Denial: A Dangerous Compromise

A cartoon ostrich with his head in the sand, illustrating that denial is a dangerous compromise.

Our ability to predict danger is essential to our survival. It keeps us out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, when it comes to predicting violence, we do not always trust our most reliable method of risk detection, our intuition. Instead of recognizing our intuitive alarm as meaningful, we often rush to explain away or deny the threat.

Learn to trust your intuition. It can save your life.

This denial is a dangerous compromise. It is tempting to rest assured that everything is OK despite our intuition insisting otherwise, despite evidence demonstrating otherwise. It is tempting because denial keeps unpleasant thoughts at bay. It allows us to see the world as we want it to be, rather than how it is. Denial is a coping mechanism that kicks in when we feel overwhelmed by a problem. It is a compromise we make with ourselves to ignore long-term consequences in favor of a short-term sense of security. But denial is a dangerous compromise.

Myths, lies, and denial

Myths about sexual assault provide fertile ground for denial to take root. The image of a crazy stranger jumping out of the bushes and attacking a beautiful, provocatively dressed young woman walking in the dark through some mythical bad part of town is all too common. This singular image persists because it neatly identifies the bad guy, where he is hiding, who he is targeting, and how to avoid him.

Reality is more complicated. Most of the time the victim knows the attacker: they are an acquaintance, friend, partner, or ex-partner. Sexual assault can happen anywhere, anytime, and most often happens in the offender’s home or the victim’s home.  People of all ages, ethnicities, and genders can be targeted. Choice of dress does not cause or deter an attack. Offenders may appear nice and charming as a ploy to confuse, manipulate, and isolate. Offenders are not always male.[i]

Accepting the truth about sexual assault disrupts a more comfortable worldview that clearly distinguishes the good guys from the bad and offers a sense of security to those who follow certain prescribed behaviors. But buying a worldview based on a lie is a bad deal. Warning signs go unheeded: “That nice person next door couldn’t mean me harm.”  Apprehensions dismissed: “I must be imagining things. After all, I am not dressed provocatively.” Abusive behavior justified: “My partner didn’t mean to hurt me. I trust him.” Denial doesn’t make the world the way we want it to be, it makes the world more dangerous.

Train a variety of tactical responses to a threat.

Nice girls fight back

We have all likely had the feeling that something isn’t right but hesitated to respond because we didn’t want to be rude, we didn’t want to be wrong, and we didn’t want to make a scene. We wanted to be nice, so we talked ourselves out of our apprehension. The pressure to be nice, particularly for girls and women, can lead straight to denial.

We are all socialized to get along, and niceness is part of that. But women are expected to be the nurturers, to be kind and selfless, and to give others the benefit of the doubt. We feel responsible for building and maintaining smooth social interactions. Socialization can strongly influence our worldview and our beliefs about ourselves. We may even come to see niceness as an integral part of who we are rather than a behavior that is learned and chosen. This leaves women in a pretty small box with few options when faced with a threat.  Denial is a way to cope when we don’t see options.

Once we recognize that niceness is nothing more than learned behavior, and generally not an effective self-defense tactic, options become available.  We can run away, walk away, speak up, and fight back. It might feel uncomfortable to step outside of prescribed social behavior, and there might be a moment when we lean toward denial, but we do not have to stay stuck there. It is what we do next that matters.  

Wildfire Self-Defense instructor with a student
Nice girls fight back

Belief perseverance

Belief perseverance is denial at its most extreme. It is maintaining a belief despite evidence that firmly contradicts it. It indicates a desperate attempt to cling to a predictable, stable worldview at all costs. But it is not only the believer who pays the price. Belief perseverance is a widespread problem with ripple effects that influence scientific advancement, public policy, and safety. In terms of keeping dangerous offenders off the street, when judges, parole officers, probation officers, and psychologists buy into rape myths and allow false assumptions to influence their evaluation of offender risk, we all pay the price.

The 2015 sentencing of convicted rapist Brock Turner received a lot of public attention as an example of judicial leniency toward sexual assault that appears to reflect the judge’s bias toward believing offender myths over facts. Turner, a star athlete and Stanford University student, was convicted of raping a young woman while she was unconscious after a night of drinking. He was caught in the act by two other students, attempted to flee, but was held by the students until police arrived. He could have been sentenced to a maximum of 14 years. Prosecutors asked for six years, but Aaron Persky, the judge who oversaw the trial, handed down a sentence of six months. In the end, Turner, who was found guilty of three sexual assault felonies, was released in three months. Persky was reluctant to hold Turner accountable saying: “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him. I think he will not be a danger to others.” [ii] In his sentencing statement, he placed blame on the survivor because she had been drinking, then claimed that Turner’s use of alcohol was a mitigating factor that made him less of a future risk.

Perhaps Aaron Persky, himself an athlete and graduate from Stanford University, simply could not abandon the belief that someone who appeared so much like him could intentionally and brutally harm another person. Perhaps, when faced with that hard truth, it was easier to shift some blame to the victim than question his worldview. Persky is only one of many examples of risk denial. Currently, serial rapist Richard Gillmore is about to be released from prison in Oregon as a low-risk offender after having his sentence cut in half by the parole board. I know of no statistics on how often leniency is shown to offenders who don’t match the description of the mythical bad guy, but Anna Salter, in her book Predators, sites numerous examples of criminal justice professionals who are conned into sympathizing with offenders even when they know they have committed heinous acts of violence.[iii]

Refusing to compromise

We are fighting back against a system that does not protect us. In 2018, because of public outcry over the Brock Turner sentence, Persky became the first judge in 80 years to be recalled in California.[iv] Victim’s advocates fight constantly to keep violent criminals behind bars; to have laws changed, sentences upheld, and paroles denied. Many of us who are survivors of violence are becoming experts in violence prevention. We are educating ourselves and each other about how to predict, recognize, and respond to violence.

All of us struggle with denial. It isn’t easy to accept that bad things happen to good people or to think about the “unthinkable” things people do to each other. It isn’t easy to face that a person we have known, trusted, and even admired isn’t who we thought they were. But denial isn’t easy either. We know when we are lying to ourselves. In those moments when something doesn’t feel right, or when evidence points to danger, and we look away, deep down we feel the betrayal. We sense we have compromised our safety, quality of life, or integrity. But we have no binding deal with denial. We can choose to take a closer look, to see things as they are rather than as we would like them to be. It is a choice worth making. Our survival may depend on it.

Connect with others and train in a safe, supportive space.


[i] For statistics about sexual assault visit RAINN and for myths and facts about sexual assault visit Ourresilience.org

[ii] Stack, Liam. “Light Sentence for Brock Turner in Stanford Case Draws Outrage.” The New York Times, June 6th, 2016.

[iii] Salter, Anna C. PH.D. Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, Who They Are, How They Operate, And How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children. Basic Books, Perseus Book Group.  New York, NY. 2003.

[iv] “California Judge Recalled for Sentencing in Sexual Assault Case.” Harvard Law Review, Feb. 6th 2019.

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