In July 2014, an anonymous woman published a non-fiction comic titled ‘Trigger Warning: Breakfast‘ illustrating her experience of being raped by an acquaintance. That night after being assaulted, the author allowed her rapist to sleep over. In the morning, she cooked him breakfast — medium-well eggs, a golden-brown toast and extra-crispy bacon.
‘Trauma’ occurs from singular or lasting events that are physically or psychologically harmful. While the DSM-5 considers trauma responses as indicators of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, psychotherapists have begun understanding them as adaptive survival instincts in the face of danger.
Trauma-informed clinicians now use a ‘Four Fs Model of Psychological Trauma’. This includes the four responses to trauma— fight, flight, freeze and fawn. ‘Fight’ involves self-preservation through conflict i.e. yelling, kicking, etc. ‘Flight’ is when a person tries to physically flee the danger. The ‘freeze’ response is passive; it causes immobility. Finally, ‘fawn’ involves seeking safety by accommodating demands of the person inflicting the trauma through flattery and niceness. The belief sustaining this response is, “If I appease this person, I will be safe from more intense danger.”
As for the comic’s author, she fawned by giving into her rapist’s sexual demands, and pleasing him by cooking breakfast.
Since research around the fawn response is in its nascent stages, it is debated whether ‘fawning’ is a result of relatively low levels of testosterone and adrenaline in women, making it less likely for them to use the fight response, or social conditioning since women learn to be accommodating and tend to emotional needs of men instead of resorting to violence. What we do know is that since 85% of the subjects of trauma studies till 1995 were men, who are evolutionarily more likely to display fight or flight, these two have become a cultural truism.
Biophysiological or culturally learnt, there is consensus amongst trauma-informed psychotherapists that fawn is a protective mechanism which deserves to be honoured. This is because fawn is the most complex response to trauma that involves monitoring the aggressor’s behaviour, and adapting to the situation to avoid escalation. Fawning is the body’s way of maintaining a sense of safety and agency that traumatic experiences destroy. The author’s fawn response involved having an out-of-body experience where she did not say no, enjoyed the sex, and had a romantic relationship with the man. In doing so, she imagined a world where she wasn’t a victim, where she was still in control of her body and, by extension, her life.
The comic is also interspersed with notions of the ‘ideal victim’. The ideal victim continuously verbalises her non-consent, bites and scratches the assaulter, and yet is virtuous, weak and docile. Unfortunately, by not recognising her fawn response pattern, the author falls prey to this mentality. Evidently, in her writing she refers to herself as a “bad victim”, an “unsympathetic protagonist”, and “not broken in the way [victims usually are]”. She lists out traits like spitting, cursing, and biting – which victims are ‘supposed’ to display – concluding that since her responses were on the opposite end of the spectrum, she did not qualify as a victim.
The implications of how victim behaviour and trauma responses are understood go beyond academic discourses to determine the outcome of sexual assault cases in courts. For example, in India, countless instances have been documented within the last decade wherein survivors/victims were asked why they sat in the abuser’s car after being assaulted instead of calling the police, if they screamed during the rape, if they scratched the accuser’s back, and how much time did they spend with the accused after the event.
In cases where women have fawned, courts have dismissed allegations because the survivor/victim did not meet the ‘ideal victim’ prototype. Although a 2015 study revealed that 94.3% of reported rape cases in Delhi are acquaintance rapes where women are afraid to actively resist the rapist due to fear of being killed, there is no empirical data revealing how likely women are to use fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses.
Conducting further research on women’s tendency to use the fawn defense mechanism will thus help in preventing victim-blaming, distilling rape myths and in revolutionising our criminal justice system. Once we solidify that there is no normative way to respond to trauma, only then will women, like the author, stop being haunted by the question of why, sometimes, they end up making their rapist breakfast.
Rhea Khandelwal is a recent high school graduate who aspires to become a traveller, writer and research psychologist.