Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
For many women, their value is tied up in being a peacemaker, in being a fixer of problems, in being “nice,” even at a cost to themselves (Michelle Thompson For The Globe and Mail)
For many women, their value is tied up in being a peacemaker, in being a fixer of problems, in being “nice,” even at a cost to themselves (Michelle Thompson For The Globe and Mail)

How politeness conditioning can lead to confusion about sexual assaults Add to ...

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.

Her admissions upset onlookers who couldn’t reconcile DeCoutere’s behaviour with her allegation of assault. Rather than the charges themselves, what the three complainants did after became the focal point of both the trial and much of the surrounding discussion: the staying, the intimacies, the e-mails. Didn’t they know better? some wondered. Where was their self-respect?

But other women understood it very well, recognizing the complainants’ self-destructive behaviour as their own.

For many, their value as a woman is tied up in being a peacemaker, in being a fixer of problems, in being “nice,” even at a cost to themselves. “I’ve done this,” these women said. “I’ve stayed.” “I’ve even made breakfast for the guy.”

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?

Amanda Dale, who is executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence, says that this peacemaker programming is lifelong and “like a gauze over everything we do,” so that women don’t even notice its effect half the time.

“We are taught from a very young age that the most important thing to do is to be nice and carry on and keep everyone connected. There is no form of violence against women where there isn’t an element of this. We create these expectations of girls and women, and then we turn on them,” says Dale, referring to the collective exasperation of the public toward abused women who stay or those who remain connected to assailants they know.

Why this frustration toward imperfect victims like this? Deborah Sinclair, a Toronto psychologist who works with trauma survivors, says we judge victims based on hypothetical assumptions about what we’d do if faced with a similar situation.

“‘If this had happened to me, I would never have’ – and then they finish the sentence,” Sinclair says. “Until you have the experience of being in that situation, often you don’t know how you’re going to react. So much depends on how you grew up and what you’ve been exposed to.”

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.”

For many victims, behaving passively or even warmly afterward is also about self-protection: rearranging a bad story in your head into something less traumatizing. Survivors often don’t want to see what happened to them as sexual assault, nor do they want to label men they know as abusers or rapists.

“It may be too much to deal with the actual fact that someone we know, someone we love, someone we care about, someone who’s been deemed a nice guy or a good guy, can hurt us,” says Farrah Khan, co-ordinator of sexual violence education and support at Ryerson University. “Sometimes to make sense of things and to feel safe, we instantly go to that place of trying to make it better, to appease and to befriend the person who’s harmed us.”

Jaclyn Friedman, a Boston-based author who hosts Unscrewed, a podcast about sexual equality, says she’s met many victims who have never spoken about their experiences as sexual violence because they just didn’t want to think about it all that way.

“It’s a lot to take in, that someone has done that to your body,” says Friedman, a sexual assault survivor who now speaks on college campuses about rape culture.

“Sometimes, in the moment, it’s less painful to convince ourselves that we made a poor decision and shouldn’t blame whoever did it because we don’t want to internalize the violation. You then reach for the niceness training as a way to express this denial. Especially as a woman, blaming yourself is really familiar. That script is super handy.”

---------------------

Combatting conditioning

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.

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.”

Amanda Dale, who is executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence, says we need to question some of the bad habits that take root in childhood, such as parents repeating to kids that they be “kind” all the time or compromising their physical agency by forcing them to hug relatives and friends when they don’t want to or teachers who ignore sexual bullying in the classroom.

“There’s no reason to expect that kids can produce a difference all on their own if we don’t provide some guidance, critical thinking and support,” Dale says. “It’s going to be a complicated process of undoing.”

---------------------

What happened next: three women speak on the lingering aftermath of assault

As told to Vanessa Milne, Special to the Globe and Mail

Rebecca, 25, student, Vancouver

I had been sick for about a week, and I hadn’t spent much time with my boyfriend. When we finally got together, he initiated sex, and I refused, as I still wasn’t feeling great. He became angry, berating me for refusing and guilt-tripping me for not being around that week. I didn’t feel like I had any control over the situation. He didn’t outright threaten me, but I felt afraid and helpless, so I stopped resisting.

Immediately after, I remember crying, and feeling sick, confused and scared. He was equally confused. He asked me “What’s wrong? Why are you crying?” I couldn’t articulate it. Within days, the relationship was back to normal, although in hindsight, he had a very controlling personality. We eventually broke up because we both went back to school, and were at different points in our life. The breakup itself was quite amicable.

We went our separate ways, and stopped being in contact.

I didn’t realize what had happened was really rape, because it had been done by coercion, not a scary man in the alley.

He was my boyfriend. It was in his home. I loved and trusted him.

For months, I had a weird gut feeling whenever I thought about him and our relationship. Nearly a year later, I watched a film where there was a scene of a man angrily shaming his wife into sex. That’s when I realized that had happened to me, and it wasn’t okay.

For days, I felt anxious and couldn’t focus. I finally went and spoke to a fantastic, supportive counsellor at my university.

I never felt compelled to confront him, or talk to the police, because I thought it would be a he-said/she-said situation. Instead, I focused on healing myself. I went to counselling, I read stories similar to mine. It made me realize even though it was traumatic, and I still have lots of work to do, I am not alone.

Julia (name has been changed), 42, teacher, Montreal

I was out with a group of friends. When it was time to go home, one of the guys who lived in my neighbourhood walked with me. We got to the corner and he said, “Come up and have a drink,” and I said sure, not thinking there would be any risk involved. He was in a relationship, and we had been strictly platonic.

I went up and it got really late. I realized it was 3 a.m., I was really tired and I had had way too much to drink. He said, “Why don’t you just crash here,” and I fell asleep on the couch. During the night I woke up and he was groping me. I said, “Stop! Stop. What are you doing? I have to go home.” I gathered up my stuff and left.

I was shocked that he felt this was okay. I thought I knew him well enough to know that I could trust him. I felt really violated.

Afterwards, I didn’t want to go to the police or anything, but I knew it was wrong and I wanted to warn others that someone in our group was capable of this. I was ashamed to tell the story, but I thought that by telling someone else, I could somehow stop it from happening again. So gathered up my courage and I went to another friend from that group and I told him about it.

He said, “Oh, that doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t sound like something he would do.”

It made me feel sick. I got the message that nobody was going to believe me. And then I thought, “Maybe I don’t remember it correctly, maybe it wasn’t so bad.” It reinforced the whole narrative from society that this is not actually a problem: Suck it up, you guys were drunk, who knows what really happened.

I just tried to forget about it after that. I thought, “I better move on, it was my mistake. I gave him the wrong message by going over.” I felt foolish for drinking so much, although, looking back, I don’t know if drinking less would have made any difference. All I did was agree to crash on his couch.

You want to reconcile it in your mind, thinking that it didn’t happen or it wasn’t a big deal. That’s a lot easier to deal with than thinking, “This person has betrayed me and totally crossed the line and he doesn’t really care or remember or even notice.”

After that night, I distanced myself from that group of friends, but I still see him sometimes at parties. He’s in my industry, and Montreal is not that big of a city. I often wonder if he’s done it to other people. I wouldn’t be surprised if other women had stories about him.

I still feel uncomfortable around him, because it brings up so much stuff. I feel like I’ve betrayed myself, but I also know the consequences of following through and really standing up for myself … there’s just so much to lose. It doesn’t matter if I do report him or if I don’t. It’s not going to go anywhere. So I focus my energy somewhere else, on moving on with my life.

Katharine, 37, Oakville, Ont.

A client from work said, ‘You should come out on my boat sometime, maybe I’ll buy some business.’ I was 27 and he was 45, married with children. I went, because a boat sounded like fun. I suntanned for a bit; he said I could just wear my bra or underwear. My memories get hazy after that. I had one glass of wine and I must have passed out. When I came to and looked down, my pants were down by my ankles and he was touching me, [performing oral sex on me and masturbating]. I vomited everywhere, and he stopped. I think I must have been drugged.

I said, “I need to call my friend” and he called her for me. She said “I want to talk to Katharine,” so he passed me the phone, and she asked me if I was okay. I said, “I just want to get to your house.” He dropped me off on the side of the lake and somehow I made it to her house. I knew she had been raped herself years before, probably drugged. That’s why I went to her.

I had a shower, went home and stayed in bed until the next day.

I talked to a lot of my friends about it, and they supported me. When you share a story like that, you realize it has happened to so many other people too. Only one person said “You have to report this.” I said “No, I don’t want my parents finding out. I was on his boat, I was suntanning in a bra – it doesn’t look good.” I didn’t know how to justify myself. And I don’t think there was penetration.

Going to the cops seemed more scary than what happened, because of the possibility of my parents finding out or of having to explain myself, to explain why I didn’t do a drug test or anything afterwards. And I was worried my brother would try to hurt the guy and end up in trouble. Looking back, I wish I had done a drug test, not just for the cops, but for my own sanity, to really know what happened.

He would still come into my work. I didn’t want to see him. When he came into the office, I would hide in the washroom. One time I heard he was coming in the afternoon, and as soon as I found out, I just left for the day. I think my co-worker suspected, because she kept saying that he was a bad guy and he was so arrogant.

He had no shame about it, and he kept contacting me, e-mailing me. I did keep messaging him back because he was still technically a client, and he would ask questions about products, which I felt like I had to answer. They were flirty e-mails, but he never brought up the boat. Finally seven months later, in March, he sent me this cute little leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day. For some reason, it made me furious – I thought, how dare he send me this.

So I wrote him a message. I sent it to my friend first, and she said she thought it was okay. She sort of proofread it for me. It said, “Do not contact me, I think you’re a dirty old man and I despise what you did.”

He never responded.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @ZosiaBielski

Also on The Globe and Mail

Christy Clark pledges to curb campus sex assaults at B.C. universities (CTVNews Video)

Next story

loading

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular