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Dear Connecticut Supreme Court Judges:
As they say in my birth state of Texas: bless your hearts.*
In case you’ve expunged your recent ruling from your memory, here’s a recap: You overturned a sexual assault conviction because the survivor, a woman with severe cerebral palsy, did not, in your estimation, clearly communicate her non-consent during the assault because even though she is unable to speak and is capable of very little body movement, she could still “bite, kick, scream, and gesture” her lack of consent, and purportedly she did not. In your opinion you state you were not “persuaded that the state produced any credible evidence that the [victim] was either unconscious or so uncommunicative that she was physically incapable of manifesting to the defendant her lack of consent to sexual intercourse at the time of the alleged sexual assault,” which Connecticut law requires.
First, I do not want to injure this woman further by stereotyping those with disabilities as being unable to function. I don’t know her, so I don’t know her abilities. But what I do know is that regardless of her abilities, your honors and those who crafted the Connecticut law clearly don’t know squat about sexual assault. Or trauma. In fact, I’m wondering if the lot of you took a weekend assessment workshop at The Todd Akins School of Legitimate Rape.
As deeply and importantly qualified as Mr. Akin is to speak on behalf of women and the sexual assault community, I think it might not hurt if you had some additional schooling. Good news! I’m a psychotherapist who not only works with sexual assault survivors, but I do trainings on trauma. So, pull up some chairs – er, a bench – and listen up.
As I said, it’s been my great privilege to work with sexual assault survivors for many years in my private practice. (I’ve also worked with a few perpetrators.) I’ve trained folks who volunteer to work with sexual assault survivors, many survivors themselves, and I’ve been a consultant at a rape crisis center. I’ve worked the phones on rape crisis hotlines, and I’ve also worked as a crisis advocate, meeting a person in the ER who has just been sexually assaulted to provide support and advocacy, if s/he wishes.
I’ve heard countless stories – brave, horrific, heart-wrenching, inspiring, humbling, outraging stories. Stories of all kinds of women and how they coped and survived during and after their assault. (Yes, as it turns out, it’s been mostly women, but I’ve worked with survivors and perpetrators of varying genders and sexual orientations. For the sake of brevity and as it is in the Connecticut case, I’ll assign “she” to survivors and “he” to perpetrators.)
There are many survival skills that kick in during an acutely traumatic experience, but generally we’ve heard of “fight or flight.” Most of us can imagine what fighting our way out of a traumatic incident might look like. And, flight is also easy to imagine – getting the hell out of the situation if you physically can. But, if you physically can’t leave, fleeing can also look like dissociation, which is “checking out” or “leaving your body.” It can happen unconsciously or consciously. Thank goodness we all have the ability to do it, whether we have or not. It’s our brain working to protect us from trauma. It saved the sanity of many people who physically survived the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. Some folks created whole worlds to live in while their bodies endured sheer hell. Go brain! (Ever been driving in your car and realize you’re five exits farther than when you were last aware. Congrats. You’ve dissociated.) Folks can sometimes lie immobile and physically unreactive during this very helpful survival mechanism. Because they dissociated rather than fought, does this mean these trauma survivors consented to their atrocities? Please.
There are also the skills of freeze and appease. I’ll touch on freezing, as it also seems like the opposite of the fighting you judges and CT lawmakers are looking for, but, again, it’s not. Remember how a mouse plays dead when a cat attacks? That’s freezing. Because the mouse doesn’t fight back, does this mean the mouse wants to be cat food? Uh no. Does its motionlessness mean the mouse isn’t actively doing something to save its life. Hardly. It means it instinctively knows how to use a survival strategy to reduce the cat’s stimulation, and therefore, hopefully, make the cat less interested in maintaining the attack. There is more than one way to skin a cat. And a perpetrator.
Fight, flight, freeze, appease, whatever – there is no right or wrong or better or worse or healthy or unhealthy or more adaptive or less adaptive method. All these survival strategies can work. Or not work. They’re spontaneous approaches or unconscious in-the-moment reactions, not evidence of pathology or consent. (Read that last sentence again.) And they’re not fixed or prescriptive. Each assailant is an individual and each survivor is an individual. It’s a tricky combination. And nobody, Connecticut Supreme Court dudes, not me, not you, not your daughters or sisters or neighbors – nobody knows how they’ll react to a sexual assault until it happens. Nobody. And to think the only way to respond to sexual assault is to fight shows your ignorance of the range of these survival strategies and of the human psyche. Same goes with those Connecticut lawmakers who created the law you’re interpreting. This makes all of you, in my opinion, ill-equipped to comment or rule on this issue with any authority.
Moreover, even if a survivor doesn’t fight, not because of a survival strategy, but because she had absolutely no clue what the hell to do in the frenzy of those unspeakably horrifying, surreal moments, and was rendered motionless or voiceless, what’s your point? That it means she wasn’t raped? Are you serious? Come with me to the ER bedside of someone who was just sexually assaulted and didn’t fight her assailant in the ways you deem significant and tell her you aren’t sure she was just raped. I dare you.
I’d say your ruling adds horrific insult to indescribable injury. But, what it truly does is add assault to assault – you’ve unleashed your damaging power on someone less powerful than you (or someone you’re trying to make less powerful than you), which is what sexual assault is. It’s about power, not sex. I can say pretty confidently that your ruling has greatly injured this woman and those who love her. And you’ve injured all sexual assault survivors, regardless of how they responded in the moment to their attacker. I’ve heard from many of these folks since your ruling. Some are re-triggered. Some are flabbergasted. Some are feeling devalued (again). All are furious.
Rulings such as this, the “whore/Madonna” mixed messages women receive on a daily basis, the thinly-veiled “boys will be boys” ethos, and the seemingly off-the-wall comments said in all-seriousness by folks like Akin and Chuck “Women Can’t Tell for Themselves What Rape is or What is Part of ‘Normal Relations in a Marriage’” Winder evidence the unsurprising fact that patriarchy is alive and well in our culture and in many of our institutions, including our courts.
If you’re about to jump on the “feminist as man-hater” soapbox, I say, enough with the subterfuge. Seriously. Women can detest inequity and not hate men. Welcome to the nuances of the vast, complex worlds of the psyche and our society.
Thanks for letting me approach the bench, your honors. Speaking of approaching you, if folks want to be sure to clearly communicate to you that they don’t consent to your offensive, clueless, patriarchical BS, do they need to bite, kick, scream, or gesture, or would an email be sufficient? Let me know. I’ll pass it on.
*So the deal is, when you say, “bless your/their heart” to or about someone you can say whatever you want and still remain your lovable self because, well, you’ve just blessed them. An example: “They’re complete misogynist jackasses, bless their hearts.” See how well that works?
Carol Norris is a longtime political organizer, activist, freelance writer, psychotherapist, and one of the millions and millions upon millions of women and men who know what consent is. And what it isn’t.
If you have been sexually assaulted, get support! Call RAINN, a confidential national sexual assault hotline that will connect you with local support 1.800.656.HOPE. (This writer is not affiliated with them in any way.)