You’re probably familiar with the brain’s two most well-known trauma responses: “fight” and “flight.” But there’s a third reaction to trauma that often goes unmentioned, although it’s an overwhelmingly common response, especially in cases of sexual assault and rape: the “freeze” response.
Would you be surprised to learn that over 90 percent of survivors of sexual assault respond by freezing? I heard this statistic at a recent Neoteric Dance Collaborative event at The Music Hall called One Billion Rising. The event, part of a global movement to end violence against women, was a fundraiser for Haven, a local organization focused on preventing sexual abuse and providing support for those impacted by domestic and sexual violence. During the show, ballet dancer Lissa Curtis shared her story of freezing in response to a sexual assault, and said “this happens with more than 90 percent of women.”
Freezing was my body’s reaction, too, during a sexual assault that happened to me when I was in college, but I had never before heard that this was a legitimate, documented response to trauma. The difference this knowledge made to me, even over a decade later, was overwhelming. People can tell you repeatedly that something is not your fault, but if the generally assumed behavior of a threatened person is fighting and struggling, it’s hard to come to terms with exactly whose fault it is if your body just simply shuts down.
The New Hampshire Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence (NHCASDV) has cited a different statistic on freezing, saying that up to 50 percent of rape victims experience this type of paralysis. Other studies have shown that freezing is the response of 88 percent of rape victims. Regardless of the exact statistic, NHCASDV reports “New Hampshire laws recognize this reality and specifically provide that a victim is not required to physically resist an assault to show that she didn’t consent.”
If one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and between 50 percent and 90 percent of them respond by freezing, why is this response not being talked about more?
Lack of awareness of this very common response to trauma can have dire consequences. When someone thinks they didn’t do enough to stop an assault, they blame themselves. When someone reacts to a report of sexual assault by asking the victim why they didn’t fight back, they are placing responsibility and blame on the victim. This victim blaming, by self or others, perpetuates a culture where rape survivors are discouraged from coming forward.
One need only refer to the public commentary on two recent high-profile sexual assault-related cases to see how reflexive this victim blaming is. Kesha was repeatedly accused by complete strangers of lying about her abuse; Erin Andrews was subject to public speculation of whether she’d suffered enough, even after her stalker was found guilty. Look at any report of rape in the news and you’ll find no end to people who feel the need to express their unsolicited suspicion.
It’s this predisposed scrutiny and victim blaming that rape survivors face when deciding whether to report a sexual assault. On top of this risk of public scrutiny, if their body reacted in a way that they don’t recognize as a response to trauma, they’re even more likely to blame themselves and avoid the ordeal of reporting the crime. Shame and blame are common post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and victims who freeze sometimes continue to experience paralysis, or “tonic immobility” long after the assault.
Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and nationally-recognized expert specializing in the neurobiology of trauma, says of the “freeze” response, “it’s actually the most common response that somebody who experiences trauma will have.”
Are you satisfied with a pubic narrative of trauma that erases the reality of a majority of victim’s responses?
Knowing that freezing is a common response to trauma may empower a survivor of a sexual assault to understand that what happened was not their fault, and that they should seek immediate help and support. Since rape survivors are four to six times more likely to attempt suicide, this knowledge could save lives.
Awareness is growing, and more college students are now being encouraged to get active, or “affirmative consent” from their potential sexual partners. This may sound silly at first, because we’re all pretty sure we would be able to tell if someone were having a traumatic reaction to our sexual advances, right? But what if we are basing that confidence on the assumption that if someone doesn’t put up a decent fight, they are probably on board with our actions? This assumption is dangerous.
Research in sexual assault-related responses is lacking, and we need more people to speak up and share their stories. April 1 marks the beginning of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and I encourage you to take this time to increase your awareness on this issue.
A rape occurs every two minutes in the US. In the time it’s taken you to read this article, it’s very likely that someone has experienced a freeze response to a sexual assault.
So what can you do? There’s no legislation we can pass that will stop sexual assaults from happening. Cultural change starts on the individual level, with awareness, education and empowerment. Listen to the stories of the people in your life; chances are, someone close to you has one to tell. Talk to the people who listen to you — your children, friends, significant other — about sexual assault, and the common trauma response of freezing. Share your story and combat the stigma and shaming associated with speaking up about rape. Learn about sexual assault, trauma responses and consent.
If you’ve experienced a sexual assault, you can call Haven’s 24-hour confidential hotline at 1-603-994-7233 to talk to a trained advocate. And you can find more information and resources on the websites of: Haven at havennh.org, UNH’s Prevention Innovations Research Center at cola.unh.edu/prevention-innovations and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center at nsvrc.org.
This article was originally published on March 27, 2016 in Seacoast Sunday, the combined Sunday edition of The Portsmouth Herald and Fosters Daily Democrat. Read the online version of the op-ed on Fosters.com.
You can also find this article on Medium.com, where I’ve added additional resources and links to research that I found helpful as I researched this topic for this article.