Sexual assault victims are often asked why they didn’t “fight back.” How many of us have heard or said “if it were me I would have…” or “they didn’t want it to happen, they would have found a way to stop it.”
Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Society expects victims of sexual assault to fight back during the assault, or at least to scream to alert others. When this behavior is not consistent with what is expected, the victim’s credibility may be questioned. What I am about to tell you is the body’s natural survival reaction. When someone is in real or perceived danger the logical part of the brain shuts down and the survival part kicks in.
This is where the common misconception of fight or flight comes into play. People tend to assume that we get to choose one option or the other, and we think we know what we would choose if we found ourselves in a dangerous situation. However, science indicates there is often no choice involved. It’s not that we can’t logically think in such a situation, it’s just that our thoughts are often habitual. Few people have habitual thoughts or behaviors that will be of any use to them during a sexual assault. When under attack the victim will fall back on habits and reflexes.
Survivors are shamed and blamed because they didn’t mobilize, fight and make an effort. We hear a lot about fight or flight instincts but less about freeze. When the brain senses danger it often freezes briefly while scanning the environment, assessing the threat, and then reacting or responding to that threat. If no threat is detected the brain is able to return to thinking logically and rationally. This fear response doesn’t happen in consensual sex.
The freeze response developed through evolution serves several important purposes. One is to prevent detection by a predator. Just think of the deer in the headlights. The reason the deer freezes is because the car is identified as a threat, and the deer’s response was developed to respond to their primary threat, a predator. If that deer was in the forest, and a mountain lion entered the vicinity, the frozen deer may not be seen by the mountain lion. The mountain lions predatory instincts evolved to detect movement. Unfortunately this freeze response that evolved to protect the deer from the mountain lion leaves it completely unprotected against the threat of a car.
Sexual assault victims are often questioned about their decision not to flee when others perceive that there was an opportunity to do so. However, without the ability to think logically and analyze the situation rationally, what may appear to be an “easy” escape route might not be as easy as it seems.
This freeze response that can occur during a traumatic event means that some victims become literally paralyzed with fear by a neurobiological condition known as “tonic immobility” or “rape-induced paralysis.” Mentally the victim knows what’s happening but is physically unable to move. The rate of rape victims who were affected by this paralysis at the time of the assault may be as high as 50 percent. Because they were unable to move their limbs, it became impossible for them to fight back or flee as they were literally paralyzed by the attack due to the body’s response. This response is normal in fearful situations. It is also more common if the person has a prior history of sexual assault.
The point that we have to understand is that when a person has a reaction or response to a sexual assault, the body interprets the traumatic event as a life threat. Many victims feel guilty or ashamed because they “froze” and many people blame them for doing so. It is important to remember that these physical reactions are natural responses and instantaneous. In conclusion our responses to threat will often not be logical, reasoned or thought-out because the logical part of the brain is impaired. We respond to threat largely without thinking or planning. Of course this is a very simplified version of what happens to the brain during a sexual assault but I hope that this explains why victims might not fight back or flee.
Ashli Lyseng is the program supervisor for Support Within Reach.