Monterey Rape Crisis Center conference

Kimberly Birdsong explains "tonic immobility," a chemical process in the brain that causes a person's decision-making ability to freeze during an attack. 

Law enforcement, community services and crisis workers gathered at the Marina Library on Thursday, Aug. 8 to participate in the second annual workshop to help serve survivors of sexual harassment, assault and human trafficking.

The sold-out workshop, “Beyond the Basics: Effectively Serving Survivors,” covered rape culture, human trafficking, trauma response, child abuse and grooming. The event ended with Amber Wasson, a crisis intervention services manager at Monterey County Rape Crisis Center, discussing crisis intervention and trauma-informed services offered in the community. 

Rape culture is how certain societal practices build up in a pyramid system to finding ways in how a perpetrator is able to justify their actions, according to Devan Haddad, prevention educator with the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center. Hadded drew from popular culture for examples, such as the scene from Disney’s The Little Mermaid when Ariel has to give up her voice to get the prince. Haddad encouraged audience members to tackle the problem of such portrayals and language, both in and out of the world of fairytales. 

“The hopeful outcome is that people leave with a toolkit of resources and ways to make a difference,” Haddad says. “So whether that’s having a conversation with your aunt who maybe says some racist things at Thanksgiving and recognizing it’s not about you, it’s about the larger picture and your responsibility to make a difference and advocate for people.”

It’s difficult to measure success, but Haddad says it’s about long-term progress. “It’s a lot about slow growth, it’s about societal changes and that’s something that’s really hard to measure,” Haddad says. 

Kadijah White, human trafficking advocate for YWCA Monterey County, has an extensive background in working with child and domestic abuse. For her, the workshop was a refresher: “I wanted to come here to make sure I was still on top of those things, for myself and just to be a better advocate as well.”

Human trafficking, including both labor and sex trafficking, were discussed halfway through the day-long workshop. Deborah Pembrook, human trafficking outreach manager with MCRCC, spoke about the basics of human trafficking, debunked misunderstandings and urged people to listen to and learn from survivors.  

“According to the FBI, we’re a part of one of the nationally recognized hotspots for human trafficking because we’re a part of the greater Bay Area,” Pembrook says. “The FBI’s definition that identifies the San Francisco Bay Area as one of the hotspots for it.” 

In addition to finding resources to help survivors, Kimberly Birdsong, former client services manager at MCRCC, talked about what it’s like to respond to trauma, including “tonic immobility,” in which a person’s decision-making brain essentially freezes during an attack.  

“I think that it’s important that people understand that there are chemical reasons why people might not do what you would expect them to do when they’re faced with a trauma,” Birdsong says. “So if they do not fight or run away, there’s a reason for that. Their brain is literally on a kind of an autopilot that will shut down other responses with the hope of protecting someone so that they can survive the assault.”

She adds that it’s important for survivors who might feel a sense of guilt, wishing they’d fled or fought back, to also understand the neurological explanation for why they behaved as they did, helping to alleviate the self-blame many survivors experience. 

For the Monterey County Rape Crisis Center hotline, call 831-375-4357 or 831-424-4357. To report human trafficking, call the national hotline 888-373-7888.

Editor's Note: The original post included two errors. Kimberly Birdsong's first name was misspelled as "Kimberley." "Tonic immobility" was misidentified as "toxic immobility."

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