She had been brought up to make the people around her happy and comfortable

Zoskia Beliski at the Globe and Mail talks about the way women’s training in being polite and agreeable can interfere with their ability to stand up for themselves.

I didn’t want to seem frosty and I didn’t want to seem mad.

That was complainant Lucy DeCoutere during her time on the stand last month at the sexual assault trial of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, who faces a verdict Thursday. Asked to account for why DeCoutere had stayed at Ghomeshi’s house for an hour after he allegedly slapped and choked her, she explained that she had been brought up to make the people around her happy and comfortable, to “foster kind thoughts” with a “pleasing personality.” She said she’d been raised to be polite to a host – even an allegedly violent one, apparently.

The bar for being acceptably polite is in a different place for women compared to where it is for men. It takes very little in the way of defiance or refusal for us to be called bitches or cunts.

It’s been documented time and again by psychologists and counsellors who work with assault survivors: in reaction to trauma, many women will do things they later regret because they felt somehow compelled to “be nice.” It’s a bit of social conditioning – be deferential, fix problems, avoid conflict at all costs – that keeps women uniquely vulnerable as they recriminate themselves for things that aren’t their fault. Even though no one but rapists are to blame for rape, many women carry their pacifist conditioning over into the aftermath of sexual assault, especially when they know the attacker: Maybe I’m overreacting? Maybe I misinterpreted? Maybe it was me?

And it comes as a surprise to women who react that way.

If the reactions of the three complainants frustrated viewers of the Ghomeshi trial, they are also often a surprise to victims themselves: “As I say this now, it’s outrageous that I stayed and did not leave but that was my reaction,” DeCoutere told the packed Toronto courtroom in February.

“Many victims struggle to explain their own behaviour. We need to remember that until they were assaulted, they probably held all of the same myths about sexual violence as many other people,” says Nina Burrowes, a London-based psychologist who helps victims of sexual abuse.

“When you live your life assuming this will never happen to you or if it does happen, you’ll scream, fight and run away, it can be incredibly confusing when you experience the reality of abuse and find yourself reacting in a very different way.”

I can imagine that so easily – reacting like a wimp or a damn fool and then being confused as hell, since that’s hardly how I like to think of myself. In my head I’m a Woman of Steel but in the real world I’m not so metallic. I’m a great one for thinking “Well I wish I’d handled that differently.”

How to undo the conditioning that compels women to “be nice” at all costs? After all, minimizing doesn’t protect sexual assault survivors from experiencing long-term trauma.

One way? Feminism.

Bystander intervention, Jaclyn Friedman, author and podcaster, says: “We have to stick up for each other. When we see each other doing this kind of thing we need to say, ‘Hey, you know you don’t owe it to that person to be nice.’”

Psychologist Nina Burrowes, says we need to get better at hearing and responding to disclosures of abuse: “It can be massively empowering to help victims understand their own behaviour and their own reactions. Until they do they can think that they are weird, mad, or to blame.”

For Deborah Sinclair, a Toronto psychologist, the answer lies in feminism: “I try to raise my daughter differently and with all the women I come into contact with, I really encourage them to speak up and stand up for themselves. But they’re going against a lot of training. I was raised as a ‘nice Catholic girl,’ too.”

That’s “gender identity” for you.

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