Having worked in the field of women’s sexual wellness and empowerment for the last 15 years, I have been elated to hear women’s voices speaking out—and finally being heard—around the pervasive sexual shadow of our culture and the effects it has on women’s lives. Conservative estimates state that 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault in their lifetime, and many experts say that a more likely estimate is 1 in 3. Anecdotally, I have never met a woman that has not experienced unwanted, unprovoked sexual energy either physically or psychologically.
Through my work as a somatic sexologist I have heard all too often women taking responsibility for traumatic sexual violations that crossed their boundaries, didn’t feel safe and left them in a state of psychological and emotional trauma. There are many ways that culture blames women for sexual assault—being in the wrong place alone, trusting the wrong person, wearing the wrong clothes, not speaking up, not walking away. This implies that it is the woman’s responsibility to avoid or redirect a potential sexual assault.
Most instances of sexual assault do not happen in dark alleys by sketchy strangers lurking in the shadows. Furthermore, most acts of sexual assault are not physically violent. For example, most childhood sexual abuse happens by familiar people close to the child and their family. Most rape happens in instances where people know one another and the interaction began as friendly and consensual. Sexual harassment is not primarily conducted by construction workers hollering at passersby on the streets, but occurs chronically through passive aggressive comments and invasion of personal space by people that are familiar and, most often, where there is a power differential, such as between a boss and employee.
Sexual abuse and assault most often are wrought with coercion and manipulation in a relationship that began with an inherent trust.
The #metoo movement has begun to bring this cultural shadow into the light. More of us are starting to see this insidious beast and we are finally witnessing consequences for serial perpetrators in powerful positions. A lively and, occasionally, insightful discussion has opened debating what constitutes a violation and where the lines are for consent. While it is important that we are now having these discussions in the public forum, there are many ways in which we are still missing the mark. There are altogether new, more nuanced conversations that need to be called in.
A sentiment that I am hearing expressed a lot from men, women and feminists alike is that “women need to take more responsibility.” In a consent culture of “no means no” there is an implication that women are primarily responsible for stopping unwanted sexual advances by using their voices and saying no and then by walking away and getting out of the situation. Again, if a woman claims violation, she gets put on the metaphorical stand. The tendency is to look for the holes in her story and where she’s playing helpless and not taking responsibility. The implicit and explicit questions ask how she might partially, or fully, be responsible for the abuse she experienced.
We saw this dynamic come alive on the cultural stage when a woman publicly disclosed her assault by comedic actor Aziz Ansari to a journalist.
In response to this exposé Bari Weiss wrote in an a New York Times op-ed piece, “I am a proud feminist, and this is what I thought while reading the article:
If you are hanging out naked with a man, it’s safe to assume he is going to try to have sex with you . . . If he pressures you to do something you don’t want to do, use a four-letter word, stand up on your two legs and walk out his door.”
But plenty of times women don’t say no and don’t get up and walk away. And all too often women wind up leaving a sexual encounter realizing, often later, that they have been violated—that something happened that they did not want, did not like and did not consent to.
Why don’t women say no or stop when they feel uncomfortable?
What would make a woman go along with something if she didn’t like it?
Why do women that claim empowerment and equal rights, all of a sudden become helpless in the midst of a sexual encounter?
Basic science and human development can offer us insight here on why we need a different conversation.
Let’s first look at the dynamics of relating. Evolutionarily, humans are wired for connection. We need to be in connection and relationship to thrive and even to survive. Human infants are unique in their level of dependency on their adult caregivers. Human babies complete development in their first year of life that other mammals complete in utero. Human babies die without touch. We have a complex attachment and social engagement system that hard wires us to depend on others.
In spite of a contemporary culture that has cultivated a strong sense of individualism and competition for resources that breeds self-interest and distrust, we are innately predisposed to seek safety, to trust and to connect. These inner bonding and attachment systems are also interconnected with our inner defense systems.
Women being typically smaller in physical size as well as being the child bearers have evolved to rely on their inner “nice girls” and to attempt to emotionally connect and talk their way out of an immediate threat. For the majority of human history women spent most of their lives pregnant and/or rearing small children which creates a particular kind of vulnerability. Dr. Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist, writes in her bestselling book, The Female Brain, “In the female brain, the circuit for aggression is more closely linked to cognitive, emotional, and verbal functions than is the male aggression pathway, which is more connected to brain areas for physical action.” This unique female defense mechanism is known as “tend and befriend.”
When a woman begins to feel threatened her first instinct is likely to emotionally take care of her aggressor in an attempt to steer the threatening situation to a safer place. My sense is that this also contributes to a woman’s sense of responsibility when an encounter turns violating. She blames herself for not being able to use her superpowers of emotional connection and to talk her way out of the incident.
In this discussion we cannot ignore the additional layer that women are heavily socialized into "nice girl" as default. Women are socialized to take care of others and to put others needs ahead of their own. As one of my students recently shared, "I've gotten really good at smiling and making eye contact even if my body is saying no."
The tricky thing about tend and befriend is that it is linked to the neocortex, the higher cognitive functions of our brains. If a woman is attempting to tend and befriend and the scenario becomes more threatening, then she will lose access to her neocortex and move into older brain structures where the adaptive responses of fight, flight and freeze live.
It’s worth noting here that sexual arousal, stress response, bonding, emotional expression, motivation and pleasure all live in this same older, area of the brain known as the mesolimbic cortex. Fight, flight, freeze is part of the stress response system located here. In the context of date rape, in a case where there is initially welcomed connection, perhaps touch and kissing, and sexual arousal is in play, both parties will start to lose access to their neocortex, the center of logic, reasoning and language. Throw a little alcohol in the mix and reasoning, logic and language are further suppressed. All of these response systems firing without the resources of logic and language is how it becomes overwhelmingly disorienting when things start to move too fast.
As Emily Nagoski writes in her book, Come As You Are, “Sexual violence often doesn’t look like what we think of as ‘violence’—only rarely is there a gun or knife; often there isn’t even ‘aggression’ as we typically think of it. There is coercion and the removal of the targeted person’s choice about what will happen next. Survivors don’t ‘fight’ because the threat is too immediate and inescapable; their bodies choose ‘freeze’ because it’s the stress response that maximizes the chances of staying alive . . . or of dying without pain.”
Our older mammalian brains don’t differentiate between types of threat—any threat is interpreted as life or death. When tend and befriend hasn’t worked, the next defense system that will most likely be recruited in women is the freeze response which causes the body and mind to shut down in the face of threat. It’s what we observe when a mouse goes limp and plays dead in a cat’s mouth. The body goes numb and the mind disassociates and leaves the body. While fight or flight mobilize the body to action, freeze immobilizes the body, causing a loss of access to speech and the inability to move—never mind getting up and walking away.
Women often don’t say no and don’t get up and walk away because physiologically they can’t. It’s not a choice. It’s a hard-wired evolutionary adaptive response to be nice and then to shut down. It is the way that their bodies protect them from harm.
Where can this knowledge lead us in the debate over what constitutes consent? And what is the difference between assault vs. bad sex?
For one, we need to look at how gender roles and power differentials are knit into the fabric of society and personal relationship, and how our local and national institutions including schools and the law reinforce these dynamics.
Second, we need to reexamine how we as a culture relate to sexuality. We need sex education that teaches about reproductive function as well as arousal in male and female bodies, including basic neuroscience, pleasure and sexual energy. Most importantly as part of sex education we need to include relationship and communication skills.
Third, we need to include in this conversation the well-documented and thoroughly researched effects of trauma in our culture that impacts at least 70 percent of the population. This is affecting people’s ability to voice their boundaries, and to experience pleasure in a safe, consensual and joyful sexual experience.
Finally, we need to retire the old tactics of he said/she said, bad feminist vs. good feminist and blaming the victim that derive from the same system that has created this climate of abuse. We need to examine the outmoded narratives we’ve been living out about gender roles and the implicit rules, expectations and assumptions that are embedded in dating and relationships. Only from our humble curiosity can we break culture free from the prison of archaic social institutions and call in an entirely new conversation that asks what healthy, generative and thriving sexual relationships can look like and how we might get there.