Oppression and power show up in many different ways within our culture. Attitudes, behaviors, and norms play a role in upholding power imbalances, contributing to sexual violence and rape culture. In the “What do you mean?” series, we explore the use and power of language and offers suggestions on how to communicate mindfully.

You’ve probably read the news articles and tweets detailing the experiences of many women who were abused, harassed, and sexually assaulted by the elite Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, as well as seemingly daily updates and revelations about other powerful leaders and figures.

And maybe you’ve taken a look at or accidentally read comments on these articles or on social media:

“Why would she go into a hotel room? Didn’t she know – it’s a hotel room!” or “That’s awful, but she knew what she was doing – she wanted to be famous” or “I’m glad it’s coming out now, but why didn’t they report it 20 years ago?!”

We know questions like these aren’t unique to just this situation – they seem to pop up whenever people report on / respond to sexual violence.

You may want to answer these questions, but aren’t sure how. How can we recognize where people are coming from, find common ground, and continue to raise awareness about sexual violence and how it affects people?

“Why didn’t they report the assault when it happened?”

As we learn more and more about the impact trauma has on our being and our brains, it deepens our understanding of why people don’t report sexual violence – but if someone doesn’t know that, it may seem confusing or counterintuitive that survivors wouldn’t report an assault immediately.

People who say this may be reacting out of anger. We all want justice and it can be frustrating when perpetrators continue to harm over a number of years. But we also know that blaming survivors for not reporting isn’t helpful and can only deepen a survivor’s sense of not being believed.

So it may be helpful to add…

“We all want survivors to pursue justice. For many, that means reporting to law enforcement – but there can be so many barriers to survivors reporting. Some survivors may be afraid they won’t be believed, or blame themselves for an assault, or maybe they told someone they trusted only to be discouraged from reporting. If we cast blame on survivors for not reporting, we miss the point. By believing survivors when they report (the first time!), we can work towards a culture where every survivor is supported and will feel comfortable coming forward if they so choose. But we can’t lose sight that the only person to ‘blame’ is the person who chose to hurt another person.” 

“Why didn’t they fight harder? Why didn’t they run away?”

When traumatic events happen, folks may forget that there’s a third reaction in the “fight or flight” bodily response: freeze. The brain senses danger and releases a huge wave of different hormones, which help the body cope with what’s happening in the moment. Sometimes this can look like a freeze reaction – the body can stiffen or go limp. Many survivors don’t intentionally choose their reaction (i.e., to stay or not fight back), but simply become frozen in the moment. They may not even understand why they didn’t react physically in the moment.

When trying to make sense of a scary or upsetting situation, people often project onto others how they think they would act when confronted with violence. It’s a defense mechanism; “I could never be hurt in this way, because I would do x, y, or z.” But really, no one can know how their brain and body will react.

So it may be helpful to add…

“Survivors don’t choose how they react to violence. Our brains tell our bodies what to do to literally survive an experience – and that can look confusing from an outside perspective. So it makes sense that a person’s body can be completely frozen out of fear. This can also add to the self-blame a survivor may feel after the assault because they may not recognize or understand their brain’s reaction either! Reminding others, and survivors, that it’s NOT their fault and they reacted in a way to keep themselves safe can help create a more supportive culture for survivors.”

“Well, they seem fine now. Why bring it back up?”

People can have a hard time going against the status quo. We all have difficult things that happen to us in our lives. For some folks, it is unimaginable that someone would want to revisit painful experiences years later.

But we know the culture of openness around sexual violence is changing – and, we hope, improving! Folks who have been hurt earlier in their lives may finally feel comfortable in today’s climate to come forward. We also know it can be easier for survivors to talk about what happened to them when they see others come forward with their stories too.

So it may be helpful to add…

“There are a lot of reasons survivors could be afraid to come forward immediately after their experience – from a fear of not being believed, to safety concerns, to being afraid they’re overreacting, or not recognizing the experience as harmful until much later. It can take a lot of time for a survivor to come to terms with what happened and their trauma. We still have a lot of work to do, but the climate today is different than it was ten, five, or even one year ago. Other survivors coming forward may make someone finally feel supported and safe enough to say, “#MeToo.”

Language is powerful. If we all work together to reframe how we respond to survivors who choose to share their experiences, we can contribute to and help build a safer, more supportive environment to ensure for all of us.