Trigger warning: This article contains details of sexual assault.
Recently, while speaking to a friend about an incident of sexual harassment that I had faced, my friend asked me, “Why didn’t you stop him?”
The question arose from a place of concern; my friend was distressed to learn about the lingering trauma that the incident had caused. To be honest, I have felt guilty myself about not being able to stop him. And while she wasn’t exactly victim-blaming me, haven’t we all read comments and heard questions as to why the victim didn’t do anything to stop the assault?
In most cases when the person who has been abused comes out with their story, especially if some time has passed since the incident, online spaces are filled with retorts like this. This can have an effect on the victims, many of whom tussle with the question themselves about what they could have done differently to stop the assault from happening, only to end up victim-blaming themselves.
The #MeToo movement opened the floodgates on numerous incidents of sexual harassment that people of all sexes and across all genders have faced – especially women and trans persons. The entire movement was driven by online support, and in India, more than 100 people have been called out in #MeToo posts so far. What the movement stood to reveal is how prevalent sexual harassment and assault is, so much so that most women have internalised it as a part and parcel of their existence and survival.
But not everything was just smoke and no fire. The #MeToo movement kickstarted a much needed conversation around the roots of sexual harassment and how to prevent it. While one fraction of society simply lives in denial, another fraction encourages women to take up arms – women are actively advised to carry pepper sprays in their purse, the safety-pin trick used in over packed buses is passed on to the next generation, self-defense lessons for women are gaining traction, apps that send distress signals to the nearest police station and the family member of the person under threat exist by the dozens; there are even “anti-rape” shoes.
But are such solutions actually productive? Have the number of rapes gone down? Statistically, a rape case is reported in India every 15 minutes.
Then again, some of you might argue, what’s the harm in doing all of this while we keep trying to change our inherent sexist and patriarchal upbringing in a bid to end the prevalent rape culture? Wouldn’t it help women be able to take on their attackers better?
Also read: But Why Was She Wearing That?
Science has an answer to this. According to a report published on Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ACASA), the brain of a person who is being assaulted recognises sexual assault as a highly traumatic event, which in turn signals the brain to release a series of hormones in the person’s body. Among these hormones there are three – catecholamine, opiates and corticosteroids – that play a major role.
The catecholamine initiate the fight and flight response in the person but at the same time they impair the rational thought mechanism of the person, which justifies why the pre-anticipated response to a distressful situation assessed during a calm state of mind would be deeply affected when in actual distress.
The second hormone, that is opiates, act as a natural morphine, which blocks all physical and emotional pain. This also goes to justify why some people when recounting the incident later do so in a very mechanical way.
The third hormone, the corticosteroids, is released in humongous quantities which shut down the energy flowing into the body initiating them into a “tonic immobility”. Tonic immobility, in certain cases, causes muscular paralysis, which is characterised by the inability of the person to move during the attack. This study also shares that 12% to 50% people experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault.
So while it might sound like a progressive stance to encourage women to carry weapons for their safety, it actually is not. This is once again a tactic to push the onus on the women for their own safety. Instead of demanding gender sensitisation training for young children, sex education and a reformation in the upbringing of the male child, what we once again reiterate alongside victim blaming, is that society’s not changing, so we better take things in our own hands.
The onus of stopping harassment and rape cases fall solely on the shoulders of the perpetrator, and celebrating one or two cases where the person fought back their harasser for their presence of mind and control over their own body, is not a benchmark for other people to achieve and replicate.
To conclude, if an average person’s body naturally responds to sexual assault by causing the entire body to shut down or enter into a muscular paralysis, how will that person have the presence of mind to take out the pepper spray or knife to fight back, or even send a distress signal?
Violence is never a full-time solution to gender-based violence, especially in a society that is deeply-rooted in a patriarchal narrative that commands everything a woman should do and shouldn’t do, while at the same time, doing nothing or little to stop the hegemony that men have over the bodies and spaces that women inhabit in all spheres, be it private or social.
So, “why didn’t I stop him?”
Because I am not supposed to be put through such a situation in the first place. Maybe we should instead start asking, “Why did they feel entitled to do it?”
Neha Agarwala is currently a Master’s of English Student, and a Freelance Writer, whose side business is to help make the world a better place.