Why some rape survivors don't fight back?

This article was the last of 3 articles posted on MalaysiaKini, reposting it here so that students are well aware that they have their rights and to be alert in case of any future reoccurrence because I do not condone such behavior in the dance community. 
As instructors, our role is to provide a safe environment and be the reliable person students can turn to in their times of needs. By taking advantage of being in that role and attack the very students that trusts you is just wrong.
For a year after she said she was raped by her dance instructor in 2017, Nina continued to be his dance partner.

She maintained a cordial relationship, replied to his text messages as per normal and travelled with him to a dance festival overseas, where they shared a hotel room.

Nina said she was worried about sharing a room with him, but complied because it was the only option provided by the festival organiser.

During the trip she remained vigilant, dodging him when he tried to kiss her, avoiding drinking alcohol and staying awake so he would not attack her while she slept.
But her decision to remain his partner, her sustained friendship with him and decision to travel with him that weekend were among issues scrutinised by police when she reported him for raping her in 2017. Eventually, police concluded the sex was “voluntary”.

Nina is a pseudonym to protect her identity. Malaysiakini is also not identifying the dance instructor, to avoid identifying his other alleged victims. He did not respond to requests for comment.

No correct reaction

The behaviour of complainants in sexual assault cases are often scrutinised to verify a rape allegation, but clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan said investigators may be looking for the wrong thing.

There is a misconception that the “correct” reaction is to be hysterically afraid of the perpetrator, but there is no one way to express trauma, she said.

Vizla said it is “not abnormal” for survivors to maintain normal relations with their perpetrators as a form of self-preservation, especially if the perpetrator is someone known and close to them.

“It is difficult for them to reconcile that this bad thing has happened to them and it was committed by someone they believe is good and respected,” Vizla said.

“From a victim’s perspective, after a traumatic incident it is very common for people to be confused and not fully comprehend what is going on. So they think if I just be normal, then things will be okay,” she said.

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Sumitra Visvanathan said oftentimes, a survivor’s reaction may seem counterintuitive to an external observer.

“This may be a coping or survival mechanism, in response to the shock and trauma of sexual assault.

“The survivor may also try to re-establish a sense of normalcy and thus may still be cordial with the perpetrator,” she said.

Self-blame as a form of self-preservation

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the “vast majority” of rape is perpetrated by those known to the survivor.

A United Nations study in Europe found that 67 percent of rapists were known to the survivors.

This data is unavailable for Malaysia, but WAO estimates about 80 percent of survivors who seek its assistance said they were assaulted by someone they know.

Drawing from her experience working with survivors in a trauma clinic and domestic abuse shelter, clinical psychologist Ng Siew Li said it is “not uncommon” for survivors to try to “explain away” the attack as a one-off incident or by blaming the circumstances.

They may also resort to self-blame to believe it was something they could have controlled.

“If you believe you have control, you will believe that you can stop it from happening again,” she said.

For years after it happened, Nina said, she did not want to acknowledge that she was raped because she was afraid of the consequences.

“If I did, I would have to do something about it,” she said.

The instructor also told her it was the first time anything like that had happened.

But two years later, she learnt that other dancers were allegedly assaulted in the same way. It prompted Nina to report what happened to her. The dancers who said they were raped by the instructor in an incident in July 2019 also filed police reports. The investigation for the 2019 incident is pending.

Research: Rape survivors experience ‘paralysis’

The instructor was remanded for seven days, following the reports last year. It sent shockwaves in the close-knit dance scene, where the instructor is much revered.

Several dancers involved told Malaysiakini members of the scene questioned why they did not leave the party or do more to stop the attack.

Like behaviour after the attack, evidence of resistance during the attack is also often scrutinised to detect if consent was given.

However, a study on 298 sexual assault victims in Sweden found as high as 70 percent of survivors of sexual assault surveyed report feeling “paralysis” during the attack.

The researchers described it as "tonic immobility", a behaviour also observed in animals faced with dangerous situations.

Previous studies found that in humans, it can be a feeling disassociated from the body, catatonic and being unable to move when faced with extremely threatening circumstances.

In Brazil, a study of 3,231 survivors of traumatic events found that scores for tonic immobility were almost twice as high among survivors of sexual violence compared to other types of trauma.

Hormones impede decision-making

Ng said there is extensive literature on this biological reaction during trauma, but the findings may not be widely known, including among investigators and prosecutors of sexual assault.

She said when faced with highly stressful situations, the mind gets flooded with hormones as a form of defence mechanism, but the same hormones impact parts of the brain that controls decision-making.

This “freeze” experienced by trauma survivors can manifest differently, she said.

It can happen during the attack, where survivors report being unable to move or act, or after the attack when the mind “goes blank and is unable to generate any form of options” or make rational decisions, Ng said.

“Some people would in the aftermath say ‘I could have done that, why didn’t I?’ At a certain point, our brain might not be capable of doing that during a stressful event,” she said.

The flood of hormones also affects ability to retain memory, she said.

“There are different processes to forming memory, just like how you are saving a file in a computer. When the mind is flooded with certain hormones, the process is disrupted so it is not uncommon for a memory (of a traumatic incident) to be incomplete,” she said.

This goes against belief by some investigators that inability to recall specifics of the incident denotes the person is not telling the truth, Ng said.

The clinical psychologists believe investigators and prosecutors need to be better trained to understand the effects of trauma on the mind, and how it might differ from case to case.

Vizla said in some cases, survivors may appear irrationally compliant because of power dynamics in the relationship with the perpetrator, where they may have been groomed to be reliant on the perpetrator’s affirmation.

This could stop them from resisting during the attack or even speaking out immediately after the incident, she said.

“What happened between the perpetrator and the victim after the incident is not a sign of whether the rape happened. Consent happens before the sexual activity, not what happens after,” she said.

Michael Yip

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