly what it is that she desires and if she only surrendered to him; in that he means her boundaries, her consent and her safe word, then he will be able to give her what it is he knows she desires.
From day one Mary has had multiple points of confusion. She doesn’t understand the conflict that she is experiencing. She has done all that Louis has asked of her and yet, she still can’t quite get what it is she truly desires. She has asked Louis a number of times to help her understand what it happening for her. She has confronted him about some of his choices. And she has tried to say no & asked him to stop. All of which have lead to Louis retaliating. He laughs at her. Reminds her that there are lots of other women who would love to be where she is. He tells her that if she was truly submissive she wouldn’t be asking these sorts of questions. He downplays her concerns. He gets angry at her, punishing her and reminding her that if she just did what she was told he wouldn’t need to hurt her.
Mary is learning that protesting will lead to more harm, hurt, danger and distress. But that if she acts servilely, if she shy’s away from more conflict and confrontation and if she pacifies him; even if these are manufactured, inauthentic responses to scenarios and questions asked, then she can reduce the amount, level and duration of harm, hurt, danger and distress.
One night Louis sexually assaults Mary.
The next day he texts her and a conversation eventuates where Louis is comforted and pacified by a text Mary sends. A text that assures Louis that “he didn’t rape her”.
A statement that is inauthentic, manufactured and done so to shy away from more hurt, harm, danger and distress.
A lie said to keep her safe while she is processing the events of the previous night, the context within which they occurred and deciding what it is she is to do now.
Mary lies to Louis in order to reduce the harm that she is experiencing. She is doing nothing more than responding from that defensive structure that kicks in when what it is that we are currently experiencing overwhelms and exceed her natural resources and her abilities to respond authentically.
We know that there are men how reject outright that idea of consent.
We know there are men out there who see women as objects to use as a means to an end.
We know that there are men out there who use BDSM as a protection against having to be accountable for their sexual choices.
How do we know? They tell us. They brag about not bothering with the social mores, etiquettes or protocols of either the vanilla or BDSM communities. They use their aversion to and rejection of consent as a badge of honour, a marketing strategy to sell themselves as something that they won’t find elsewhere.
But what we also know is that sending a text message defusing a situation and allowing us to protect ourselves from more hurt, harm, danger and distress is a normal and expected response in a situation of sexual assault.
If we believe men when they say they don’t give a fuck about consent. And if we accept that men choose to manufacture consent after the fact, only when they are called before the Courts to be held accountable for the sexual choices that they have made.
Why can we not accept and believe that the objective and observable theory of “flight, fight, freeze and fawn” creates the inauthentic and manufactured responses that women give to men – a single text message for example – when there is a genuine belief of more harm, hurt, danger and distress?