Posts Tagged With: sexual abuse

Why people do the things they do, for better or for worse

This post has been bubbling under the surface for a while, but it’s been hard to figure out how to really put it into words. However, a reader recently contacted me about a shame she had been holding in, and though I may not have been able to complete my thoughts on this, I think that it is important that I get this out. This is a post about why people make the moral choices they do. This is an explanation as to why people do some very good things, and why people decide to do some very horrific things. Originally, this was meant to try to get people to look inwards at their own actions, words, and choices, But now I am hoping it can also help people to let go of the shame that they may be taking on.

To ask the reason for an action is deceptive. The assumption is that there is thought process involved, that the reason involves reason. We like to believe that we use a sophisticated logic to carefully control the decisions we make. But the truth is the contrary: we make decisions based on emotion, not logic. This emotional decision making was uncovered in the research of Antoine Bechara and Jonathan Haidt. Bechara’s research on individuals with a specific brain damage that inhibited emotional expression showed that without emotion, even the most basic decisions were also inhibited. Haidt’s work showed that people make moral decisions first and then add logical explanations afterwards. According to Haidt, certain actions are encouraged by the “moral elation” done by the decision, and inhibited by a “moral disgust” against the decision. The decisions we make are dependent on the emotional weight we give them, not the logical weight. A decision is encouraged if there is an emotional reward, and discouraged by the emotional revulsion. Logic can play a part, but only in that logic can change the meaning that trains emotion. Ultimately the decisions are emotional. The reasons people report are developed as an afterthought.

But what does that really mean?

When a person decides to do something, the decision is based on their anticipated emotional response to the act. An act is not caused by a reason, but rather the person acts according to how they think they will feel after the act. Two people can face the same screaming child, for instance, and have totally different responses. People can slap the child, not slap the child, or beat the child viciously.  The option they choose depends on their emotional reaction to the concept of hitting a child. A person who feels a sense of wrongness, disgust, or revulsion to the idea of hitting a child will do anything they can to not hit the child because they know they will feel horrible after striking the child. A person without this disgust will be more likely to hit the child to get the response of quiet they want because they will not anticipate feeling bad about hitting the child. But a person who feels a sense of reward over exercising power through abuse will not only be more likely to hit the child, but will look for reasons to hit the child because they anticipate feeling powerful and “good” after striking the child. So when it comes to whether or not a particular person will hit a child, it has less to do with the actual screaming of the child, and more to do with the person’s feelings about the action of hitting the child. The person may talk about styles of discipline, but the prime motivation behind the action is that emotional response. Similarly, two people can see the same child with a spilled ice cream cone and decide to either buy the child a new ice cream or keep walking. The person who stops and buys the child a new ice cream cone either anticipates an empathic reward for the generosity or a sense of revulsion of leaving the child in that state of suffering. The person who keeps walking lacks that sense of revulsion for allowing the suffering to continue and does not share that same anticipated reward for helping. Again, any explanation give for the choice is an add-on.

This principle of decision making is extremely important when seeking to understand sexual assault motivation and where the blame needs to be placed. A person rapes another person because the rapist lacks the emotional disgust associated with the act of rape, and gets an emotional reward from the act of the rape. It does not matter what a girl was wearing or how much she had to drink, because a non-rapist would feel revulsion towards the act of having sex with the woman without consent, and the rapist will not only lack that same disgust, but will feel as sense of reward from it. The decision to rape lies not in the circumstance or the victim, but in how the person feels about the action of the rape. A woman could be passed out, naked, and spread eagle, and where one man could have the overwhelming urge to violate the woman, another man would have the overwhelming urge to cover her up and make sure she stays safe. And when a person has no revulsion to the act, but gets a reward from the sense of power, they will seek out a victim to rape based off that anticipated reward. The only victim characteristic that plays a factor is availability. If the one victim were not present, another one would be sought out.

For the readers who are taking on the shame for their abusers, I am hoping that this explains why no fault lies with you. Your abuser was primed to abuse someone before you came along. They just happened to find you first. It was not about your clothes, your body, what you were drinking, what you said, etc. It was about the abuser’s own feelings about the actual behavior that constituted abuse. Had you been dressing or acting the same way around a decent person for whom the idea of such an abusive behavior was abhorrent, you would have been left alone, and had you not been there, the abuser would have found someone else.

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People may lie, Symptoms Don’t

I’ve been following the controversy surrounding Woody Allen and Dylan Farrow. Even though I have the limited information of the case that everyone else has who has been reading the opinions and articles has, there are some very clear facts that cause me to believe in Dylan’s reports. Mainly, her symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD.

People accuse rape victims of lying all the time. It’s an easy way out. Accuse the accuser, create doubt, and you can make sure there are no punitive actions. Add in society’s already prevalent “blame the victim” attitude, and the disturbing reality that most rapists don’t themselves believe their actions constituted rape, and you have an environment where the victim is put on trial more than the perpetrator.

Now false allegations do happen. But despite what rape apologists and deniers would like to believe, the actual percentage of allegations that turn out to be false is extrememly low, between 2% and 8%. Factor in the fact that 60% of rapes go unreported, and you see how really misguided it is to accuse the accuser.

But if that isn’t enough for you, if you still think the factors of celebrity and divorce still complicate the issue too much for such an easy conclusion of Dylan’s honesty, then let me point out that while, yes, people do lie, symptoms don’t. Dylan’s speak a truth.

**For those readers who may have histories of thier own, I am about to repost segments from Dylan’s own letter to the New York Times. I will try to put it into clinical perspective. For many you may find this helpful, but for others, you may find it triggering. You know yourselves best, continue or leave according to your own best judgement. **

Dylan describes the constant fear of their abuser children of sexual assault experience. “I didn’t like it when he would place his head in my naked lap and breathe in and breathe out. I would hide under beds or lock myself in the bathroom to avoid these encounters, but he always found me” She describes the terror his face still invokes, “Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.” She describes how she would escape her body during the abuse by focusing on objects in the world around her, objects which now also trigger the memories of the abuse. “I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.”

This fear and avoidance are characteristic of trauma. The actual event is one that is too overwhelming for the person. They must find an escape, any escape. Dissociation is not uncommon, and that is what Dylan reports doing. She couldn’t run, she couldn’t fight, so she left her body by focusing her awareness on her brother’s toy train. She did what she could to survive a violation from a man who was physically stronger than her and an authority in her house. The resulting scars were very distinct. Any reminder, whether it be the face of the man who attacked her, or the train her mind fled to in the actual rape, sends her into a panic.

But the scars don’t end there. “I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself.” The flight from her abuse was so severe, that any man’s touch triggered her horror. But on top of that, there was the cutting and the eating disorder. Today these problems are seen as worrisome teen fads. But the truth, for the people who are serious about harming themselves these ways, both cutting and eating disorders are desperate attempts to regain control of a life and world that for them is perpetually out of control. Cutting is done in response to overwhelming emotions. The physical damage causes endorphins to release while the actual experience of pain distracts the person from the uncontrollable emotion. Eating disorders are fundamentally about control; they can’t control anything else in their life, but they can control their body, down to the point of dangerously denying themselves the otherwise instinctual and self preserving need to eat.

But what if she is making up and lying about  her symptoms? Or what if her mother just put the idea of the abuse in her head, and the symptoms came from that?

Again, symptoms don’t lie.

With PTSD, the fear and anxiety are visceral. They aren’t remembered as a horror in the past, like one would if they were recalling a scary movie. Normal memories start in the short term “now” memory, get processed, small details get discarded, and finally get stored in the long term memory. With trauma, the event is too overwhelming to be properly processed. Because of this, the memory actually stays in the short term storage area. Every little detail, down to the bodily sensations felt, are still there. Every smell, every sound, and every pain inside and out, are sitting in the short term memory, and when the memory is triggered, it is all perceived as still occurring in the moment. The physical, bodily nature of these symptoms make them near impossible to realistically fake.

And if her mother had somehow put these ideas in her head (the letter addresses this and reports the opposite), the symptoms would be different as well. When a person is made to believe something that did not happen happened, the memory is stored differently. Because the event did not actually occur, it did not spend any time in the short term memory, and could not get trapped there in the visceral manner of a real traumatic memory. Such a form of gaslighting could cause one to develop the secondary symptoms of the cutting and eating disorder, because gaslighting makes a person call into doubt their own experience of the world, and is traumatic on its own. But when it comes to the memories imposed, they will lack that visceral element, because there was no touch or smell to experience. There will be no flashback, because there is no actually memory trapped in the short term buffer to re-experience.  In short, you can’t react the same way to a memory that isn’t really there.

We are very quick in this culture to decide the guilt or innocence of an individual. All to often, though, when it comes to sexual assault, the person we rush to judgement about is the victim of the crime. But if the studies and the statistics on the reality of allegations are not enough to convince you, take a moment to listen to what they have experienced since their attack. Watch the terror in their eyes as they re-experience the crime, listen to how their breathing changes as they struggle to hold off the panic, and note how they disappear from the moment as the past reasserts itself into his or her life. You will know the truth, because their symptoms won’t lie.

Then notice the monster you have become by forcing them to go through that horror once again.

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