Because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I decided to take a break from writing about parenting. Instead, I wrote about an experience I had pre-children.
Five guys in a car. Two in the front, three in the back.
My friend and I walk alone on a Sunday night. It is 10 pm.
We knew better than to walk alone. In this particular South American country, where I have been living for three years, women don’t walk alone on a Sunday night when the bars, restaurants and stores are closed. We tried to call a taxi, but it didn’t show. Usually, there is one on the street, but on this night, the streets are desolate. Six blocks we walk. We talk about the academy awards, which we have just seen at a friend’s apartment with cable. These are the days before everyone has a cell phone, internet, and live streaming technology.
A half block before the street dead ends at my front door, we see the car—a red, Mazda sedan. A friend of mine drives the same model. I think it is my friend as the car slows. Gliding close to the curb, the door opens and a foot hovers above the sidewalk. A man suddenly stands before us. There is an empty parking lot to our right. “This is not good,” I say to my friend before the man steps closer. “I know,” she replies. And that is the last sound I consciously process. In memory, the rest is silent.
April is sexual assault awareness month. According to the CDC, 1 in 5 women in the United States and 1 in 59 men have been raped in their lifetimes. Because rape often goes unreported, the statistics are probably higher. While many women fear the possibility of a sexual assault while walking alone in a parking garage or on a desolate street, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports that most victims know their attacker. Many times, the perpetrator is the victim’s friend, classmate, neighbor, coworker, or relative. Because victims are still sometimes blamed for the assault, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center points out that “it doesn’t matter what someone is wearing or how they are acting, no one asks to be raped.” It is also important to highlight the fact that no one knows how he or she will react in a dangerous situation.
In my own dangerous situation, my reaction boiled down to a concept I learned in Psychology 101: Fight or Flight. Basically, my consciousness reverted to survival mode. I stopped thinking, my autonomic nervous system took over, and I ran. I didn’t even realize that I had run until my consciousness returned, and I was no longer standing in front of the man. I was in front of the car, probably trying to cross the street, so that I could reach the one or two bars/hostels open on a Sunday night. My logical mind had returned, because I had a decision to make. Two of the other men were getting out of the car to get me. I turned away from the men, and I saw my friend. She hadn’t fought or flown. She had frozen. The man held her close by the shirt with one hand and was repeatedly punching her in the face with the other. Without thinking, I threw a 64 ounce water bottle at the man. Known for my clumsiness, I could never make a basket or play any kind of sport, but the bottle struck him straight in the head, stunning him for a few seconds. The next thing I knew, I was back in front of the man pulling his arm away from my friend so that he couldn’t pull her into the car. I was in fight mode, and none of my actions stemmed from conscious decision. Suddenly, the man released his grasp, and he slipped back into the car. And just like that, the car was gone.
When my friend and I looked up, we saw a guard from one of the neighboring hotels. “Run! Get to your homes! They’ll be looking for you,” he said. Within a minute, we made it to my apartment, locking the large wooden door behind us. My friend’s face was bloodied and badly bruised, but we were safe. Both of us, even my friend who had received the brunt of the attack, were lucky.
Later, when talking about the incident to my neighbors, I discovered that I had screamed repeatedly for help. They told me that they recognized my voice, and that all the neighbors had gone out to their balconies to yell at our attackers. The guard had obviously heard the commotion and come to help. While I may have briefly tried to help my friend, my neighbors and the guard had truly saved us. After all, without anyone’s help, those five men could have easily forced both of us into their car. I was truly grateful to all of them.
I do not know if men intended to rape us, but the possibility was there. It was a close call that changed my life. To date, I never walk alone after dark. I am more aware of my surroundings, the cars passing, the people surrounding me, the avenues to safety. My friend, who had only lived abroad for a few months, cut her trip short and returned home. I didn’t blame her. She didn’t have years of positive interactions to counteract such a negative experience, and she had been the true victim in the attack. For me, I viewed the experience as an unfortunate blip in an otherwise rich experience. People had generally treated me well during my time abroad. Women, who ran food stalls, invited me to their homes for dinner. People had kindly listened to my broken Spanish, encouraging me to learn more, teaching me with patient corrections, and painstakingly pieced together my ill-formed communications. Others had directed me and lent a hand when I had gotten lost. My neighbors brought me fresh mint, chamomile and lemon grass when I got sick. For the most part, other than a few incidences of being pick-pocketed, I had felt relatively safe. After all, the city where I lived had a much lower violent crime rate than a city of comparable size in the United States. The attack could have happened anywhere in the world.
What shocked me about the experience is that I didn’t have any control over how I reacted. While I had previously imagined how I might react to an attack, that imagined reaction had little to do with reality. Again, because a victim has little control over a crime, it is crucial to emphasize the importance of not blaming the victim. It is also important to define what that crime means. The National Sexual Violence Center defines sexual violence as an incidence where “someone forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent.” In crimes of rape, the concept of whether or not someone gives consent is essential. In our situation, because the perpetrators were strangers, most people would view us as not giving consent to our assault. However, in situations where the victim knows his/her assailant, the waters unfortunately become murkier in the public’s view.
People not only question the behavior of the rape victim prior to the crime, they also question their reaction to it. In 2012, a Superior Court Judge in California was reprimanded for claiming that a woman wasn’t raped because she “didn’t put up a fight.” Jenny Wilkinson bravely narrates her own rape and discusses her critics, who blamed her for the rape because she had been drinking and didn’t fight back. The fact that her rapist had drugged her did not matter to them. However, even if a victim isn’t drugged, neuropsychologists discuss the complex chemicals that get released in the brain when presented with trauma. This is why police officers often don’t believe a rape victim. In her presentation of the Neurobiology of Sexual Assault, Rebecca Campbell discusses how various neuro-chemicals cause rape victims to have lapses in memory or even act loopy (the body releases its own natural opiates to protect the body from pain). During the attack, as discussed above, the brain and neuro-chemicals can prompt a person to fight or flee. However, the hormonal activation by the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and adrenals can also trigger an entire shutdown in the body. In other words, the victim shuts down as a reaction to trauma and physically cannot fight back. This was my friend’s reaction to her assault in South America and many victims’ reaction to a rape. They simply freeze.
If I had never been in any kind of traumatic situation, I wouldn’t have fully understood just how out of control you are. While I both fought and flew during the assault that night in South America, I cannot promise that I wouldn’t react differently in another situation, on another day. I cannot promise that I wouldn’t freeze.
Resources for Sexual Assault Awareness Month:
National Sexual Assault Hotline for the US: 1-800-656-HOPE