“You not only didn’t scream out, but you started laughing?”
E. Jean Carroll was asked this question by Joe Tacopina, the lawyer representing Donald Trump, in her sexual assault trial against the former president.
Unfortunately, Carroll isn’t alone. Taylor Swift endured similar questions in her 2017 sexual assault lawsuit against a radio host. “The first thing they say to you in court is: Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you react quicker? Why didn’t you stand farther away from him?” Swift said in a 2020 documentary. And this line of inquiry isn’t new. Then U.S. senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming asked Anita Hill the following question 32 years ago when she accused Justice Clarence Thomas of repeated sexual harassment: “If what you say this man said to you occurred, why in God’s name would you ever speak to a man like that the rest of your life?” The credibility of each of these women, in the minds of many, was undermined by their lack of action and their muted reaction, even though these reactions are typical responses to sexual assault.
The attack on Carroll’s credibility didn’t end after a jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation to the amount of $5 million. When the same defamatory attacks continued unabated after the verdict, Carroll asked the court to reopen her case and grant her an additional $10 million.
More than 460,000 sexual assaults or rapes occur every year in the U.S. That’s one nearly every minute. But less than 3 percent of alleged attackers ever see the inside of a jail. Why is this number so low?
The reactions of observers play a huge role. In the courtroom and in the public mind, hearing others question one’s lack of reaction is a far too common second assault faced by people who were sexually assaulted. Indeed, they may feel they must defend their inaction to be believed. As Carroll said, “He raped me whether I screamed or not.” Swift articulated this suspicion as well. “I just think about all the people that weren’t believed and the people who haven’t been believed or the people who are afraid to speak up because they think they won’t be believed,” she said at a concert in 2018.
My colleagues and I call this condemnation of passive victims a form of “double victimization” of sexual assault.
We can solve this double victimization problem—legally, educationally and psychologically—both in the courtroom and public sphere. But first we need to understand why it happens in the first place. Part of the problem lies inside the heads of juries and the public at large: from the distance of a jury box or our couch at home, most people believe they would immediately fight back when sexually assaulted. But research tells a different story: it’s rare to stand up. People think they will flight or flee, but most of them freeze instead—sometimes out of shock, other times out of fear. Or they try to brush it off or lower the temperature by smiling or laughing.
Consider this groundbreaking 2001 experiment by Washington and Lee University’s Julie Woodzicka and Yale University’s Marianne LaFrance. They had a male interviewer pose three sexually harassing questions to 25 women during an interview for a research assistant position, such as “Do people find you desirable?” and “Do you think it is important for women to wear bras to work?”
What did the women do? Nothing. Not a single woman challenged the questions. Not a single woman left the interview. Not a single woman reported the incident. Each and every one answered all three sexually harassing questions. This experiment shows the dominant reaction when faced with sexually abusive behavior is to freeze.
Legally, we need to take seriously the fact that most people don’t push back in the moment. And it’s imperative to recognize that highlighting inaction in the face of assault becomes an indictment in the courtroom and in the public mind, calling into question the validity or the severity of the assault. Defense attorneys should be barred from asking questions about the type and amount of action that people who have been sexually assaulted took in the moment. They are not diagnostic of whether an assault occurred and, as a result, they are purely prejudicial.
Educationally, we need to teach people how their imagined robust reactions don’t correspond with the reality that most people respond passively. Statistics demonstrating the prevalence of the freeze reaction need to be promulgated far and wide. A meta-analysis involving 69 studies, 102 treatment interventions and 18,172 participants found that educating people about the realities of sexual assault not only improved their factual understanding but also reduced their tendency to victim shame and buy into wrong and dangerous rape narratives.
Psychologically, we need to appreciate how this disconnect between imagined and actual responses to sexual assault sows the seeds of double victimization. When Woodzicka and LaFrance asked 197 women how they would respond to those same sexually harassing questions during an interview, the vast majority confidently proclaimed they would tell the interviewer off, leave the interview or report the interviewer to a supervisor. And they said they definitely wouldn’t answer the questions.
But again, that’s only from a distance. From the security of the jury box or the comfort of our homes, it seems unfathomable that someone would suffer sexual abuse and do nothing. And when we see people do nothing, we condemn that reaction and question their credibility. In further research led by Kristina Diekmann of the University of Utah, we found that the more women said they would actively confront the interviewer in the sexually harassing job scenario, the less likely those women were to recommend a hypothetical job candidate for the position who had responded passively.
Experience offers hope. Psychologically, when people reflect on their own memories of freezing or nervously laughing when threatened, they’re less likely to condemn and more likely to support people who have been sexually assaulted. In our research, when we had people reflect on their own passivity in the face of intimidation, they became less critical of passive victims. Those who recalled their own instances of inaction were more forgiving of sexual harassment victims who took no action: they had a better impression of the candidate and thought she would make an excellent employee.
E. Jean Carroll, like Taylor Swift and Anita Hill, was doubly victimized by skeptical reactions to her passive response to Donald Trump’s sexual assault. By legally, educationally and psychologically confronting the reality that most targeted people freeze in the face of sexual assault, fewer people will suffer, like Carroll did, this second violation.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.