Mary had been texting and talking on the phone with the man for about a year. Now, on the verge of meeting him for the first time, she felt a mix of nerves and excitement. He was 31, a decade older than her. After a few months of messages back and forth, they’d started talking about sex. She was a virgin, but he was never pushy.
But when Mary arrived at the man’s Washington, D.C., apartment in December 2017, she says, he immediately began to kiss her aggressively. She told him she wanted to leave, but according to Mary, he pushed her up against a wall and said she owed him sex. Then, she says, he pushed her onto his bed and raped her while she lay there, frozen.
After the assault, he told Mary she looked beautiful, and she called an Uber home. Then she did something that surprises her to this day: She texted her abuser to say that she had a great time, and would be free later in the week. Though they never saw each other again, they kept in touch over the next month.
As Mary processed what had happened, she considered filing a police report, but the thought of those messages stopped her. She thought about her texts being read aloud in a courtroom, and how they would make everyone doubt her credibility.
“I could see it playing out so clearly in my head,” Mary, who asked that her real name not appear in this story, told HuffPost in an email, “and felt there was no point in putting myself and my family through that.”
Mary is now watching her worst fears play out on a national stage, as disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trial has entered its second week. Donna Rotunno, his defense attorney, has suggested she will cite “friendly” emails from the two women involved in the case as evidence that their allegations of forced oral sex and rape are false. She will likely make the argument that it’s not possible for a true rape victim to write a message to her abuser like “Miss you big guy,” or “I love you, always do. But I hate feeling like a booty call. :)” She’ll likely ask jurors if Mimi Haleyi, a former production assistant, could really have been assaulted if she tried to see Weinstein a few months later, especially if she signed her messages with “Lots of love.”
Prosecutors are likely to call on an expert witness to explain how trauma affects a person’s behavior. But the seemingly affectionate emails could persuade jurors that Weinstein’s accusers are liars. Many people think abuse victims always fight off their attackers, cut off contact and report the abuse immediately, not that they send smiley faces and wait years to report the assault. But in reality, psychologists and victim advocates say, it’s common for survivors to stay in touch with their abusers. And until jurors understand why, victims will never have a fair day in court.
Why Victims Send Friendly Texts
There’s a false stereotype that people who commit sexual assault are always strangers who sneak up on their victims in dark alleys. But more than 80% of sexual assault survivors know their abusers. Victims often feel a sense of cognitive dissonance when trying to process how the person who violated them also told them they were pretty, listened to their problems or took care of them.
Abusers will also deliberately confuse or gaslight their victims after an assault by giving them compliments, asking to see them again or acting like nothing happened, said Veronique Valliere, a Pennsylvania-based psychologist who specializes in sexual assault.
Survivors often minimize the abuse or blame themselves to try to preserve the good aspects of their relationship with the abuser, Valliere said. This phenomenon is most pronounced in children who are sexually assaulted by family members. A kid in that position might subconsciously suppress the abuse in order to survive, since they rely on the perpetrator for food, shelter and love, said Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. (Freyd coined the term “betrayal blindness” to describe this behavior.) The same reaction can happen between two adults, especially in relationships that involve uneven power dynamics.
Weinstein was one of Hollywood’s most powerful moguls, a man who could easily make or break anyone’s career in the entertainment business. The 100 or more women he allegedly abused, many of them aspiring actresses or models, “couldn’t afford to alienate” him, said Freyd, who is not involved in the case. She said ambitious survivors might have suppressed the abuse, consciously or unconsciously, because confronting Weinstein could have led to their dreams being destroyed.
They might also have been scared for their safety. Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” response to danger. But other reactions can include “freeze” and “fawn,” according to TL Robinson, who recently launched a company to help victims connect with one another after an assault. To “fawn,” Robinson said, “is a way to try and manage the effects of the danger (or trauma) by minimizing its severity.”
The two women in Weinstein’s court case have not explained why they sent him friendly messages after the alleged assaults. But psychologists told HuffPost it could have been an attempt to deescalate the situation and maintain a good working relationship with Weinstein, especially since women are conditioned all their lives to be nice.
Anne, a survivor who asked to be identified by her middle name, said that the day after she was sexually assaulted in 2009, she sent her abuser “some lame jokey text” because she had left in the middle of the night and didn’t want to come across as “rude or bitchy.”
Anne also thought texting the man could wallpaper over her bad feelings. She was 18 at the time, and initially blamed herself for what had happened.
“I wanted to replace the interaction with new, better memories,” she said. “It was a wound and I thought I could just fill it up.”
It’s common for survivors to internalize certain myths about rape, and to feel responsible for what happened to them. After James (not his real name) was raped at age 17, he texted his abuser to apologize for what had happened. Though he had begged his perpetrator to stop, at the time James blamed himself for being drunk, flirting with the guy and going to his home.
Some of Weinstein’s accusers might have gone through a similar process of self-blame, said Joan Cook, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. She said that rather than responding with anger, they might have asked themselves: “Everyone knew about Harvey, why didn’t I know about Harvey?” Or: “Did I smile at him that one time?”
Controlling The Narrative Of Her Assault
Mary desperately wanted her first time having sex to be special. Sending her abuser messages about having a “great time” was a way of trying to persuade herself it had been.
“The thought that my first sexual experience had been rape was too much to bear,” she told HuffPost, “so I did everything I could to convince myself it was normal, including continuing to talk to him.”
But when she started suffering from panic attacks and depression a month after the assault, she began to admit something bad had happened to her. She blocked her abuser’s number and stopped using Tinder. She became paranoid around men. She’s now in a committed relationship, but on Dec. 11, 2018 ― the anniversary of her assault ― she could barely get out of bed, and the same thing happened the following year.
Mary doesn’t think the legal system would have brought her justice, since most people still don’t understand how trauma can affect a survivor’s behavior. But she hopes the jurors in Weinstein’s case will see the accusers’ text messages as further proof of his power over them, not as evidence they are lying.
“It would be great to see someone as powerful as him go down,” she said. “I think it would bring hope to other survivors.”
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.