I was eight years old when I was coerced into acts that haunt me to this day. The boy was older, bigger, enjoyed his status as my senior, and took advantage of being given the responsibility of looking after me to satisfy his sexual curiosity at my expense. Only it wasn’t just sexual curiosity between two minors; I was confused, horrified, transfixed by disgust, and made to feel complicit because I accepted my reward of soda. The first time.
The following occasions, he didn’t need to reward me because he already had me captive in the guilt and silence that pass as complicity.
Harvey Weinstein didn’t pin down all his victims, in fact, some of them willingly got in their car and went to meet him. Just as I walked down the garden path to the shed where I was abused as a child. Just as I obeyed when Harvey called me into his hotel bedroom.
One of Harvey’s victims endured nine months of being sexually abused. She was a 21-year old student, he was a movie mogul in his sixties. She has chosen to stay anonymous because of the judgment and cruelty that is unleashed on those who fought back or escaped (“stop whining” “career advancement” “why did you allow yourself to be alone with him?”), imagining quite rightly that there would be even more scorn and shame for the women who didn’t respond according to some imagined universal code of self-defense but instead submitted.
When you are in danger, there are four possible survival responses. Two of these are driven by the release of the hormone cortisol, which readies your body for the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ reactions glamorized in the bust-ups and car chases of action movies. Less well understood is the ‘freeze’ response. This is what happens when an older, more primitive part of our biology takes over. If fight or flight are not an option, our nervous system shuts everything down and prepares us to become prey by releasing the body’s natural painkillers. The ‘circuit breaker’ in our brain switches off communication between different parts of the brain and we end up viewing the event in slow motion, or from an out-of-body perspective, or even not remembering it at all. This is called dissociation – a natural response of the brain when it is threatened with overwhelm.
I was eight years old when I was coerced into acts that haunt me to this day
As children, when we experience adults using their power over us in a harmful way we don’t have many options. It would be foolish to fight someone much bigger than us, and we don’t have the means to run away. Faster than the rational, thinking part of our brain, the primitive brain makes a rapid calculation of the odds and defaults to ‘freeze.’ If this happens often enough, freezing becomes our hard-wired response. I froze when Harvey revealed himself naked and started pawing my shoulders. I froze when the boy did things to me in secret that still make me shudder.
The fourth survival response is called ‘fawn’ or ‘friend,’ which is driven not by cortisol, but by the ‘tend and befriend’ hormone, oxytocin. Women release oxytocin after childbirth and during breastfeeding. It is the hormone that creates the ‘warm and fuzzy’ feeling just being in proximity to someone you love. Both sexes produce it, but unlike men, women release oxytocin when under stress. This is why women are more likely to pick up the phone and reach out to their support network. Women who have experienced childhood abuse – especially emotional abuse – were found to have higher levels of oxytocin.
This does not produce the hearts and roses kind of bonding, but a deep emotional enmeshment that is designed for one thing only – to keep us alive. You may know this as ‘Stockholm syndrome.’ We begin to identify with the abuser, even to believe that they are our friend.
If a child is deprived of maternal love, there is a permanent decrease in the production of oxytocin. A predator zeroes in on this. His or her attention at first is flattering, fulfilling a need for being seen and valued. The ‘grooming’ is, in actuality, a boost to the oxytocin levels and can be addictive, especially for someone who has not experienced a safe, stable nurturing relationship with their childhood caregiver. It is one reason domestic violence victims often return to their abuser. It is not a real choice – the victim feels degraded and afraid – but the ‘trauma bonding’ is the closest thing they’ve ever known to love.
When you are in danger, you don’t get to choose which survival response kicks in. What’s more, your childhood does a good job in conditioning you both in terms of which response gets hardwired and in making you oblivious to danger cues. And if your boundaries are constantly violated as a child – physically, sexually or emotionally – what practice do you have in setting limits and protecting yourself?
I was not pinned down by Harvey and I was not pinned down by my childhood abuser but both cases were most certainly an assault on my body and a violation of my right to safety and dignity. We need to educate our children on how to protect themselves, and the first step is for adults to respect children’s bodies, their feelings, and their rights. We also need to educate the sanctimonious critics and casually cruel commentators on the complex psychology of victimization because it is not well understood… except, of course, by the predators.
Here is part of my response to the young Harvey survivor after she shared her story:
“Some people may see your situation and think that as an adult it was different for you and you could have called a halt to what was going on, but given the difference in age, size, and more importantly, power, it reminds me of myself as an 8-year-old. Your mind can’t quite seem to make sense of what is happening. You go along, feeling more and more guilty and responsible as it progresses, aware that you are being manipulated into doing something you don’t want to do, and yet there is a part of your brain that is trying to adapt to and rationalize the situation – you are spending so much energy in seeing the room the right way up after it’s been turned on its head it’s almost as if you don’t have any extra brain cells or force to react to what is happening physically. I think of a woman standing in the street turning in circles after the thug has snatched her bag. Is she to blame that she doesn’t run after him or call for help? Is she complicit because she didn’t wrestle to keep the bag from him?
My abuse was not a one-time incident either. If you don’t protest or report what happened, the abuser knows he has you. Now you share the secret and he will drag you further down the path by making you feel complicit. The adrenaline of being engaged in something illicit makes you feel sick, disgusted, shameful but also charged. He senses the charge and uses it to create an unwanted intimacy where you are both now engaged in something the outside world would not understand. He has duped you into thinking you are equally responsible and willing when actually your stomach turns and your poor frozen soul shouts ‘No!’
Does that sound familiar? I feel so bad for the 8-year old me, and the 21-year-old you, and again the 28-year-old me whose brains were desperately trying to process abnormal circumstances and find the correct way to respond. There was no correct way to respond – it shouldn’t have been happening in the first place! We have gone from being victims to survivors because we have at least figured that much out.”
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Louise Godbold is the Executive Director of Echo, a nonprofit that serves trauma survivors through workshops, parenting classes, conferences, and educational materials as well as training organizations in how to create trauma-informed workplaces. Louise has also worked in the nonprofit field tackling issues such as homelessness, HIV prevention, and substance abuse.