I recently attended a truly inspirational and passionately delivered talk by Zoe Lodrick on ‘Dynamics of Power and Control’. Zoe is a Sexualised Trauma Specialist and has expertise in sexualised trauma, domestic abuse, victim behaviour, sex offending and in the interviewing of victims of sexual crimes. Zoe is a recognised expert on human behaviour/response when faced with a threat/perceived threat, particularly sexual.
Brain science explains why victims go back for more abuse and get stuck in toxic cycles of behaviour, why rape victims have few, if any, physical injuries and why teenagers are more vulnerable to control and exploitation by adults who are exploitative, sadistic, psychopathic or have a warped perception of reality. This explanation alleviates any victim blaming because it explains when we are under treat we do not use our logical thinking part of the brain, we use the part that gives automatic behaviour response for survival.
We have survived as a species due to the part of our brain sometimes referred to as our lizard brain (the lower brain), this part that reacts to stimulus without ‘thinking’ time. Thinking and analysing takes place in the cortex (the higher brain) and our learning, emotions and some behaviours are stored in the limbic part (the middle brain). In Darwinian terms our ancestors that may have used precious time to think about if they were facing friend or foe would more likely have been killed, therefore not survived to pass on this trait to the next generation. Our quick reacting ancestors instead survived each ‘here and now’ moment, until here we all are today in this moment. We are alive as a species due to our non-thinking, quick reacting lower brain.
Our thalamus (lower brain) detects a threat through our sensory organs and this information is immediately passed to the hypothalamus which pumps us full of chemicals and oxygen ready for a quick behaviour response to the threat. In a split second information is passed to the amygdala (middle brain) which is a key component in our responses, and it includes our fear response, attachment, early neural pathways and emotional experience. The amygdala is only concerned only about survival and the here and now, not future events. The thalamus simultaneously passed sensory information to the hippocampus and cortex (higher brain) which takes longer to react and relay findings back to the amygdala. If the threat has initiated a fear/terror response in the mean time, this will effect the higher brains thinking as oxygen needed for this function has already been dumped in the body ready for a bodily response. Our responses include:
- FIGHT (physical fight, verbal fight, which includes saying ‘no’)
- FLIGHT (hiding, backing away, running) These are active responses
- FRIEND (our earliest defence strategy – attachment)
- FREEZE (No movement, muscles freeze) These are passive responses
- FLOP (Compliance, muscles can flop, hippocampus/cortex severely impaired, speech/sound impaired, perception of time, disassociation)
Our amygdala tries the active responses first and if its not successful it will switch to passive responses, attempting freeze before flop. Our flop response which results in our body yielding is the amgydala’s way of increasing our chances of survival, in being compliant it attempts ‘attachment’ its primary concern and secondary in keeping the body ‘physically intact’ as the impact of the threat is now likely. Which explains why in many rape cases, there are no physical injuries to victim or perpetrator, why victims ‘do as they are told’ and why this compliance could look like consent to any witnesses.
If our active responses work in response to surviving a threat we are less likely to become traumatised than if we have had to resort to passive responses. We are also more likely to be traumatised if the threat is of human design, such as domestic abuse, sexual exploitation or rape. Whichever successful response lead to our survival of the threat now becomes the amygdala’s first response should the same threat occur in the future. This means, if a victim went ‘Flop’ and survived a rape, he or she is more likely to go straight to this ‘Flop’ response should the threat of rape occur again. This is not logical (higher brain), but survival (lower brain) and this part overrides everything in the brain.
As babies, our first primary strategy of survival was to attach to our primary care givers, for us to turn out as relatively healthy adults they only had to be ‘good enough’ parents, to get it right and meet our basic needs most of the time. Not all of us had this experience, which can leave some of us more vulnerable than others. There are some people ready to exploit this vulnerability. Teenagers are more vulnerable because they don’t have the experience of age on their side, a common lie to parents to get themselves to a house party where there are alcohol and drugs which they try. Lying to safe guarding adults doubles up as a bind to keeping more secrets. A young adult is present at the teenagers house party, mixing up drinks. A 15 year old waiting for the toilet by themselves with mates downstairs is approached by this adult. They say ‘no’ (fight) to kissing advances made, that doesn’t work; the teenager moves backwards away from the adult (flight), the adult moves towards them and continues to kiss them; they say ‘please don’t’ (friend) and this fails as the advances become sexual. They freeze, the sexual assault doesn’t stop. The teenager is asked to go into the bedroom which they do (flop). They take their clothes off because they are asked to, and they are raped, the adult goes to the bathroom. Logically you may think this is the point the police are called?
Remember that part of the brain isn’t functioning. the perpetrator is in the bathroom next door, the teenager is in fear response, attachment is primary concern and they do nothing. Instead the teenager gets home and parents are none the wiser. Two days later at school, a text message ‘Hi sexy, Sat night was amazing. Ill meet you outside school at 330, Ill be in a silver Mercedes’. They have been logically trying to work out their behaviour at the party ever since Sat and now receive a text that is confusing because that’s not the behaviour of a rapist is it? Rapists flee the scene of the crime? Fear and excitement can often get confused in teenage minds. Rapists don’t call you sexy do they? They don’t arrange to come and pick you up in their nice car? So perhaps they are dating then? One part of the teenager thinks about telling a teacher, but the fear response to the threat outside of school in a few hours has kicked in and overrides that part. They are additionally bound by secrecy and lies. The amygdala’s successful response was flop, so they get in the car, off to another party. Drink and drugs are offered and compliantly taken. This party is different, there are a lot of adult men here and only one other teenager. The two of them go off into the bedroom and rape occurs again. The adult leaves, but this time another ones comes in and rapes her. Then another. And another. Back in the car they stop for a milkshake and they arrange to see each other again. The teenager is terrified. Confused. Ashamed. Guilty. They can not logically explain why they acted the way they did so how can they possibly explain to anyone else? This is how easy it becomes for a teenager to end up being sexually exploited.
Our lizard brain is good at survival, but not at being logical, not thinking about the future or what compliant behaviour may ultimately lead to. It only takes 4 days for attachment to occur from a victim to a perpetrator, this leads to trauma bonding or Stockholm Syndrome where victims can start protecting the perpetrator, taking on their beliefs and resisting any ‘rescue’ from others. This is why victims of domestic abuse stay for more of the same, they do not want to prosecute; the amygdala’s ‘attachment’ is of primary concern in any fear situations. That attachment may look abusive to the majority of people, but remember this type of attachment may be familiar and therefore ‘comforting’ depending on our early experiences. It can take up to a year of no contact between victim and perpetrator to begin to disengage from the trauma bond. Understanding our human brain and how it works, helps provide the logic of why we behave how we behave in threatening circumstances and why we can continue to behave the same way if presented with a similar threat. This knowledge can give us strength to help us step into our own power.
This knowledge can help professionals working with those who have been abused to understand how deep rooted this behaviour is. Why asking a victim to sign a piece of paper to say they won’t behave a certain way is pointless and why perhaps the attention needs to focus on the perpetrator in terms of injunctions and restrictions to prevent them contacting the victim. Professionals are better to provide consistent, unconditional positive regard to support victims and in this way help them discover healthy attachment in relationships and re-route their neural pathways.
“Victim blaming can be harder to deal with when you are doing it to yourself” – Anna Valdiserri