Fight or Flight…or Freeze?

When I wrote the post on Juan Gabriel I did some digging into his life. He was very private but it was obvious that he felt it was important to help orphans as he knew first-hand what it was like to live in an orphanage. It blew me away how much he helped. I would have thought it was too personal and too painful for him to work so closely with other orphans. He even opened up his own orphanage in Juarez, Mexico. I guess everyone reacts to trauma differently but his actions and his passing inspired me to get involved personally with a matter that still brings a lot of pain. I decided to start volunteering at a center that helps people who’ve suffered from domestic violence and sexual abuse. I’ve just started training and my final day of training is tonight but as soon as I walked in I felt “this is exactly where I need to be”. There’s only 2 other times that’s happened to me and both times the decision to go with that “I belong here” feeling has brought me a lot of fulfillment.


However during training I’ve realized some of the harmful ways we perpetuate cycles of sexual and domestic abuse. Even I, a self-proclaimed feminist, realized that I have to check the deeply ingrained culture that keeps these crimes in the dark. In training we’ve talked about how we’ve created these ideas of what men and women should behave like and how that hurts us. We’ve talked about victim blaming, we’ve talked about why victims don’t leave, we’ve talked about prevention and we’ve talked about causes. All to say that although there were many times I felt great about how I can support the people that come to the center, it also made me realize that sometimes like the rest of society, I sometimes fall into traps of victim blaming.


It was made acutely aware to me when we started talking about slavery, as one of the root historical causes for this culture of rape and violence. The moderator went on to talk about how today it is estimated that there are more slaves due to human trafficking than there were during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Read that again. THERE ARE MORE SLAVES TODAY THAN THERE WERE DURING THE SLAVE TRADE. I mean my jaw dropped. I know sex trafficking exists, I know it’s a problem in the U.S. not just those countries over there but I had no idea how huge the problem really was.


Along with everything we had talked about up to that point I realized I too sometimes blame the victim. I’m not proud of it but I’m getting ahead of myself.


Months ago I fell across a show on Netflix called La Promesa. I watched the first episode and I was hooked and needed to finish the season. It takes you through the journey of different women and focuses on three protagonists, Frida, Ana, and Seleni. How each one of them was tricked to leaving their home countries to become sex slaves across the ocean, and how they start to rebuild their lives after a very suspenseful investigation to rescue them. We follow each of their stories of deception, fear, defiance, and strength. All three of them work together to make it home safely.


I remember while watching the show that the one I most empathized with was Ana. She lived with her mom and her mom’s boyfriend. Ana’s mom seemed threatened by her own daughter and wouldn’t believe her when she came out to say that Crisanto attacked her and was always pursuing her. Then when she decides to leave their house with her boy she meets a family that is very willing to help. They become the boy’s Godparents. The Godfather has a way for Ana to go to Spain working as a maid so she can find her husband and make money for her sick son. Long story short the Godfather knew he was sending her to do sex work and ends up stealing the boy after she’s gone. I empathized with her the most, she was especially vulnerable and without resources. When the Godfather puts this offer in front of her it’s like the heavens are answering her prayers.


I can’t say I had the same kind of empathy for the other 2. Seleni had a home, a job, and albeit an absent father but a loving boyfriend and caring grandmother. I remember being angry that she wasn’t more skeptical, even though she was only 15.


And then there’s Frida. She was forced into a marriage with the boss of the hacienda her family worked on, meets Fermin (the ringleader) online and falls in love with him. She sneaks out and leaves to Columbia with him. Fermin’s intent the whole time was to trick her into becoming a slave. She was tricked just like everyone else. But I didn’t feel as much empathy for her watching the show. I wasn’t angry that she left her husband, I was angry at how faced with the reality she kept begging that she didn’t belong there and didn’t lash out at her captors. I was angry when she had so many opportunities and didn’t try to leave.


There’s two problems here. First the feeling that the two girls brought it upon themselves for not being more vigilant and aware. The second problem is how I expected the girls to react. Specifically Frida. She wasn’t the strong, yell and beat back her oppressor’s type of heroine I wanted her to be. But that’s because of some of these deeply ingrained stereotypes we have about women and how they should act to prevent violence towards women and how they should react when they are the victims.


In training we talked about how there are actually three reactions to stress. Fight, Flight, Freeze. We only ever talk about the first two but the last one happens a lot more than we think. Freeze may have been the reason Frida wouldn’t leave.


We also talked about how no two women will react the same. We think that every woman who experiences rape or some kind of sexual or domestic violence that she will be sobbing and inconsolable. Not the case. Everyone reacts to trauma differently. In fact the brain releases oxytocin after traumatic experiences to try to help the person cope with everything going on. It’s a survival mechanism. So the victim may seem calm and like nothing happened. But that doesn’t mean that the abuse isn’t real.


We focus more on how women react than have open dialogue about the cultural structures that allow a culture of rape, human trafficking and domestic abuse to prevail.


Like the hacker who brought to light an Ohio rape case that was covered up by the school officials whose facing more time than the rapists who committed the crime.


Or how Stanford is creating a campus alcohol policy that controls how much alcohol a student can have in their procession (less than a fifth) rather than making policies to address that they are the college with the highest amount of sexual assaults in light of everything that happened in the Brock Turner case.


We ask what was she wearing and how much did she  drink, and why didn’t she cry after it happened rather than looking at how the only person we need to be interrogating is the perpetrator.


And it starts by realizing our own biases. I fell into the same patterns of victim blaming as I watched La Promesa. We have to realize that those ingrained beliefs about how a women should or shouldn’t act is what perpetuates this type of violence. And I hope that you learn to challenge your own biases as well so that instead of having a rape culture we can have a culture of empathy and safety for all.


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