The calling of what is known as a “blind” expert witness on a specific topic to educate a jury is an established practice in legal cases, and it is especially important in cases of sexual assault (SA).
During the Tuesday, August 30 11th Judicial District case of The People of the State of Colorado vs. Herbert Lucas Scott the prosecutors called Steffanie Walstra, LCSW, the Clinical Director of SungateKids as a blind witness. This means that she is asked to testify on background, and has no information about the case, the victim, or the alleged perpetrator, other than the victim was 20 years old at the time of the alleged incidents.
“My role is to educate so the jury can do their job,” said Walstra, explaining the purpose of expert testimony.
“I am here to educate the jury as a therapist, I have no information about the case, other than the survivor is about 20 years old … My testimony is my testimony,” she added. “It doesn’t change if it’s defense or prosecutor” [I’m working with].
While Defense Attorney Ernie Márquez objected, Judge Patrick Murphy overruled him, saying the information would “assist the jury to understand the circumstances of this case.”
Walstra has extensive experience in therapy: “Since 2010 my specialty is sexual abuse, sexual assault, and rape, prior to that I was working with youth with early sexualized behavior.” Walstra confirmed she has worked directly with hundreds of survivors of sexual assault, and indirectly, with thousands. She has testified at six trials and provided background information on at least 50 sexual assault cases.
Walstra proceeded to lay out the myths about power dynamics, myths about sexual assault, and common reactions to sexual assault by survivors:
When sexual assault occurs, victims will report it quickly.
Not true: “Based on my training, most people wait until far into adulthood to disclose it, most often talking about this with friends and family before reporting to law enforcement,” said Walstra. “Another thing – people being able to identify it as sexual assault because of their shock, fear, and shame.”
“You might assume you know, but people wait years — there is a testing the water process… they tell what happened to them incrementally … they don’t come out and say ‘I was sexually assaulted.'”
Sexual assault is only real if someone fights back.
Not true. “As a culture, we’ve nailed down ‘stranger-danger’ … but often it’s someone they know and care about that impacts the ‘fighting back’ process,” said Walstra. “In a family or community … when they sense harm there is a flight, fight, freeze – it’s an unlearned automatic response. People who do fight back often try to resist in subtle ways, then this flight-flight-freeze takes over.”
She added that it is another myth that sexual assault needs to involve a weapon or extreme violence. “There are the dynamics of power and control. There is a difference between a victim fighting back, or resisting. We think about saying ‘no’, screaming for help, kicking and punching, that’s the thing we think about. But often the reality is more like ‘I’ll just go along so I don’t get hurt”.
Resistance is much more subtle. Asked to elaborate, Walstra said “It’s so individualized based on the person. I’ve seen it for abuse that is ongoing. Subtle resistance things like not showering so they won’t want to do this to me… it’s a way to protect their body.”
Survivors of SA will react a certain way, upset, hysterical crying
Not true: More often it’s the flight-fight-freeze reaction. Not all sexual assault victims will share what happened to them in the same way, or react in a certain way. The myth is somebody is going to be hysterical, crying and that happens — or they may do many normal things –laugh can be normal, then they totally shut down — moving from hysterical to monotone and flat and back rapidly.
“These are automatic responses. You don’t get to choose which response you take … it’s an animalistic response, our animal brain. Most often, people attempt to resist, but the freeze takes over — where they can’t speak or move,” explained Walstra. “Many disassociate – leave their bodies to protect themselves from the trauma they are experiencing. You see, often sexual assault offenders are KNOWN to them.
Among other things, when a victim of sexual assault disassociates, they feel as if they are floating above their bodies. “They won’t be able to give you a narrative about anything, but they will be able to give you very detailed sensory information. You’ll hear them say things like ‘now I can’t stand the smell of spaghetti anymore,” – they describe it as if they are reliving the experience from these sensory impressions.
That victims of sexual assault live in or come from “other” areas.
Not true: Walstra pointed out that in a therapy group she is leading right now, “we discussed in the group that ‘we live in a good area, we have a really big support system, so things like this don’t happen to us – they happen to other people.'” The biggest myth, she says is that survivors are doing something that brings this to them — drinking, wearing certain clothes. It’s victim blaming, said Walstra. “But they are just like us. It can happen to all of us.”
Trauma, including past trauma, doesn’t affect memory.
Not True: “Trauma is any experience that your brain is taking things in and can’t process it. With trauma, a person’s power to control a situation or their own body is taken away. Trauma isn’t linear — it cycles, making the traumatized person not remember sequential events, but continually repeat the past.”
“We protect ourselves with the flight-fight-freeze reaction and disassociate,” she explained. “More recently we’ve recognized another response to trauma – becoming people-pleasing – what that looks like is maintaining a relationship with someone — associating to the person victimizing them.”
Walstra said that while this looks like inconsistent and confusing behavior, she uses the visual of a blender filled with vegetables: “So 90 percent spins smooth – that is adaptive memory functioning – we can brush our teeth, go to work … but when your brain sleeps it stores long term memories. For the ‘smoothy’ part that’s fine – but that 10 percent chunk – that’s what trauma memory is,” she explains. “They get stuck as frozen chunks that can’t get blended.”
She described people knowing they are traumatized, but being without direction or purpose, with sensory details that bug them. “I had a person the other day that said trauma feels like a splinter. It’s there – like you are still living in the past even if it’s over.”
According to Walstra, trauma can also make things non-linear. The way that the fear-flight-freeze instincts impact us impacts the way trauma memories are recalled. “There are blackouts, it’s not linear. We hear a lot of ‘I don’t know’, things are fragmented and come out as chunks. Within this field, we describe this as counter-interactive behavior — the flight-fight-freeze impacts both how you experience it and how it is recalled… a lot won’t recall how many times sexual abuse occurred, or they might remember the season, or the smell, or what someone was cooking.”
Self-blame is common — the “if only I hadn’t done, worn, said…” reaction.
That the decision to commit sexual assault is made in the heat of the moment.
Not true: “I find that because I work with victims, I hear their stories. I hear that the moment where the interaction — the behavior becomes not OK is sudden and swift,” explained Walstra, who said they might have known the perpetrator for a long time. “They say their view of this person was positive, they might even have a lot of prior interactions that are fine. Survivors often remember the moment when things went from OK to not-OK very quickly.”
“Alcohol and drugs are a part of these interactions when victims don’t have all their faculties,” she added. “It can embolden the pursuer. It impacts memory loss, increases self-blame, shock, fear, worries about being believed.”
Power dynamics have nothing to do with sexual assault
Not true: Power dynamics help the defendant maintain control over a victim, keep it a secret, keep control, victims will feel like there is no way they can fight off this person due to weight, age, status, emotional dynamic, their standing in community, or church, or family.
Walstra pointed out that it is not uncommon for there to be good interactions at first, and that the earlier relationship confuses the victim, and when assault happens, they may think they won’t be believed. “Typically the victim’s behavior can be confusing, while the perpetrator acts totally normal.”
Offenders exhibit power and control over victims by taking advantage of their vulnerabilities; their shyness or self-consciousness, making sure they are alone, forcing drugs and alcohol, or attempting to normalize trauma behavior with intended victims.
Grooming is the subtle way in which a person’s behavior accustoms another person to accept his behavior, to prepare for further sexual acts or sexual behavior. These days it can include texting and Snapchat, any form of familiarizing and desensitizing a person to controlling behavior.
Often, says Walstra, it will only be retrospectively that a victim of abuse realizes that the interactions after abuse has happened are designed to reinforce a lack of control and to shift the blame from the offender to themselves.
The disclosure process is freeing to victims
Not necessarily: Victims can wait a long time to report, and when they do, it’s in safe environments and seldom to law enforcement. Traumatic experiences, not being the best days of our lives, aren’t remembered in sequence — bits and pieces of pain come out. Many victims never report sexual abuse. Others internalize it – downplaying what happened due to a dozen different emotions.
Often when victims know their offender, and because of prior good experience, they don’t want to get anybody in trouble, so they self-blame. This can cause panic attacks, sleep disturbance, low self-image, risky behavior, self-harm, and even reactionary highly-sexualized behavior to get back the power and control lost during the assault.