The millions of sexual assault survivors deserve our respect, support, and empathy, but never our pity.
The E. Jean Carroll vs. Donald Trump rape trial is, no doubt, eliciting a lot of understandable reactions in sexual assault survivors.* I'm a psychotherapist who, for years, has been privileged to work with many survivors. I used to consult to a rape crisis center. I don't need to hear one word of a trauma story to do trauma work, but I've heard countless stories. Stories of hope, of shame, of fear, of anger, of grief and betrayal. Stories of atrocious violence. Stories of glorious resilience.
I've watched police be respectful and kind to someone as they're reporting their assault. I've also seen police be dismissive and blaming and horrible, forcing a person, often still in what is colloquially known as shock, to prove that the "encounter" was not consensual or that she was no somehow "asking for it." I've witnessed people become "disgusted" with their partners who were assaulted, and so they leave or divorce such "damaged goods." I've heard how friends no longer know how to talk to a person, treating them like they're fragile beyond measure or as if they're contagious and if you get too close then you'll somehow become infected. I've known employers who fired their employees because they didn't have a "legitimate" reason for taking time off from work to process and integrate such a fragmenting experience. I've heard how people have been excommunicated from previously close-knit families or neighborhoods because they dared to name that an uncle or a brother or a woman down the street was their perpetrator. There have been beautiful stories of solidarity and support, too. But all too often, contending with the shaming, cruel reactions from others adds very real trauma on top of trauma.
On the stand, E. Jean Carroll talked about what happened after she publicly accused Trump: "Oh. My God. The force of hatred coming at me was staggering."
Even more trauma comes from being judged for what one did during the assault or right afterward. "Why didn't they run?" "Why didn't he fight?" "How could she possibly laugh??" Those questions all belie a total and complete ignorance of the mechanisms of trauma and millennia of nervous system evolution. Our survival strategies kick in, and, more often than not, we don't have time for conscious decision making; it just happens. In a split second, our nervous systems assess the threat and take the best course of action available. (This is why we don't take a moment to think through the pros and cons of, say, jumping out of the way of an oncoming car, or we'd be toast. We just automatically do it.)
Sometimes we're able to run away when someone tries to sexually assault us. Sometimes we can fight or scream, but often that isn't the best survival strategy because that can escalate life threatening violence and retaliation. And so, it's a really bad idea. Or maybe it's so ingrained in us to be a "good girl" that screaming doesn't even occur to us, especially if the assailant is someone we know, which is most often the case.
Much less talked about are the survival responses of compliance and appeasement. Those have saved many a life, and thank God for that. I hope all of us have access to those survival strategies, if needed. To judge those last two as "weak," or decide a survivor is partly to blame because they were compliant or appeasing, or to insist you'd do [fill in the blank] were someone sexually assaulting you, is preposterous. Maybe you would and maybe you wouldn't. Again, our nervous systems automatically kick into gear and do what they have to do to survive: fight, flee, comply, appease, or even all-but collapse or "play dead." In this instance, you might totally check out, go passive and limp to get through it. And so, you barely remember what happened, cognitively, but somatically you sure as hell know. Again, hooray that our nervous systems have that survival strategy available, too!
Then there's what happens right afterward. You might not go to the police (especially if you're part of a group that has historically been oppressed by them). You might not call a rape crisis center or a friend. Maybe you laugh uncontrollably, disoriented, incredulous at the surreal thing that just happened. People anxiously or disconnectedly laugh at horrible things that have happened to them. I see it all the time in my practice. Maybe you go back to a party, ignoring for the moment what just happened. Maybe you go shopping for dinner. "Everything's cool. Yup, all normal. Just fine." Maybe you pick a huge, screaming fight with your partner in an unconscious effort to fend off the feelings of vulnerability. None of that is "weird" or unexplainable. You're in shock. Your nervous system hasn't had near enough time to integrate or process what just happened. You're on auto pilot. You might do things that seem to make no sense. But they do if you understand trauma.
Given all these layers and sequelae of trauma, I get why many survivors never come forward. It's a big risk. Once your story is out there, it's out there. Even supportive people tend to look at you through the filter of: The One Who Was Raped. On the stand, E. Jean Carroll talked about what happened after she publicly accused Trump: "Oh. My God. The force of hatred coming at me was staggering." That onslaught is, again, more trauma on top of trauma. So is, potentially, Trump's lead counsel Joe Tacopina's line of questioning about Carroll not screaming as she was being sexually assaulted. "He raped me, whether I screamed or not. I don't need any excuse for not screaming."
Indeed, she doesn't. I can't say this too many times: Wondering or questioning why Carroll didn't scream or run or why she laughed or soon went back to work shows a total ignorance of trauma and how nervous systems work. We can't override evolution as much as we might try. Full stop. I get that in a courtroom you need a jury to believe you, but generally you don't need to justify anything to anyone. If people don't believe you, that's about them. And their ignorance or fear or discomfort.
As Carroll has, many do come forward years or decades later. Again, the accusatory cries of, "Why didn't she come forward earlier?" are absolutely uninformed. Maybe that's the time your nervous system needed to work through the trauma be it via trauma-informed therapy or self-exploration or gardening; or maybe the perpetrator finally moved or died; or maybe enough time has passed where your family is able to be supportive and not abandon you for calling out your uncle; or maybe enough is enough and you just can't stay silent a day longer. Many finally felt the validation and the safety in numbers of the #MeToo movement that allowed them to come forward. All the doubting questions ignore that in 2023 we still live in a patriarchal culture. It's a culture that continues to judge and shame and doubt and blame women for their sexual assault, or those questions would never be asked in the first place. And when other genders get assaulted, that comes with its own kind of judgment. And if you're a person of color, add another layer on top of that.
It can take a huge amount of bravery and fortitude just to get up and face a run-of-the-mill day after such a disorienting, devastating experience that robs one of a sense of safety no matter where you are because your body is the scene of the crime. Confronting a perpetrator requires its own kind of bravery. I can't pretend to imagine what it must be like to do it on the national stage.**
E. Jean Carroll and the millions of sexual assault survivors deserve our respect and support. They deserve our empathy, but never our pity. To all the sexual assault survivors out there, I see you. I believe you. And even if at times it feels all-but impossible to access, know that you're resilient beyond measure.
*If you're triggered and need support and/or resources, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE (4673); or go to www.rainn.org.
**If you're a survivor, please hear this loud and clear: You are NO less brave if you don't confront your perpetrator. That is a deeply personal decision and sometimes it's the very best, smartest, and most strategic and self-caring decision to never, ever call out your assailant. Trust that.