Experts say socialization can affect how women deal with sexual assault
Published Thursday, February 11, 2016 8:17AM AST
Former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi arrives at a Toronto court on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
TORONTO -- The Jian Ghomeshi sexual assault trial has focused a lens on the conduct of the three women complainants in the case who continued to have contact with the disgraced broadcaster in the aftermath of the alleged incidents.
But experts say the behaviour isn't all that uncommon and speaks to how individuals come to terms with traumatic events as well as broader issues of female socialization.
"I think it's really important to know that people who have not had a shocking or traumatic experience are actually not good at predicting how they would react to such a situation," said Charlene Senn, a social psychologist at the University of Windsor who specializes in gender studies.
Reactions to trauma vary greatly, as does the time it takes to fully process and work through the emotions linked to the event, she suggested.
"There really is no right way to respond or one way of responding."
Three women, including "Trailer Park Boys" actress Lucy DeCoutere, have alleged that in separate incidents in 2002 and 2003, Ghomeshi assaulted them without warning during romantic moments.
During cross-examination by his lawyer, all three admitted to having contact with him following the alleged attacks.
DeCoutere even sent him a fawning email and expressed regret that she hadn't had sex with him just hours after he allegedly choked and slapped her, court heard. A third complainant testified that she saw Ghomeshi again, and masturbated him, in a subsequent encounter days after he allegedly attacked her.
Ghomeshi has pleaded not guilty to four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. The 48-year-old former host of CBC Radio's "Q" acknowledged in 2014 that he engaged in rough sex acts, but said it was consensual.
Data suggests about 70 per cent of sexual assaults occur in someone's home and involve a person known to the victim. They are often related to social occasions like parties, dates or a gathering of friends.
"All of those things about the context and the person set up a situation in which danger and fear are completely unexpected," said Senn.
"So it's not when you're walking through the underground parking lot, as women have been taught to, with your keys in your hand and at the ready .... This is the opposite of preparation. This is where all of those preparatory kinds of feelings and thoughts are totally submerged because they should not be needed."
When a sexual assault occurs, often the immediate reaction is to try to make sense of what happened, explained Senn.
"And people in the process -- and this is not unique to women -- often doubt their perceptions and doubt themselves in that shock situation," she said. "And many of their following behaviours and thoughts are trying to get clarity or trying to understand it.
"So things that might look nonsensical to an outsider make sense within that moment and within the time period afterward when you're trying to make sense of it."
Toronto clinical psychologist Lori Haskell said anyone who experiences a sudden sexual assault can experience what's called "cognitive dissonance" if their previous knowledge of their attacker does not mesh with the reality of such assaultive behaviour.
"Initially, people can't really integrate the reality that someone they care about and feel attracted to has just created a physical threat," she said.
Haskell believes that many women, in large part because of societal expectations, also worry about displeasing or losing a romantic partner, which takes "a higher psychological priority than acknowledging their own sense of discomfort and anger and violation."
"I think that's deeply ingrained in women's socialization."
Such gender-based psychological underpinnings often mean that women will be "nice" in situations of conflict, added Senn, often putting the other person's feelings first and valuing and prioritizing the relationship over their own safety.
"It's really important for heterosexual women to have relationships with men, particularly romantic and sexual relationships," she said. "That is valued in the culture, and young women are taught that that is a very important thing in their lives."
Catherine, who asked to be identified only by her first name, knows how powerful a motivator that can be.
At age 16, Catherine was at home alone with a boy from school she'd been dating for few months, when he suddenly dropped his pants and forced her to perform oral sex -- an act of unexpected violence that left the sexually inexperienced girl not only sickened and angry, but also confused and traumatized.
Yet after the incident, she continued to go out with the older teen, who was part of her circle of friends at school, even had sex with him a couple of years later before he went off to university and subsequently moved overseas.
"He would always call me and I would just acquiesce to his wishes; I didn't factor myself in," said Catherine, now in her early 40s.
"I did have good times. He was funny, he made me laugh. So those times kind of overpowered me. I guess I was looking for that kind of happiness in my life, so I hung onto his good qualities and they were able to put aside the ugly nastiness of what I had experienced with him."
About 10 years ago, Catherine ran into her high school boyfriend when he briefly returned to Toronto for a vacation. "We really hit it off. I thought, 'OK, maybe he's grown up."'
He sent her a plane ticket so she could visit him overseas, and after a couple of months they had decided to make it a permanent arrangement. She returned home, quit her job and packed up her life.
"I did what I did when I was a kid. I just went with it."
But when she returned, Catherine discovered he was involved with another woman, and his behaviour towards her had become somewhat abusive.
In the years since, she has come to learn through therapy that by continuing to connect with him after the sexual assault as a teen, she was trying to "right the wrongs in my life" through a psychological process called "traumatic re-enactment."
"I didn't have all the necessary tools to make sense of it," she said. "I realize I was doing the traumatic re-enactment to get a different outcome, to elicit a different response so I could come away from the experience feeling better -- but it backfired."
Catherine is not surprised to hear of other women reacting in a similar manner as she did towards her attacker.
"My experience ... forever changed me. And I'm still unravelling all the pieces and putting them in order."