• In the wake of #metoo, it's time we stop asking, "Why didn't she just say no?" about women who've been sexually harassed or abused. (Getty Images)
There are evolutionary drivers at play that can stop women crying for help or telling a perpetrator to stop.
By
Kimberly Gillan

27 Feb 2018 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2018 - 11:24 AM

Ever since women around the globe started sharing #metoo stories, there's been a lot of talk at dinner tables and in the media about the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse.

It's horrifying to realise the extent of the problem, and I am gobsmacked by how many of my own contacts have their own story to share.

But amongst the shock, I keep hearing – often from men – 'But I don't understand why she didn't say no' or, 'Why did it take her so long to talk about it?'

Such questioning implies victims are only speaking out to manipulate or get attention but this conjecture ignores basic biology, which wires us to stay silent or submissive when under serious threat.

It's something I experienced firsthand when I woke in the middle of the night to discover a man rubbing his penis on my bare feet in a hostel in Rio de Janeiro.

I'd love to tell you that I screamed, kicked him in the balls and turned on the light so that my sleeping bunkmates cottoned on to the creep that was violating me. But I was literally scared stiff and acted on auto-pilot, scooping my feet into the foetal position and throwing my sheet over my head like a six-year-old playing hide and seek, while he masturbated in the middle of the dim dorm room. 

I'd love to tell you that I screamed, kicked him in the balls and turned on the light so that my sleeping bunkmates cottoned on to the creep that was violating me.

I stayed frozen in that position all night and as soon as the sun rose, gathered my things and left, feeling shaky but also ashamed that I didn't have the guts to publicly shame him for his predatory behaviour.

Sydney-based psychologist Melissa Podmore, who works with trauma victims, says curling in a ball is quite textbook for this sort of assault, and we see it in animal models all the time.

"When a dog is trying to play with a possum that is appearing lifeless, the dog will give up and walk away – and the possum has saved its own life," Podmore tells SBS Life.

"It's a completely primal, ingrained behavioural mechanism, and an incredible resource for survival that needs to be re-framed as being extremely intelligent."

When women are being sexually assaulted, Podmore says they will typically try to get away but there will come a point where they feel trapped and if they keep fighting, they risk being seriously hurt or killed.

"When they freeze or even cooperate, it's not because they've colluded with the attacker, it's because they're going into this brilliant defense strategy that keeps them alive," she says.

"You don't want to add any agitation to a situation that is already quite out of control."

It was a real relief to hear that my automatic instinct wasn't silly or childish but actually a survival mechanism that may very well have protected me. After all, the hostel was full of dodgy looking characters (the reputable one I was meant to stay at had double-booked me so sent me to this shady dive) so who's to say the man didn't have a weapon? 

They may have been conditioned to feel that this is what you have to put up with to get ahead in life.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, Podmore says an individual's emotional history – and subsequent brain wiring – can lead them to stay mum.

"They may have been conditioned to feel that this is what you have to put up with to get ahead in life," Podmore explains.

"Or if the victim has seen her mother being dismissed by her father repeatedly, she may have normalised that."

Ultimately, Podmore says that society's constant questioning of "Why didn't she stand up for herself?" is very unhelpful.

"There's a lot of simplifying [with] a complete lack of emotional intelligence and realising how complex these traumas are," she points out.

"A lot of our responses are not anything to do with our consciousness – it's a completely primal, ingrained behaviour mechanism."

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