“Stop that,” she says.
“You’re trembling,” he says, walking closer. There’s a wall behind her. She has no way out.
Since I was a kid watching Days of Our Lives while my mother folded laundry, I have seen this over and over: guy corners girl who’s been telling him to buzz off, but when he forces his mouth on hers despite her protests, as if by magic, her anger melts into desire. Maybe her “no” didn’t mean no. Or it did, but then it didn’t. Or maybe he knew better than she did what she really wanted. He pushes her boundaries, and then pushes right through them. And there, on the other side of trembling, is the wet, hot, sexual woman he saw all along.
I believed this paradigm of desire; most of us do. Sometimes I thought of my “no” as a suggestion instead of an imperative. I learned a playful no could be part of the game. But when I did mean it, I watched men, magnificent, grown men, not know the difference. Whether I meant it, or was just sort of half-protesting as flirtation, men treated both the same: they didn’t stop. Were they really more skilled at knowing what I meant than I was, or were they just overconfident?
Sometimes when I said no and he kept going, it was okay. I mean, I was okay. I mean, I didn’t cry or anything. It wasn’t that bad. Sometimes I said no, and he kept going, and I… left. I mean, my body stayed, but the rest of me went floating up and to the right. Dissociation sounds scary, but it doesn’t feel bad. Sometimes it feels like sliding into a warm, cozy bed. A secret, safe place where I can stay as long as I want. It’s the coming back that breaks me open. That’s when I always cry.
“When it came to my desire, men knew, or were supposed to know, better than I did”
My mother was a feminist and I was a kid in ’80s. I grew up hearing “no means no,” and “your body, your business.” We had videos about good touches and bad. We had books about it. When someone did something bad to my body, I was supposed to No, Go, Tell. Meaning, say no, then go, then tell a trusted adult. I believed these things, but it was confusing. On one hand, a message that I had agency, autonomy, and responsibility for my body, my choices, my life. On the other, a cultural narrative that I didn’t really know what was best for me. I couldn’t be trusted to say what things were. My mother knew better. My father. My teachers. My elders in general. And then, when it came to my desire, men knew, or were supposed to know, better than I did. Except the bad ones. If only it were easier to know which ones were bad.
In the 2014 comic, Trigger Warning: Breakfast, an anonymous woman writes about an acquaintance rape. The author said no, but her acquaintance didn’t listen. She let him sleepover, and in the morning, she made him breakfast. Why did she do that? The author is haunted by that question. She’s haunted by the mythology of the Perfect Victim.
Perfect Victim is the model against which all other (normal, flawed, human) victims are judged, and trust me, we all come up short. Perfect Victim says no clearly and often, fights off her attacker like a honey badger, and if she can’t get away, she continues to profess her non-consent throughout the encounter, ideally by shouting “no” and continuing to fight as best she can. Perfect Victim has the courage of a hundred armchair quarterbacks. Perfect Victim bites and scratches. Perfect Victim spits and sobs. What she doesn’t do is give in. What she doesn’t do is get wet. What she doesn’t do is make her rapist breakfast.
“Perfect Victim says no clearly and often, fights off her attacker, and continues to profess her non-consent throughout the encounter”
I know women who have asked their rapists to use a condom, even offering one of their own. I know women who have said yes after being worn down all night, over and over. You can only push a man off you so many times. You can only say “not now, no thanks, I don’t want to” so many ways. I, too, have had sex I didn’t want because sex was the least bad option. Sex was a known variable. Think of it as a harm reduction tactic. Fighting and screaming and kicking and yelling at a man? Unknown outcomes. Would he hit me back? Would he let me go? Would I fight and lose? If I lost, would he have sex with me anyway, only more violently?
The acute stress response, coined fight or flight by psychologist and scientist Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon in 1915, has become a cultural truism. You punch or you run. You take women’s self defense classes where you learn how to fight just enough to create an opening to get away. I took one of those classes the summer before I headed to college in New York City. My mother wanted me to be prepared.
“I know women who have asked their rapists to use a condom, even offering one of their own”
It was a “full force” self defense class, where male volunteers dressed in protective gear, including a cup and a giant foam head with mesh cutouts for the eyes and mouth. Each week, they would grab us, attempt to wrestle us down, and we would literally fight them off. The idea was that we were training our muscle memories, so our instinct to fight became a corporeal imperative, rather than an intellectual decision.
I had not then, and still have not now, been attacked in a way that would allow me to use that training. Let me be clear: I have been a repeated victim of sexual violence. I just didn’t respond the way that class trained me to respond, either before or after taking it.
As it turns out, fight or flight is more complicated than originally thought. More recent studies suggest that the response is actually more like fight, flight, freeze or appease. Freezing, like a possum, playing dead in hopes that the predator loses interest and goes away. Appeasing, like a dog rolling on its back for a more aggressive dog, in hopes that its show of submission will quell aggression.
Interestingly, which of these responses happens to you depends on the mixture of the hormones present at the time of the attack. Original stress response studies focused primarily on male human and animal subjects; it wasn’t until the year 2000 that UCLA social psychologist Shelley Taylor began to compile research on how women, specifically, responded. This research became the basis of her book, The Tending Instinct.
Taylor found that the stress response in women produced much lower adrenaline and testosterone than in men. Women felt less fear when threatened, and because of that, they responded differently than the old punch and run. They called this new response “befriend and tend.” Often, women calm their aggressors down, and try to tend to the emotional needs of themselves and others, instead of escalating by violence, or attempting to flee.
Nobody has determined whether this is a biological or sociological difference. But it’s a real difference. Women tend to freeze, appease, befriend. No matter how many times I practiced throwing punches and eye strikes in that self defense class, I responded to threats in a different way. I have left my body. I have tried to bargain, saying yes to the parts I could endure. I have told myself that experiences that I didn’t enjoy or even technically consent to were not, in fact, violations; that it wasn’t that bad. Like the author of the comic, I have attempted to re-story experiences after they’ve happened, a form of reverse logic: No woman would make her rapist breakfast. If she makes him breakfast, he’s not a rapist. If he’s not a rapist, she’s not a victim. She hasn’t been raped. She’s okay. She’s fine.
“Often, women calm their aggressors down, and try to tend to the emotional needs of themselves and others, instead of escalating by violence, or attempting to flee”
And what about those trembling damsels? Those moments where women say no, but men know better? Part of it is that we’re all raised in patriarchy—men and women. The male gaze isn’t free from it, it’s drowning in it. The sexism in Hollywood, and the lack of women in power at every level means our entertainment is, by and large, produced, written, directed, and driven by men. But when we watch these scenes, there is no flashing light reminding us that we’re only seeing the male story. We think we’re seeing a fictional take on reality, but what we’re actually seeing is his fiction. She says no, but she doesn’t mean it. He knows better than she does what she wants. She wants him, he just has to keep pushing.
Having learned about the tending instinct, I began to wonder about those scenes. While showing us what men see, were those scenes also inadvertently showing their blind spot? Was the woman suddenly into him, or appeasing him because she had no other option? I know the men who created the scene would say the former, but could we teach them to see the latter? Maybe those film and TV women are suddenly vixens, but is it possible that the real life women they were based on were not? Freeze, appease, tend, befriend. Maybe it’s been happening right in front of our eyes for decades. Yes, the whole stereotype of good girls saying no until they say yes (after cajoling) is rape culture, but it’s possible that it’s showing us a real thing: the tending instinct in action.
I have made an uncountable number of moments feel better when I might otherwise have run. If I had different hormones, a different body. If I responded to stress by punching the way I was trained. While I’ve never made my rapist breakfast, I recognize all too easily that if I were in the situation described in that comic, I might.
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