E45: Fawning and People Pleasing Responses During Sexual Assault and Uncomfortable Sexual Encounters
Our sympathetic nervous system gets triggered due to physical or emotional threats, and we go into either fight, flight, freeze or fawn response. The fawn response means we try to survive by becoming more appealing to the threat. The Fawn response was first coined by psychotherapist, Pete Walker, in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. It's important to mention, Pete Walker is a marriage and family therapist. This is pertinent because we develop a fawning response if our trauma happened in a relationship.
Having a fawning response is associated with complex PTSD and co-dependence. Complex PTSD is when your trauma comes from repeated events. So typically do to a repeated situation in a family dynamic. Co-dependence is consistently abandoning your own needs to serve others to avoid conflict, which is also a fawning response.
Some examples of fawning responses are having it be very difficult to say “no” and having a fear of saying what you really feel. The important thing to understand about our sympathetic nervous system responses is we don't have a lot of control over it in the moment. Additionally, these responses trump everything else in our system, including rational thinking. And this is by design because the nervous system takes over and makes the decisions essentially to keep us safe.
Another thing to consider is we don't get to decide which survival response we get triggered into, whether it's fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Our nervous system makes that decision for us. And we can't stop the response, even if it happens during sexual assault. Fawning is a common survival response during sexual assault, which means the victim survives by appeasing the abuser. And if you don't know how the nervous system works, then you might devalue yourself after the fact and have shame about not trying to stop the assault.
One of the hardest things about going through that experience is the shame that we have after. It's very confusing if we've gone into a fawning survival response and didn't try to stop what was happening. But we really need to get educated about how the nervous system works. I even read somewhere that the fawning survival response during sexual assault can create a sense of sexual arousal. This is extremely confusing after the fact even though our nervous system was trying to protect you.
Listen to the episode: The Aware Mind