When you get a massage somewhere “nice,” they often have a little box to check regarding the gender of your masseuse. I never checked the box. I probably even thought it was sort of sophisticated or cosmopolitan of me not to care whether my masseuse was male or female.
Sure, I was going to be naked in a small and isolated room with this person. But they’re professionals, bound by laws and professional codes. Our genders, my nudity, I believed it to be incidental.
I still believe that, and I’m sure that for the vast majority of massage professionals, it’s true. And yet I will never not check the box again. I’ll never put myself in that room with a strange man again.
I wasn’t at a “nice” place when it happened. I was at one of the many clean but unluxurious New York massage parlors that line the side streets. Usually it’s cheap -- around 60 dollars for an hour, and your table is separated from the others by just a curtain. I’ve been to these kinds of massage parlors many times in the 15 years I’ve lived in New York. I like them because, again, they’re cheap, and the massage style at them tends to veer toward hard, which I prefer.
It was Memorial Day weekend, and my fiancé and I were hanging around in the city when we decided to pop in to a massage parlor called Happy Future on the Lower East Side. They had room for us, so we were ushered into separate curtained-off areas, where my fiancé’s massage began immediately and where I was asked to wait about 15 minutes. I removed my clothing except for my underwear and lay face-down with a sheet pulled up over myself, letting my mind drift.
Eventually, a man came in and began my massage. When he asked me to flip onto my back, I did, although I found it a bit strange. When he started to grope my breasts, pulling the towel off me completely, I froze.
At first I couldn’t process what was happening. I kept thinking "Maybe he's supposed to be doing this,” as if I had selected some new and extremely inappropriate massage style.
Even as I grew increasingly aware that this was sexual touch, I remained still and quiet as he squeezed and rubbed my chest and nipples. Despite the fact that I was presumably just feet from my fiancé and other patrons, I didn’t make a sound outside of my own head.
When his hands began to move down toward my vagina, I finally snapped out of it and sat up. That’s it. I sat up, the spell was broken, and he resumed a normal massage.
Yep, I let him finish. I was in such shock that I even paid and tipped him. I waited until we were several blocks away to tell my fiancé what had happened. He wanted to go back and confront the man, but I was just scared and trying to get out of there as quickly as possible without any trouble.
More than anything, I think I felt stupid for freezing up and not getting away sooner.
I think I thought that I, of all people, should know better because I have a trauma history. That I should have learned from all the other times I’ve felt this way. You see, in all the instances in which my body has been in danger, my mind has always responded in the same way.
I have said “no.” I have moved my body away from my attacker. I have asked the perpetrator for permission to leave the situation, or tried to reason them into letting me do so. What I have not ever done is fight, kick, bite, scream or any of those other things I’ve been led to believe that rape victims are “supposed” to do.
The fact that I had responded this way again, that I had “let” someone hurt me without fighting back AGAIN, felt like a personal failure.
And yet this is a common reaction to sexual assault. In a presentation on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Dr. Rebecca Campbell describes the body’s response to trauma as not just fight or flight, but fight, flight, or freeze.
Most of us think we’d fight an assailant tooth and nail, but when we’re actually in that situation, our responses follow some mammalian script written much deeper.
She says: “It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. Because sometimes the safest thing to do to protect the safety is to fight back. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to flee. Sometimes the stupidest thing to do is to flee because it will incite chase. Therefore, our bodies have been wired for a freeze response too — to play dead, to look dead, because that may be the safest thing for the survival of the organism.”
There is even a literal paralysis response called “tonic immobility” that happens in humans and other animals.
So despite the fact that this has been one of the largest sticks of the kindling of my self-blame when it comes to sexual assault, it turns out that my reaction is entirely normal. It was my body deciding that freezing, not fighting, was my best chance of survival. In the moment in which it sensed a predator, as fear triggered a waterfall of hormones both adrenalizing and disorganizing into my system, my animal brain was asking itself: Is there time to flee? Strength to fight? No? Then we’re just going to stay still until this is over, and we are safe.
And you know what? It’s kept me alive so far.
According to The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma And Trauma Treatment by Babette Rothschild, “While many survivors of trauma feel a tremendous amount of shame and guilt because they ‘froze’ or ‘didn’t fight back,’ it is crucial to remember that these physical responses are ‘instantaneous’ and ‘instinctive’ natural bodily responses to an outside threat.”
Additionally, Dr. James W Hopper wrote an article for The Washington Post called “Why Many Rape Victims Don’t Scream or Yell," in which he states: “Simultaneously with the freeze response, the fear circuitry unleashes a surge of “stress chemicals” into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally – to recall the bedroom door is open, or that people are in the dorm room next door, for example, and to make use of that information.”
So basically, I feel dumb when I think about my behavior during my assault for good reason: My brain actually wasn’t working that well. And it wasn’t my fault.
And in the absence of complex thought, it’s not surprising that my brain fell back on the same scripts and habits I’ve used all my life. I’ve never physically defended myself with force before, but I know how to politely ask someone to stop what they’re doing.
A lot of crazy and complicated stuff happens to the body during trauma, and it’s not always what even those of us involved in it would expect. Most of us think we’d fight an assailant tooth and nail, but when we’re actually in that situation, our responses follow some mammalian script written much deeper.
A lot of the work of destigmatizing sexual assault is just explaining what it looks like. A rapist isn’t usually a stranger jumping out of the bushes. A rape victim doesn’t always, or even usually, yell and fight.
This can also contribute to the reasons why women don’t report sexual assault. If we blame ourselves, we are not blaming the perpetrator. Even if we know what they did was wrong, we may not want to tell someone how we reacted, especially since we know there is a risk they will not understand just why we didn’t do more to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, not every law enforcement official knows about trauma responses in the brain.
So even though I was afraid to, I reported what happened to me.
As a writer on the Internet, I am well versed with the culture of disbelief when it comes to sexual assault. And I once went with a friend to report an assault to the NYPD, who just kept asking her what she was “trying to get out of this.” But my fear was that the person who assaulted me was in a position to continually access vulnerable women and that this was almost certainly not the first time he had done this.
So I called and made a report to New York’s Sex Crimes Unit. The number in NYC is 212-335-9373 -- wherever you are, I recommend trying to find a number for a department that deals specifically with sexual assault and may have employees who be trained to better understand it. The woman I spoke with was kind and specifically assured me that freezing is a natural response before she took my statement.
Because this happened at a licensed business, I was also able to report this man to a licensing board. I was able to name the place where it had happened and warn others. I was able to take action despite my fear.
Because you can’t always fight in the moment, but you often get the opportunity to fight anyway.