My letter to the editor in the New York Times discusses the issue of sexual abuse in relationship to the alleged assault that took place at St Paul’s. Below I offer a more thorough discussion of the role of cognitive confusion in sexual abuse and what to do to help prevent it.
Update: Also see this post from the Harvard Crimson about a young woman’s sexual assault at a campus function.
Every person has a different set of personal boundaries and a unique way of responding when someone crosses them. A society that values sexual freedom must also cultivate the ethical conversations that can help people in a sexual encounter understand each other’s desires and limits.
Without these conversations sexual intimacy easily turns abusive because of the cognitive confusion that can take place during an unwanted sexual advance.
The process can begin simply. Mostly everybody desires a certain amount of physical contact. Hugging, touching and even snuggling naturally occur between friends as well as potential lovers.
People – younger and older – often want this contact and believe correctly that it is safe and healthy.
Sometimes they want to take it further and more fully experience sexuality with another person.
The complex movement from friendly intimacy to sex requires straightforward communication and verbal fluency about topics that can be hard to discuss especially when sexual activity has already been initiated.
When confronted with an unwanted sexual advance, some people experience cognitive confusion.
Acknowledging what is taking place can feel shaming.
Others feel responsible for having gotten themselves into the situation.
Not wanting to make a scene or worrying about peer reactions, a person may attempt to avoid conflict.
He or she might say “no” too diplomatically.
Further, an unwanted sexual advance can cause panic.
When frightened, many people and especially those still young and vulnerable may disconnect, or dissociate, from other people and their surroundings.
When any person senses that violence is coming he or she might “play dead” or feel “paralyzed,” like a deer in the headlights.
This type of psychological dissociation is not a choice. It is a response to fear.
Ideally, someone genuinely interested in consensual sexual intimacy will tend to disengage when sensing a partner’s passivity.
Often, however, the person initiating the unwanted sexual contact might be struggling with their own cognitive confusion. Their partner’s reluctance may conflict with their own desire. They may misinterpret signals in their own self interest.
Predatory personalities are different. They easily and knowingly take advantage of another person’s difficulty saying no; even if the person could in fact shout no, they won’t listen.
Adding alcohol and drugs can make things worse.
These substances exacerbate cognitive confusion. Disinhibition impairs a person’s ability to limit the progression from fun and consensual interactions to behaviors that threaten and violate boundaries.
Further, while many people can enjoy disinhibited and inebriated states and not rape or be raped by someone, others use partying to cloak malicious intent.
Drugs and alcohol can release predatory impulses that can be otherwise controlled or repressed.
The assailant or perpetrator of a rape may not even be fully aware of harboring such impulses.
And some people simply feel very comfortable with their sexual aggression and deliberately use alcohol or drugs to assist their efforts. They intentionally support their intended victim’s use of drugs or alcohol, sometimes adding drugs meant to cause a loss of consciousness. They encourage cognitive confusion in order to take sexual advantage of another person.
What to do?
No one would argue in favor of a return to a repressive sexuality. Yet some societal guidelines can help protect all of sexuality’s wondrous qualities.
A more open attitude about sexuality can be safely supported if people, especially those still young and new to their sexual identities, learn how to have ethical conversations.
Two people can better negotiate how much physical contact they want to share with one another if this becomes the communal standard.
Sex should never be an expectation or the definition of what it means to have a good time.
No as a default position can only work when one’s social groups respect the idea that choosing not to have sex has as much cache as choosing to do so.
Only yes should mean yes and then only if both parties possess enough consciousness to make decisions.
This way, when someone feels shamed, panicked, alone, paralyzed, or compelled to respond diplomatically, his or her behavior can’t be construed as an agreement to have sex.
If terror and embarrassment render one partner voiceless, the other will know through social and cultural reinforcement that silence doesn’t mean permission to take the encounter any further.
When men and women – and everybody in between – know that their friends, family and larger society value “no” as much as “yes,” they are freer to make decisions that feel right to each other.
Further, a predatory personality can’t hide so easily when the larger society supports and upholds no as a legitimate and normative choice.
On this point, John Oliver has it right.