Friday, 23 September 2016

Fight, Flight or Freeze: Surviving Assault

(TW: This post is all about unwanted touching, sexual violence, consent, misogyny and feminism.)

If headlines in mainstream news are to be believed, Gigi Hadid is an ungrateful, unladylike miscreant who violently attacked a fan.

Fortunately there’s a video of the incident, in which “prankster” Vitalii Sediuk grabs the supermodel from behind only for her to defend herself by elbowing him in the nose. He puts her back down and she, understandably, shouts “Who the fuck are you, you piece of shit?”

Discourse about the event has varied. While some people are completely on Gigi’s side, and say she has every right to retaliate when her personal space is invaded, others have said that her reaction was disproportionate.

What many people may not understand is that when someone is touched without warning or consent, it’s not just a case of feeling that our “personal space” has been invaded. Particularly when someone from a minority group (whether on basis of gender, race, sexuality etc.) is unexpectedly touched, we feel that our safety is at risk. It’s beyond being annoyed or inconvenienced, we feel endangered.
Being lifted off the ground, touched intimately, surprised, grabbed or otherwise interfered with is startling. It’s alarming. It’s frightening.

At a young age we’re taught that fear causes a rush of adrenaline, and we’re told that this hormone elicits one of two actions: fight or flight. When I was bullied at school, my mum used to tell me to ignore it and walk away, whereas my dad always told me to “punch ‘em on the nose”. My parents often remind me of a time when my youngest brother had just been born, and having watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang I was worried that the Child Catcher would come for my new baby brother. My dad went to the loo in the middle of the night, and opening the door to go back to his bedroom he was confronted four-year-old me, brandishing a baseball bat as long as I was, ready to fight the “intruder”. One of my defining characteristics throughout my life has been my bravery.

Now, evidently Gigi Hadid is a fighter, and that is to be applauded. But it’s not fully accurate to say that fighting or running away are the only two responses to fear. For many people who have been assaulted there’s secret option number three: freeze.

While Gigi’s assault (and that’s what it was) occurred in broad daylight and was observed by numerous people, including press with cameras and her own sister, the situation could have gone very, very differently if it was dark, or somewhere secluded, or if the victim didn’t go for regular boxfit sessions. There are times when fighting an attacker would put the victim in more danger, and where running away simply isn’t possible. In these situations, the victim enters a kind of self-preservation where they comply with their attacker to prevent further harm. While I whole-heartedly defend Gigi’s reaction (I may have fist-pumped when I saw her in the video) I think it’s really, really important that we stop saying “fight or flight” and start talking about “fight, flight or freeze”, and I’m going to tell you why.

The “freeze” reaction is very common, especially in cases of sexual assault. The fact that we only learn that adrenaline causes “fight or flight” means that victims are scared to come forward because they question whether it "counts" if there wasn't a struggle, or screaming, or an escape attempt. I’m going to use myself as an example and talk about four occasions where I’ve been the subject of unwanted touching and sexual assault from strangers, and how I’ve reacted quite differently to each one.

Me on the outward journey to Weymouth (on the right)
The first time was when I was 16, at around 5 in the afternoon. I’d been to the beach as an end-of-exams trip with a group of friends, and we were heading back form Weymouth on the train. A man in his early 20s came and sat next to me and started talking to me. I was polite, and responded to his questions. Then, out of nowhere, he slid his hand across my thigh and into my crotch. I leaped up out of my seat and silently walked to the back of the carriage, and my friends followed. I was shaken and uncomfortable for the rest of the train journey, and I still jump when strangers accidentally brush against me on crowded trains. For weeks afterwards I wished I’d followed my dad’s advice and punched him on the nose. I felt a responsibility to teach the stranger a lesson. I wondered if he’d do the same to other girls because my reaction hadn’t been strong enough. I felt guilty.

When I was 18, I went to Venice alone. I stayed with a host, and I attended language school in the afternoons. I was preparing to study Italian at uni, and I was keen to learn as much as I could, so I took down the email addresses of a couple of people who advertised on the school’s notice board, asking for tandem conversation classes. I got a response from a man called Gregorio, who wanted to meet up with me and practice his English while I practised my Italian. We met at a bar I’d been to a few times and he was perfectly charming. He confessed that he’d found my blog because the URL matched my email address, and that he liked my writing. He insisted on walking me home, all the way across the island, and kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. Several days later he sent me a text saying he was walking past my apartment, asking if he could come in for a cup of coffee. I didn’t see an issue with that, so I invited him up. Within minutes he had me by the hair and was telling me that 
if I didn’t give him oral sex he was going to rape me.

I complied because I was frightened. I couldn’t run, and I was scared that fighting him would make the situation worse. He’d already threatened to rape me, so who knew what else he was capable of. I mentally checked out until it was over. Once he’d left I numbly showered, feeling dirty and angry, and upset. But above all I felt weak and guilty. My dad’s voice was in my head. I should have punched him on the nose. I should have bitten down when he forced himself into my mouth. I should have poked him in the eye like you do with sharks. I promised myself that if anyone so much as looked at me in a way I didn’t like, ever again, I’d fight them. I should have done more. I should have done something. I felt like I’d let it happen. I felt like it was all my fault. I felt guilty.

Me in Venice
That night I took myself for an evening walk in the rain. I walked to the bar, hoping to bump into friends from school. As it was I met a couple of men I’d met there in my first week and we got chatting. One, named Stefano, spoke very good English and was smiley and chatty, while the other, Evin, only spoke Albanian and broken English. I was soaked through from the rain, my shoes were sodden, but I wasn’t cold. As I prepared to take myself back to my apartment, one of the boys offered to lend me some of his sister’s shoes. We were apparently about the same size, and he said that his mama would be ashamed of him if he let a lady walk home in wet shoes. His flat was a couple of minutes away. I figured any young man with such a sense of chivalry was safe. In truth, I naively thought “Well, I’m not going to get attacked twice in one day.” I walked to the flat with the two young men, wondering if his sister would be in, so I could thank her for the shoes.

When we got to the flat, Stefano went straight to bed, then Evin locked me in. My stomach dropped into the soles of my feet and my gaze went straight to the floor. The last solid thought I remember having was, “There are no girls’ shoes here.” Evin, who hadn’t spoken a word of English all night, said “You scream, I kill you.” He forced me onto the bed, and took out a condom. When I started crying and saying no, he pinned my arms above my head and muttered in my ear, “Why no fuck? Is it because I Albanian?” For the second time in 12 hours I was forced to give a man oral sex to prevent him from raping me. When it was over I asked to leave. He wrapped his arms around me tightly and told me to go to sleep. I tried. I wanted morning to come. I wanted to get out of there and hide in my apartment until my flight the next week. I was beyond feeling damaged, I felt broken. I felt stupid and sick to my stomach. I didn’t understand how mere hours before I’d sworn to myself that I would fight harder. I felt filthy. I felt guilty.

Me at 21, working in the opticians
When I was 21, I worked in an optician’s. It was generally pretty quiet, and often people from local businesses would pop in and talk to us about their offers. It helped pass the time. Mo was one of those. He came in on several occasions, waiting until my manager had gone on lunch before coming in to talk to me, and only ever me, about the discount he could get me on gym membership. He was persistent. He was sort of sweet in a sort of overly-friendly way, showing me his muscular arms and once flashing me his abs. After a couple of weeks, I finally gave in and booked an induction. I went to the gym after work and he got me to sign all the paperwork, including a comprehensive membership contract which said I couldn’t cancel within 12 months, unless I had a doctor’s note saying I was incapable of using a gym, or if I moved out of the area. He showed me the ladies-only area of the gym, the changing rooms and the pool. Then he took me into the studio where yoga lessons happened, which was empty and dark. While we stood in the abandoned, dim room he asked if I had any injuries and I mentioned that I had plantar fasciitis and tight calf muscles. He demonstrated a calf stretch, placing his hands on the barre, extending one leg behind himself and asking me to do the same. When I did, he them moved behind me, pressing his unignorably erect penis into my bum. He held my body firmly against his, and when I tried to move away he held me tighter. We stood motionless for a long time, and I said and did nothing. After what felt like hours, the light suddenly turned on and Mo sprang away from me as a gym instructor entered the room. Nobody said anything. I completed the induction then went home. I cried myself to sleep feeling passive. Weak. Guilty, again.

When I finally told people about any of these assaults, one of the most common responses was, “Why didn’t you fight them?” The simple answer is that I was terrified, and it didn’t feel safe to fight back. As horrible as it is for a stranger to non-consensually jam his erection against you in a dark room, or to force you into sex acts and threaten to rape you, there is something inside you that says, “Being raped is better than being dead, and those may be my options.” I know now that I am far from alone in going boneless in the face of an assault and just doing the bare minimum to survive with the least possible damage. Freezing is sometimes all we can do.

Even brave girls can’t fight the world. There is always someone stronger, with home field advantage, with scarier threats and more power.

I wish someone had told me sooner that compliance under coercion isn’t consent. I hadn’t “allowed” or “encouraged” these men’s actions with my own inaction. It wasn’t my fault.

Gigi Hadid is a great example of a woman who took control of a frightening situation and fought back. But please know that if you’ve ever been attacked in the same way and been unable to react as Gigi did, you are not weak and you are not alone. Sometimes self-preservation isn’t about fist fights or elbows to the nose, it’s just about making it through any way you can. You are no less worthy of help, empathy or support regardless of how you survive, and you shouldn't feel guilty or weak for not physically retaliating.

Fight, flight or freeze. You are a survivor. We are survivors.
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12 comments

  1. I'm so sorry you've had to go through all of this. It is such an important message, whether you can fight or not, you're not weak. Gigi unintentionally has started a very needed conversation.
    xxx

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    1. Thanks G. As much as the incident with Gigi made me angry, I feel like the subsequent discussion has been really important!

      x

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  2. I'm so proud of you for writing this! Fight, flight or freeze are all totally valid responses and sometimes in the situation, freezing is the best survival instinct there is. xx

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  3. Surviour? Sorry but as someone who was raped I deplore the use of 'survivor'. It takes away what he actually did. He made me a victim, whoever was attacked is a victim. Throwing the phrase about being a survivor so carelessly like you have is inconsiderate. I thought someone as enlightened as you would realise that and be more sensitive. Sorry, I guess I dont like tying things up in a neat parcel like you do. Such a self indulgent and sanctimonious piece.

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    1. You're entitled to feel that way. I also feel victimised by what's happened to me, but I personally prefer to use the term "survivor" because it helps. It's the term my psychiatrists and counsellors have recommended too. I don't see it as careless, I'd like to think it's empowering to some, but I'm sorry that wasn't the case for you.

      Assault is never neatly tied up, and I could have kept writing for days about the continuing impact my experiences have had on my life, but I figured that would make something that was difficult to write even more difficult to read. All pieces of writing have to end some way or another and I tried to end this one in as strong a way as I could. I'm sorry you didn't like it.

      I'm sorry that you have been through rape, and I'm sorry you feel this post was "sanctimonious, self-indulgent, careless and inconsiderate". I certainly didn't mean to trivialise the experience. I'm doing my best here.

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    2. But what you've done is painfully try and relate how something happened to a model to you. And then you've made this post about rape when you weren't actually raped.
      The tying it up neatly is you rounding it off with everyone being a suviviour which is tumblr friendly bollocks. Being raped is a lot more painful than thinking 'I survived that'. You're given credidence to the man who attacked. And that's bullshit!

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    3. If you've read any other part of my blog you'll see that I use the news and other events as a catalyst for discussion about wider issues. This whole post was intended to validate the experiences of people who are attacked and can't, for whatever reason, fight back while the news is full of a story about a woman that could.

      You can call yourself a victim if you choose, and if the fact that your sexual assault was different to mine makes you somehow feel like your experience was more valid than mine, that's up to you. However, I (and the dozens of women who have since DMed me to share their experiences) feel like sexual assault is always serious, even if the person involved wasn't "actually raped" as you so bluntly put it (oh, and by the way, it's a bit peculiar of you to claim I trivialise the experience of rape when you dismiss any other kind of sexual assault like you did in your comment...)

      Ultimately you didn't gain anything helpful or empowering from this post and there's not a lot I can do about that besides apologise. However, dozens of women have, and the fact that I've helped those women in any minuscule way makes talking about these issues worth it. I don't do this for attention or recognition or for myself, I do it for anyone who reads it and gains something positive from it. Clearly you're not one of those people.

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    4. Luce, I'm really sorry that you've also experienced such an awful thing.

      But the thing to remember is that yes, Elena is also a victim and so the last thing she needs is someone having a go at her for labels.

      We need to be sticking together not blaming each other for the words we use. Elena didn't choose what happened her and neither did you, that's why it's rape.

      I personally think it's brilliant that's she's breaking the taboo and talking about it. If even one woman stops blaming herself for something that happened to her because she resonates with this article then that's a good thing.

      Elena, thank you so much for being brave enough to share. I'm so sorry this happened to you and and to every other woman (or man, yes it does happen) who's experienced unwanted physical contact of every degree. Freezing is definitely something that happens - it's something I also have first hand experience of so I thank you for not being afraid to say that this is a legitimate reaction and we need to stop blaming people for not flying or fighting. Xxxxx

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  4. I was followed about a week ago, i was in a fairly busy place and he fucked off eventually but ever since i'v been thinking about if he'd followed me home, i don't know what i would have done but i suspect the self preservation would of kicked in for me too, when i had a driving instructor years ago who touched me innapropriatly i didn't want to upset him, i think thats part of it for me honestly wanting to make everyone, in particular men happy

    I am so sorry that you experinced this, i think this article is very important/ well written and thank you so much for writing it!, i hear so many stories about women (generally but not exclusively) who experiance assault and infringement, its heartbreakingly common and we need to talk about it

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  5. I'm sorry for what happened to you, you are one brave lady! Thank you for writing this, it has been an eye opener .

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  6. Please do not let ANYBODY invalidate what you've been through. This is a brilliant piece that is bound to open up a wider conversation about something which is still so taboo for some reason. I also felt guilty and still do in fact. I feel guilty that I let my rapist buy me a drink when I was underage, I feel guilty that my rapist is still out there because I didn't have the balls to report him, and I feel guilty because I let myself down. My whole life I said I'd fight anyone, I took kickboxing lessons, I was fit and I knew in my heart of hearts that I was a fighter and then somehow I became this person who let her rapist walk her to the taxi rank after and put her in a taxi looking like any other couple because I thought It was my fault. Thank you for giving me somewhere to write that for the first time since it happened 12 years ago! I am a survivor and I have to survive all over again everyday, which I'm sure is something you may agree with. Love this! Xx

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