“But why didn’t she fight back?” (How we still put rape victims on trial.)

This past summer saw the painful local trial of a man who was accused of kidnapping a woman from a shopping center and holding her captive in his boardinghouse for 26 days. During that time he sexually assaulted her repeatedly. Finally, on a cold winter day, wearing only a shirt, she bolted outside and was able to flag down a passing delivery van and escape to safety.

At the man’s trial, the woman was the main witness for the prosecution. And the defense lawyer worked hard to portray her as a willing partner in all of this. She was no prisoner, the defense claimed. In fact, the lawyer said, she wanted to be there. His main argument in support of this position was that if she had been so unhappy with the situation, why hadn’t she fought back? Why hadn’t she attempted to escape earlier? Why hadn’t she tried to shoot the man with that gun he owned? Suddenly, it was her actions, her choices that were being put on trial.

Judging the woman. I understand that in order to prove the charges, the prosecution had to establish that the woman was being held against her will. But it strikes me as extremely unfortunate that even to this day we still have a justice system in which the victim’s choices so often become our focus.

Let’s take a moment to ask ourselves a few questions: What would we do in that situation? What would we do if someone used a weapon to kidnap us, then held us captive for over three weeks, and sexually assaulted us repeatedly while he continually threatened to kill us and/or our family? It is all too easy to declare: “Well, I would just kick him in the nuts and then run away!” However, the reality is that unless we ourselves have faced that situation, none of us can truly say what we would do.

But while it is not possible for most of us to predict how we would respond when faced with such an overwhelmingly stressful event, I absolutely believe that no one else can ever be in a legitimate position to judge the choices that we made in that situation.

During the trial, when the woman was cross-examined by the defense, she was eloquent and firm in her responses. She heroically refuted the repeated defense allegations that she had stayed there voluntarily as the man raped her over and over and over again. I greatly admire her strength.

At the same time, just knowing that she had to testify about that issue makes me feel ill. And it makes me feel an increased level of disgust for a system of justice in which a lawyer can still so easily turn the tables on a rape victim and attempt to make the whole issue about her choices and her behavior.

Not the first time a survivor is attacked for her actions. Watching the press coverage of the trial reminded of the infamous case in Texas in 1993 wherein a man entered a woman’s bedroom with a knife, clearly intending to rape her. Knowing that a sexual assault was inevitable, the woman requested that the attacker put on a condom. The first grand jury that was empaneled to hear the case refused to indict the man, believing that the woman’s request meant that she had been a willing participant. Her fellow citizens had judged her for the choice that she made to try to limit the harm she was about to face – when all that she was trying to do was just survive.

Befriending an attacker. Not only is the questioning of women’s reactions to being assaulted offensive to me on a visceral level, but it also reveals that we have an extremely male-centric view of how women are supposed to behave when they are being assaulted.

High school biology class clearly taught us that the standard human response to encountering a threat is:

(all together now)

“Fight or flight!”

(According to this theory, when faced with a threat, you either get ready to fight or you run away.)

But it turns out that “fight or flight” is not so much the typical human response as it is the typical male response to stress or threat. Many females, it turns out, have another way to go, called “tend and befriend.” (See http://www.apa.org/monitor/julaug00/stress.aspx) When faced with danger, many women will reach out… either to others who are also being targeted, or to the attacker himself. Some theorists believe that women developed this pattern of response because when you have a baby in your belly, or in your arms, or on your hip, you can’t very well fight and you can’t very well run off. So the best thing to do is to try to make friends with the person who has come intending to harm you.

Others who have explored this issue take a less evolutionary approach and focus more on the fact that we socialize girls into being friendly, cooperative, and compliant, rather than aggressive and violent.

But regardless of whether this response is more the result of nature or nurture, it is a highly creative approach to dealing with life’s threats. Of course most women can run, and most women can fight, but they also have this third path open to them. One that seems extremely adaptive.

Adaptive, that is, until one has to deal with the criminal justice system, and has to face an endless stream of police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and juries who – because they assume that the typical male response pattern is the only legitimate one to follow – all want to know why you didn’t fight, or why you didn’t fight harder, why you didn’t run, or why you didn’t run faster.

This is justice? The man in Texas was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In the local case the man was sentenced to 18 years in prison. So both men got long stints in the joint. But the things that these men did to these women will have life-long consequences. The woman who requested that her attacker put on a condom said:

"It is anyone's ultimate nightmare to confront an unknown, knife-wielding assailant in their home, where you're supposed to feel safe. The terror is indescribable and unfortunately will never end. It is something I will take to my grave and so will every member of my family."

And the local woman who was held captive by her rapist for over three weeks told the court:

"He took away my self-respect and dignity. My whole life has been consumed with what happened to me. I was a carefree woman before ... that has all changed."

What these men did changed these women’s lives forever. And as a society we then subjected both of these women to a system of “justice” that considers it entirely appropriate to question, analyze, and ridicule the actions that these women took and the choices that these women made as they tried to survive their hideous ordeals.

And there’s no justice in that.