By now, anyone with a prurient taste for political scandal has read the investigative report engulfing Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.It’s 24 pages of testimony describing a series of sexual assaults Greitens allegedly committed before he became governor — a far cry from the “affair” the married governor has admitted to. The report was released Wednesday by a special investigative committee of the Missouri House of Representatives, a body heavily dominated by the governor’s own Republican Party.
But let’s set aside the political theater and hear the victim. She’s screaming a message America needs to absorb.
Page after page contains the woman’s verbatim testimony under oath. It’s a textbook illustration of a sexual assault victim’s reactions, many of them involuntary, as she sensed danger escalating. She also described the actions of the type of person who might commit such a crime — a manipulative predator.
A lot of women will relate — maybe not to the exact details of how Greitens allegedly coerced her into sexual acts, which are stomach-turning, but to the ways she responded. They will be familiar to anyone who has studied such violence: the woman’s seemingly conflicting answers, how she went numb, her rationalizations later, the self-doubt. Misunderstood, these behavior patterns are why so many women are not believed, which leads to others not coming forward at all.
Despite the fact that most victims know the men who sexually assault them, the widespread attitude remains that only victims attacked by strangers deserve sympathy.
No, more often sexual assault happens like this.
Greitens’ victim was his hairstylist. He reportedly flirted with her during appointments, testing boundaries. She testified that he ran his hand up her leg to her crotch. He convinced her to come to his house early one morning to talk when his wife was away. She soon realized that she had stepped into danger.
According to her testimony, Greitens blindfolded her and tied her hands to exercise equipment in his basement under the pretext of performing some sort of sexy workout together. But then he ripped her shirt open, spat water into her mouth and began kissing her exposed body. She sensed a photo was taken of her, blackmail material. He pulled her pants to her ankles and began to sexually assault her.
“In my head I was screaming,” she told the committee. “I don’t want this. I don’t want this.”
But during the assault, she said, she felt embarrassed and ashamed. She said the future governor called her a whore.
In one encounter she froze, went “completely numb.”
It’s a physiological response more than anything. Fight or flight, most people understand. But to freeze is also a human response pattern, common during sexual assault. Victims also often do not recall events later in a chronological timeline. Their statements may sound conflicting, as hers do in portions of the report.
Much of this has to do with the stress hormones flooding a body in fear, the effects on the prefrontal cortex. Uncontrollable crying is also a response. She did that too.
Victims will also sometimes feel compelled to make bargains, to go along with what is happening to prevent something worse. At one point, after Greitens allegedly laid his victim down on the floor and exposed his genitals close to her face, she performed oral sex on him, rationalizing that if she satiated him, she might make it out of his basement OK.
Later, such behavior is too often misconstrued to mean that the victim desired the act. And because the perpetrator is someone she knows, she’ll make excuses later, even try to normalize the relationship, often being wooed back.
Predators know how to use this reaction; coaxing and cooing, playing the gentle good guy when their victim is angry. That’s also described in the report.
Thankfully, in recent years, the science around this is growing. Police trainings that deconstruct traditional investigatory methods are framed around the new knowledge. Because, frankly, a lack of understanding is why most assaults are never reported in the first place, much less investigated and certainly not prosecuted.
For this woman, there will be continued public spotlight as the case against the governor goes forward next month. He is charged with one count of invasion of privacy for allegedly taking a photo of her without consent.
But, unlike so many other sexual assault survivors, the victim has been found credible. The bipartisan committee that compiled the report believed her.
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.