This mornings news revealed new details about the " The Belfast Rape Trial", now that the offical court case is over. In one line of questioning, the defendant's barrister asked of the woman involved, "why didn't she scream the house down?" This implied that she couldn't have been raped because she didn't cry out for help. I'd like to speak to this, both from my life experience, as a woman and therapist, and how it relates to women in general, especially on the theme of dissociation and disempowerment..
Dissociation is a term used within psychology, to describe how our nervous systems respond to threat and danger. It emerged from the research of Dr Peter Levine, who for decades studied the way that animals in the wild respond to threat- the so called " fight/ flight/ freeze" response. These ancient evolutionary responses in animals are similar to how we humans respond to threat and stress- we are the human animal. Travel far enough back in time, and once we too were the living in the wild, chased by predators, with the same protective and rapid responses hard wired into our nervous system to help us to escape danger or death.
These ancient responses underly our behaviours today as much as in our past. Think of moments of stress, where you are late perhaps for a meeting; how your heart races, you may sweat, your pace picks up, and your senses become more acute- this is the " flight" mode of the nervous system. Or, how within seconds, road rage can erupt between two previously calm, civilised drivers in London city centre- this is " fight" mode.
Freeze, or dissociation, is another such response. In the animal kingdom if a creature can neither fight or run away, it will immobilise and " play dead", in order to both convince its attacker that its already dead therefore less likely to be mauled in a chase. The animal " dissociates" or its consciousness leaves its body to some extent so that it will not feel pain. In humans, it's a state of feeling spacey, outside of oneself and outside of an experience; it often leaves one voiceless and powerless, as the nervous system shuts us down from sensing and feeling. If we can't physically go, we find a way to "leave" inside ourselves. " I was frozen stiff with fear" is a common saying that reflects this state. We detach from reality, lose our sense of self and what's good for us, suffer from memory loss, fragment and disengage from both ourselves and what's happening around us.
Fight and flight are two responses which are available to us when we feel empowered and able to take action. Freeze, or dissociation, is the last choice available. It is the oldest of the nervous system responses, traceable to the ancient reptilian brain, which comes online when the animal/ person is left with no other choice. It is the remaining hope of survival of the terrified and the disempowered. None of these responses are within our conscious control, especially when in threatening situations.
In my own life, through years of therapy and self-discovery, I've come to learn that I lived most of my adult life in a state of dissociation. This ranged from either mild to overwhelming, and was something that I was totally unconscious of. I just knew that I could tense up, feel voiceless, numb, frozen, "scared stiff" for no apparent reason . It deeply affected my ability to be myself fully. Attached to this were feelings of shame, a lack of self worth, and low respect for myself.
This response may be traceable to many things; being brought up in the North of Ireland, in a society terrorized by civil war; being born a woman in a culture which was dominated by men, who were sometimes caring and loving, but sometimes mysognistic and abusive towards women, as so disturbingly seen in the comments of the 4 men on trial. Developmental and birth trauma, being brought up around alcoholism and depression. So many unseen ways can create a traumatised person, who yet may be walking around seemingly functioning in society. I was that woman for many years, until I began a process of healing.
Within our culture, layer upon layer of unspoken, unacknowledged cultural conditioning impacts on each person's sense of self, and this also happens on a nervous system level. Men, as much as women, are prisoners of cultural programming, which send messages of how to believe and behave. Men under patriarchy are told that they have to be strong, and that to express feelings is a sign of weakness, something that tragically can contribute to to a huge rate of suicide and mental health problems.
The particular messages given to women are that men hold the power, that we must adjust how we look and behave in order to please them. Only recently have women literally come out of the home, one that was owned entirely by a man. Economic, political, and even spiritual power, lay in the hands of men. We were considered the property of our husbands as much as the house, without the means to earn for ourselves. It's clear to see that for generations, our physical and even spiritual survival depended on men. Again and again as women we have been told that we are not equal to, are dependant upon, and must be subservient to, men. It has deeply undermined our ability to be fully empowered. For many women, our "go to" response is dissociation. It is not just a once off state, but for me was my day to day experience; an on-going state of being distant from myself, from my truths, from my self worth as a woman. To have been disempowered for so many centuries means that there has been a loss and degradation of sense of self. To stand in our power in genuinely dangerous situations, can be as hard for some women as a deer taking down a lion
Transport now to a bedroom where a young women is alone with 3 physically powerful males, in a home that belonged to one of these wealthy men. Given the knowledge of how our nervous systems respond in situations of percieved threat,it does not follow that the young woman involved would be able to " shout the house down". To suggest that she was culpable and complicit because she did not cry out, misses the biological realities of how we seek to protect ourselves in times of threat- through the fight, flight, freeze response.
The dissociative state also means that someone's memory of events will also be hazy, disjointed, or even their behaviour and words seem strange or have an unusual tone, as they actually are not and have not been "present" enough either in the situation or within themselves. The way that our court systems are set up, absolutely do not take account of this. The women involved in this case was repeatedly accused of not being consistent in her information, or or having a joking tone in her text messages, which was all used as a way to undermine her position- either she's making it up, or not actually been seriously affected. I am not saying that I know the truths of this horrific situation. But I do say, that the very legal system by which we are governed, and which ultimately creates outcomes for those who come forward in rape cases, promotes a notion that unless you are rational and logical in your case, you will lose. Unless you call out for help, you must be lying.
Our legal system tends to judge and make absolute rights and wrong, with no shades in between, an all or nothing outcome. It also operates along aggressive lines, where someone who believes that they have been raped is subjected to the most appalling questions. It's not my wish to judge what was true and not true; only to question the norms under which our society operates.
My call from the heart, is that we go beyond judging, to educating.
Given the cultural history of patriarchy that makes up the lived reality of every man and woman in this country, where women have been stripped of power and taught to be pleasers and subservient to men, where men are taught to suppress their feelings, sensitivities and vulnerabilities- how hard can it be sometimes, to find our true voice? This is the patriarchal system under which we have lived, that I deeply believe wounds men as much as women, as it denies us both the possibilities of true equality, and therefore true respect and true connection.
In Ireland, can we begin to look at the conditions that surround a tragedy, and ask, where has this come from, and how can we learn from it? How are men and women alike imprisoned by misogyny and patriarchy, and how can we create a more enlightened, conscious, and compassionate society? Where does education need to happen in our schools, that goes beyond the academic, to teach mutual respect and understanding, especially in the areas of sex, intimacy and relationships?
My prayer is that, we may bring light to the dark places, and find ways to heal, and grow..
" The answer to the problem of suffering is not away from the problem but in it. The inevitability of pain will not be met by deadening sensitivity but by increasing it, by exploring and feeling out the manner in which the natural organism itself wants to react and which its innate wisdom has provided". Alan Watts.