Grin and bear it: The evolutionary reasons behind the unexpected and gruesomely ironic behaviors of women during sexual assault

*Please note that this post requires a trigger warning for some potentially distressing material, especially in the context of sexual assault. The following blog provides some detailed descriptions of sexual nature. Please be advised* 


I had been flirting with him all night. He’d taken me to dinner; we touched under the table at first tentatively, and then more boldly. We walked out of the restaurant and sat in the hallway leading to the hotel lobby talking, mentally exploring one another. He asked me if I wanted to continue the conversation in his room.

I did.

I followed him willingly.

My clothes came off quickly.

Then his.

It was fun at first, but too fast. I wasn’t into it. I told him so. We didn’t have protection. That was my excuse. He told me he was really controlled and would pull out. That hadn’t even been my concern; I was on the pill. Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind. I was more worried about STIs. Wait, no, I was more worried about the fact that I didn’t want to have sex with him.

His tongue suddenly felt like a lizard’s, prodding and prying in my unwilling mouth. Once again, he made a move to position himself inside of me and again I squirmed away, pulling the sheet up to hide my naked body. I felt vulnerable.

Exposed.

I repeated, “No, we need protection.” I said it playfully. Not with force. Again, he commented on his ability to control his orgasm. I didn’t have to worry, he said. No, I didn’t want to do this. One more time I resisted, saying it wasn’t where he finished that concerned me. He pretended not to hear me. He pulled the sheet away and was inside of me before I could protest again. I felt my body go limp. Numb. In shock. Frozen. I lay there having an out-of-body moment. Did that just happen? Is this rape? I had come to his room. I started hearing voices of trash talk in my head, blaming me. I snapped back into my body. I wanted out of there.

I moaned.

I moaned to encourage him! I wanted him to finish. Be done. Let me be free. I felt him rip himself from my body, carrying pieces of myself with him. My health. My power. My choice. My soul. He finished with a sound that still curls my mouth into disgust when I think of it. I lay still until I felt him collapse. Spent. I felt him cash in on the last of my worth, and then my brain started firing again. I rushed to gather clothes. I knew he was weak. I dressed and exited to a world of shame.

Surely that wasn’t rape. It wasn’t violent. I’d prodded it on. I’d encouraged him at one point. I was at fault.

I never even considered reporting it.

I hadn’t reported my boyfriend years before that when he had held me by the neck and forced me into oral sex. After all, he had good reason to think I’d been cheating with my professor. That professor had called me to his office and rubbed my shoulders trying to get into my pants. I had managed to duck away from him for the time but later opened my email to several explicit messages from him detailing all of the things he wanted to do to me. My boyfriend read these and assumed I had been a participant in the fantasy. His revenge, as it were, was to assert his dominance over my body. Reinstate himself as my rightful owner.

I didn’t report any of them.

Obviously, it was me. There was something about me. Something about the way I behaved that turned these men into monsters. Maybe it was that I never said no.

I had always been taught that women had to say no! We were told that we needed to respect ourselves enough to fight.

And that was the mystery to me.

I felt like I did respect myself, but I never seemed to be able to physically say the word no. Or stop the attacks. Or fight back. My voice always just seemed to shrink away and my body go limp. Worse yet, sometimes I found myself smiling, encouraging my aggressor's behaviors as a way to cooperate myself out of the situation.

Just play nice until I can escape.

Even in situations that were far less severe, I seemed incapable of “respecting myself” enough to hurt a man’s pride. There were several incidents in places of employment absolutely constituting sexual harassment that never involved a physical component but during which I still found myself mute. I had no way of shutting down men who would lurk, or stare, or repeatedly ask me out, or hold me hostage in my own office, or even in booths at bars.

Ask me outside of any of these situations what I would do in them and you’d get a strong, confident and resounding response about my intentions to shut down any harassment. But then the situation would happen again and I still wouldn’t find myself capable.

My continuous story all through my 20s and early 30s was that my inability to respond with no was my own shortcoming. If I had really wanted it to stop badly enough, wouldn’t I have found a way? Certainly, that’s the story we tell about countless women who have faced sexual assaults.

I am now 35 years old. Just a few days before the time of this writing, I found myself with an unwanted tongue down my throat and a hand groping my breast. A powerful businessman, who surely had repeated this behavior on dozens of women before me. I had arrived to discuss business only to discover his intentions were quite different than my own. 

Once again, I found myself frozen. But this incident was the one that broke me. I could not live the rest of my life with this head trash of being a victim. I am a strong, athletic, confident female with a PhD in stress physiology and extensive training in evolutionary behavior and psychology. If nothing else, I was going to research my way out of this.

I will not become a victim.

Not this time, and never again.

And if I could, I was going to find a way to help all those other women that I know have had similar experiences to mine; the experience of your whole body screaming no, but instead you smile numbly, appease, and look for the exit. Here’s what was different this time. This time, I was a student of my own experience. I began to study my behavior through a lens I’d never considered, despite the irony that it was, in fact, my specialty.

As a scientist conducting experiments on the stress responses of birds, one of the points of data I collected was something called tonic immobility. We would trap birds, handle them extensively, collect blood samples, and usually put colorful bands on their legs to mark them. All this processing could severely stress the bird out. At the time of release, we would carefully place the birds on the ground on their backs and much of the time they would lay just like that, perfectly immobile for up to five minutes before flying freely away.

Once I was safely away from my last predatory encounter, I realized, I was the bird: breathing heavily on the ground, immobile, feeling as if my wings had been clipped. Playing dead in the hands of my captor.

Playing dead is a survival tactic when animals become severely stressed. We often talk about the flight or fight response but conveniently skip over the third option, which is to freeze. Instead of problem-solving or prioritizing on any cognitive activity, your brain shuts down all output to your body. It is an involuntary, reflexive, unlearned physiological response elicited in high-fear situations. In other words, no matter what you say you’ll do in the situation, you can’t override your body’s natural response in the stressful moment.

It’s the equivalent of trying not to blink when someone unexpectedly throws something at your face. Your body has evolved a successful defense mechanism that has hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of escaping death built into it. That mechanism is to freeze.

There’s another part to this story.

What of the impulse to encourage the aggressor's behavior, despite desperately wanting an escape? Why on Earth would I have giggled and smiled at this man while he cracked inappropriate jokes that made my skin crawl and ultimately led up to the tongue incident? This too, I predict, is a pattern of appeasement behavior that is strongly built into our evolutionary toolkit for exactly these predicaments.  When our closest primate cousins, bonobos and chimpanzees, are afraid or nervous around one another, in an attempt to ward off attacks they bare their teeth in a way that looks remarkably like our smile. It’s a gesture of submission most often used by low-status members to appease and reduce the chance of an act of violence being committed against them.

When choosing between sexual assault and death, evolutionarily, our genes have programmed us to literally, grin and bear it. Doing our best to appease the dominant member of the tribe might allow us to escape with minimal bodily damage. There is significant evidence to support this theory. Dr. Paul Ekman has identified no fewer than 18 distinct types of human smiles, including those that show compliance, fear, and contempt. These distinctive smiles may have been important signaling cues whose context has been lost in more recent times.

A study conducted on college-aged women in which they were asked highly inappropriate questions during a job interview setting (e.g., do you wear bras to work, do you find yourself sexually desirable) further highlights the conflicting feelings and actions of women in such scary situations. While each of the women had indicated at an earlier date that if they ever found themselves in a circumstance in which they were being sexually harassed they would be confrontational, leave, and report, not a single one actually did. Instead, the researchers saw a startling response in the video recordings of these interactions. The women answered the questions…while smiling.

We are constantly hearing that we need to ignore our offenders or stop encouraging the behaviors of men by interacting with them, but we women have years of anecdotal data from merely existing in these dangerous environments every day. Data that demonstrates how quickly men who are rejected move swiftly toward violence. Our own huge datasets on how smiling, being passive, permissive, and even encouraging at times has not infrequently saved our lives, or at the very least prevented violence.

I recently conducted a virtual experiment of my own. Having gained a very modest following on social media, I found myself one morning sorting through over 300 messages, about 15% of which contained sexually explicit content.

I posted my frustration to my Facebook page, seeking solutions for sorting out the people who genuinely wanted to connect from those who were trolling. Blocking 100 or more people every day was exhausting and not getting me anywhere. Besides wasting an enormous amount of time, I frankly didn’t find that images of men’s genitalia were the best accompaniment to my morning coffee.

The response to my first post was overwhelming. Mostly men. Mostly telling me to ignore the situation. That’s what we have been doing and look where it’s gotten us. The other common piece of advice was just to not engage with these guys. They were obviously trolls just out to get a rise. This assumption was beyond infuriating. Sure, there were a few trolls in there who were only looking to get their kicks, but by and large, there were hundreds of new individual men wanting to rotate into my life on a daily basis. And given my recent real life experiences with "business meetings" I assure you that not all of these trolls only wield their power behind a screen. 

Women began to share their stories. I was certainly not alone in experiencing this online barrage. Some men had similar experiences as well.

Nearly everyone showered me with support and respect and encouragement.

There was some commentary that seemed questionable. A few men asking why it mattered so much to me and why I was wasting my time trying to educate people about why “Hello, sexy” is not an okay way to approach a female with whom you have no relationship. But the dialogue was civil and healthy. I had a man who publicly apologized for being “ignorant” after posting a comment about how I should “wear my skirt a little higher to get people to really pay attention” when I talked. More messages filed in from men thanking me for helping them to better understand how debasing these comments can be to a woman, cheering me on and vowing to do better. I was beginning to feel like I was really making a difference (hello, ego!).

And then came the less productive comments.

“Get a life b*tch.”

“It’s social media skinny dumb@ss.”

“Choke on my d!ck…no one cares you fu#$king slut.”

After reading just a few comments, I was forced to face a blind spot I’d been carrying and avoiding my whole life.

It was only now that it was glaring back at me en masse, publicly taunting me to do something about it, that I was finally ready and willing to illuminate this darkness.

For 35 years I’ve subconsciously worn a smile to cover when I’ve been frightened, threatened, forced, coerced, and abused by power. And power comes in all kinds of strange forms. It’s not always such vile words.

“Hi, beautiful,” said enough times by enough strangers begins to feel sickening. I counted over 400 messages in 48 hours that opened with some variation of “sexy lady,” “beautiful girl,” “hot doc,” etc. As my sensory system becomes flooded with such “compliments,” I want to outline what I actually hear:

1)    You are only valuable for your physical shell and how it can serve me.

2)    Thinly veiled threats, with violent acts lurking just beneath the surface.

3)    Noise. Constant, unrelenting noise.

There is an abundance of literature across many species in the animal world surrounding the costs to females of male sexual harassment, including increased energy expenditure (Clutton‐Brock & Langley 1997), reduced foraging abilities (Magurran & Seghers 1994a), increased predation risk (Rowe 1994), and direct injury or even mortality among females (Chapman et al. 2003; Arnqvist & Rowe 2005).

In one of the more frequently cited studies, female guppies were sexually harassed so repeatedly that their ability to feed (pretty much the only thing a guppy really needs to be doing to survive) was reduced by 25%. As I apply this same logic to humans, it is no wonder women can’t get ahead. On our least difficult days we are starting out by unburying ourselves from 300 messages starting with “Hey, beautiful,” and this is where the story gets messier (yup, that’s possible).

I don’t want to be a woman who doesn’t get complimented. I don’t want to become numb to those good guppies out there. I don’t want to mistrust, be suspicious or angry or in any other way let the ugliness of the world shape who I am.

I do value myself.

I love who I am and how I present myself to the world. I am rambunctious and confident and funny and fun and flirty and sociable. I trust people and always assume positive intent. But the world has slowly and steadily been beating this out of me. I find myself wary. Questioning the intent of people I already know and love. And this is what angers me. It angers me that I’m angry. That I’ve allowed the ugly in people hiding behind screens of power to take away my identity.

The night after my latest sexual assault, I had a vivid dream. I’d left my purse open, exposed, in public for a moment. I remember hesitating when I noticed a man, a warm gray hat pulled low over his aging head. He made me suspicious, but I walked away from my purse anyway. To my dismay when I returned, it was gone. Kicking myself for being so stupid, I found the man who had taken it and demanded it back. He threw my wallet at me, its contents intact minus my social security card, my driver’s license, and my passport.

He had literally stolen my identity. Not much interpretation needed there.

I don’t want to lose who I am. I don’t want to have to change myself to fit the mold of this world where I am forced to be continually suspicious, fearful, and angry. What can I do now, to help change the world instead?

This is a fight that neither I nor any other woman who has had a similar experience get to walk away from. Merely existing in the world makes you a casualty of this war, but I personally am ready to move forward on the offensive.

Whether or not you take comfort in knowing you are not alone or are horrified by the numbers doesn’t change the facts that in a recent study conducted by Anna Möller, Hans Peter Söndergaard, and Lotti Helström, 70% of sexual assault victims reported significant tonic immobility. In what seems like a sick twist of biological programming, these same women who reported a state of tonic immobility showed a 2.75x increase in the development of PTSD and 3.42x increased risk of severe depression.

Women who have experienced the involuntary response of tonic immobility return in their minds again and again to the violation, recalling every opportunity they had to stop it. To end the assault. All they see are themselves not saying no and not fighting back. They might even see themselves acting like willing participants. It’s these reiterations that can cause severe psychological damage.

You know you were helpless, but you still find ways to blame yourself. You still create stories that don’t allow you to release your own guilt about the moment when you were being preyed upon.

The second impact of the one-two punch of ironic evil biology is that the more exposure we’ve had to these traumas in which we freeze, the more likely we are to react with the same tonic immobility response the next time. Your body has recorded your survival from the last attack as a "success."

No more.

I’m determined to tell a different story. To craft the more accurate story for myself and every other person who has found themselves in this scenario. Your inability to act in that moment is not your fault any more than it is your fault for having your heart beat faster when you scare, or when you run. Your body has natural built-in responses to help it survive.

The only task now is to move forward.

I want to be able to say that with enough education, we can change the world so that we don’t have to change ourselves. It should never be the responsibility of a victim to have to alter her/his behavior. And I do believe that this is a crucial step. The training that we offer in this country about sexual harassment is a joke. Not only is it outdated and sorely lacking crucial information (I’ve never even heard tonic immobility mentioned with regard to the concept of sexual harassment before), but often the trainings are given as mandatory boxes new employees have to check to begin working.

We have to do better.

Melissa Goodman, Director of the LGBTQ, Gender & Reproductive Justice Project at the ACLU of Southern California, recently wrote:

To stop the objectification of women and power imbalance that fuels this societal epidemic, we need to start long before anyone enters the workplace. If we want to be serious about making long-term cultural change to stop sexual harassment and violence, we should provide comprehensive sex ed in all of our schools.

I couldn’t agree more. But let’s not stop there.

In all my rage, I don’t want to overlook the danger and fear that men (and I’m generalizing genders here) must feel knowing that even when they don’t hear a no, even if they experience signs of submission from a woman, she still might be screaming inwardly. How can we ensure that everyone stays safe?

While I hold true to what I said earlier about it never being the victim’s responsibility to change, I do believe there are changes we can make to the brain re-wirings of these tonic immobility programs; they are so deeply embedded into our brains that we can’t override them with all the conscious effort in the world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t re-train our subconscious. What would it look like for every man, woman, and child to practice, over and over and over, in safe scenarios? Perhaps in virtual reality settings?

This research has become my new goal. There is work to be done here, and through some ugly experiences, I may have just found my calling.

And this time, I’m mobilizing.


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