Short Take: Fight Or Flight Or . . . Whatever

In an article with a really well-crafted headline, “The Provability Gap,” and a trigger warning, “Warning: This story contains descriptions of sexual assault.” some detectives in the Austin Police Department explain why cops get sexual assault wrong. Beyond repeating the usual debunked stats that reporters effortlessly embrace, the story is an homage to “trauma-informed” policing.

The Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice defines trauma-informed care as identifying and limiting potential triggers to reduce retraumatization. In other words, it’s a form of sensitivity training.

“If you don’t understand how deeply personal the crime of rape is, then you don’t need to be doing this work,” said Elizabeth Donegan, a 26-year veteran of the Austin Police Department and former head of the APD Sex Crimes Unit.

This is simultaneously true and outrageously false. There may be no crime more personal than rape, and there may be no victim in greater need of sensitivity by police than a rape victim. But what remains buried under the sensitivity is the initial question: Did a rape occur?

The “trauma informed” approach is not to ask, not to question, but to believe. To question whether a victim who claims to have been raped was in fact raped is to retraumatize her. Nobody wants to retraumatize a rape victim, but then the question of whether she’s a rape victim is never probed. And if there’s a rape victim, there’s a rape perpetrator, but if there was no rape, then the man falsely accused is the victim. Who is the victim would seem to be a critical question, but “trauma informed” policing says it’s the woman and should it be the falsely accused man, too bad, so sad. Take a bullet for the cause, guy.

But the article introduces a new phrase to the lexicon of excuses.

“Most people think that if you experience a rape, or an attack of some kind, that people are going to run away or they’re going to fight back, but that’s traditionally not true,” said Kristen Lenau, co-founder of the Survivors Justice Project.

For more than a decade, Lenau has been working with people who have been affected by violence and trauma. She says victims tend to experience rape as a life-threatening incident, which means they will have some sort of survival response. This includes flight, fight or freezing.

The survival response of “fight or flight” has long been documented in medical scholarship. But if two “F’s” are good, aren’t three better?

“People will do what they need to do to survive,” Lenau said. For women, in most cases “that means a sense of tonic immobility, or a freeze response.”

Not only does this validate “tonic immobility,” claimed as a neuro-biologically proven phenomenon, although it’s not, but it’s now happening “for women, in most cases.” Not for men. Not sometimes. And it’s riding the coattails of the long-established and conclusively proven “fight or flight” response by the creation of this cool new phrase, “flight, fight or freezing.” Since the first two words are accepted, how easy is it to slip a new third word in there, especially when it’s alliterative, and who doesn’t love alliteration?

This isn’t an argument that no one freezes, or that freezing isn’t a possible reaction to trauma. It may well be, even if it’s now “proven” by anecdotal evidence and a social science study designed to prove its existence masquerading as neuro-biology. But trying to turn this shiny new third “F” into not merely another all-purpose excuse to rationalize away any and every act and omission, but a predominant reaction, serves only to further bastardize the problem.

False rape accusations may be as high as 64.7% (and possibly higher, but it’s impossible to say), even though the lie that it’s below 9% continues to be repeated. The rationalizations, such as good memory proves guilt as does bad, wrong or no memory, such that there is no fact, no failure, that disproves guilt on the part of the accuser now has a new phrase: “flight, fight or freeze,” adding another layer to the excuses that prevent objective determination of whether a horrific crime has, in fact, occurred, and whether the real victim in any particular case is the falsely accused.

10 thoughts on “Short Take: Fight Or Flight Or . . . Whatever

  1. B. McLeod

    There must be some perception that The Terror is losing steam. Hence, some politicized, junk “science” to see if it will rev up “believe the vicitim.”

    1. SHG Post author

      Don’t know if that’s true at all. Has there been any shift in campus culture, feminist culture, social justice culture? I haven’t really seen it.

      1. Scott Spencer

        Not sure how relevant this answer is so…..

        Anyway, I have been working in Higher Ed since the late 90’s. While I generally have not been involved in Student Affairs, i was trained to be a Title IX investigator back at the beginning of this whole shit storm.

        It’s been my anecdotal experience at the last three schools I have worked at the university communities (staff and students a little more so than faculty) care much more about retention, costs, and student learning than they do about the culture that we see in the news with some regularity.

        Students want to graduate and get working and figure out how to pay for it. Staff wants to facilitate graduation and collect a check. Most of the faculty want to teach and then complain about having to teach. There is always one or two faculty and students that make some noise. My current place just created a Social Justice Studies program. It has one current student (out of about 2500 undergraduates total). Faculty approved the program because the sponsor was obnoxious and they just wanted him to shut up (seriously). Now we could argue about the value of a BFA in Dance (318 current majors) or Theatre (303 majors) but those students actually come to school, work, and learn a trade of sorts.

        Anyway, back on track I hope. I think there is a very loud and vocal minority that is unfortunately directing the conversation towards the bullshit. Example: There was a protest through town in support Antwan Rose back in the Spring. The streets through my campus (directly in the path of the protest) were markedly empty of students. It was mostly the addicts from the methadone clinic and some random tourists on the sidewalk. Class was in session so that’s where the students were. I suspect, anecdotally of course, that the students at the other schools I have worked at would be in class as well. They don’t particularly care to engage in shenanigans on a daily basis. They are trying to get by like the rest of us.

        That doesn’t mean that they don’t have opinions. Theoretically they care about all kinds of things, but their lives are full of getting through the day to day.


        1. SHG Post author

          The question is about campus culture. There was always a minority of vocal radicals and a majority of students who just wanted to get their degree and enjoy life. But the former framed the culture for the latter. Have the non-radical kids seized back control of campus from the radicals? Are white kids now able to throw luaus and eat burritos in sombreros at fraternity parties, or are they still constrained by fear that they will set off one of the screamers?

          And to be fair, most non-radical kids buy into most of the social justice notions. Even if they’re not particularly radical about it, the believe it.

          1. Scott Spencer

            Ah, sorry didn’t really hit the answer there. Where is my “FOCUS!”

            Anyway, I think that overall campus culture has evolved. What I mean is that through a natural progression/evolution the events that we took for granted (siesta at the frat house or toga party) have for the most part faded away. It’s not on the minds of these students anymore. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

            It’s annoying at times for us old fold. I got my hand slapped for using the word “chick” in conversation with a female subordinate, but I did not take it as PC gone awry, just a changing of the times, so to speak. My grandmother used words that have been acceptable during her time, but would definitely get her in trouble today.

            Maybe it’s me. I have been at two pretty conservative Catholic colleges and one school with a Conservatory, so you have built in cultures that are definitely not Oberlin on one side nor Moody Bible Institute on the other.

            I just don’t think there really has been as big a problem with campus culture as we sometimes think there is. We hear about the Harvard’s because it helps drive the story that colleges are out of control. There are how many thousands of colleges in the US? Most never make headlines. I don’t think we should paint all of them with the wackiness of Harvard, Yale, Oberlin or UCLA .

            Hope that helps? Or least does not make people stupider.

            1. SHG Post author

              Much of what comes across my radar is the product of Title IX punishments, which unfortunately aren’t limited to “the wackiness of Harvard, Yale, Oberlin or UCLA,” but low-tier colleges across the midwest. What’s interesting is how the overnight climate change of five years ago is now relegated to evolution five years later. Wait long enough and it’s no longer a paradigm shift, but the new normal.

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