Why We Should Stop Dismissing Freezing Up As a Reaction to Sexual Assault

It's a disturbingly common belief that people who are raped should respond in two ways—fight or flight. I know that's not how I responded.

by Jackie Hong
Mar 10 2016, 7:19pm

Photo via Flickr user fumigraphik

Photo via Flickr user Josep Ma. Rosell

When I was raped, there was no struggle.

I repeatedly said I didn't want to have sex, but when he started pulling down my pants and underwear anyway, my body seemed to freeze over. A million thoughts rushed through my head and then stopped, and my mind starting drifting somewhere else, somewhere safer, as I lay in the back of his car stiff and silent.

To people who have never been raped, it may seem weird—unbelievable, even—that someone in that situation wouldn't be doing everything in their power to resist or get away. After all, we're all programmed with the fight-or-flight instinct that's supposed to kick in during threatening situations, right? Following that line of thought, if you don't do either of those things, then you must not have actually felt threatened—and in the context of rape, that must mean the person actually wanted what was happening.

It's a frighteningly common belief—one sadly common in the justice system—and one that some survivors themselves even hold.

But also not true at all, because, besides fighting or fleeing, there's also another natural, less talked-about reaction to high-stress, fear-filled situations—freezing up and withdrawing.

"Freezing is actually a common response to threat that we see in mammals, in fact, not just humans," said Dr. Martin Antony, a Ryerson University psychology professor and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook. "Some people would argue that ... people shouldn't even talk about 'fight or flight.' They should talk about 'fight, flight or freezing.'"

Freezing, Antony explained, usually lasts briefly and actually happens in lots of situations where there's an element of fear or panic—not being able to speak or think of the right words when you're nervous, for example, is also the freezing instinct at work. It's probably designed to help someone assess the situation and make a decision that isn't impulsive.

Karlene Moore, a counsellor and advocate at Toronto Rape Crisis Centre, offered a similar explanation and added that rape myths—for example, that rape is perpetrated by strangers who jump out of bushes or dark alleys when in fact, it's usually someone the survivor knows—can also contribute to the freezing reaction.

"We're trying to process, we're trying to figure out what is going on, because what we've been taught about sexual violence, sexually assault, [and what] rape looks like is not what's happening, but we also can feel something really wrong is happening," Moore said.

Lily*, now 23, was sexually assaulted multiple times by her then-boyfriend when she was 14. She vividly remembers her body freezing up during at least one of the assaults, where he had pressured her into letting him perform oral sex on her. She gave in, on the condition that she could keep her underwear on.

"All I remember is the fear and pain that was happening," Lily said. "... My body was just stiff and I wanted to scream. I could feel the scream in my throat but I was too embarrassed to show him I didn't like what he was doing so I just lay there and was hoping it would end soon."

Like me, she also remembers her mind drifting away to other places during the assault—for her, it landed on her math homework.

"I kept thinking, 'Oh, I need to get home soon, I have to do my math homework...' Which is funny because I actually hated math so I don't know why my brain went there," Lily said.

Mentally withdrawing during an assault can serve as another defence when, after the initial freezing, someone thinks they can't get out of a threatening situation, Antony said.

"You may come to a realization that if you struggle too much, you're actually putting yourself at more risk. Maybe the person might respond violently towards you with something like that, or you might come to the conclusion where you can't escape," he explained. "And in that moment, if you can't escape physically, escaping mentally can protect you from some of that pain that might experience in that situation."

Another person I spoke to, Chris*, also reported mentally escaping when they were raped five years ago by someone they'd known since childhood. Their attacker, who was a few years older, had driven them to a party at a house they had never been to. When he advanced on them, Chris felt they didn't have a choice but to go along with it because they had no way of getting home without him driving them back.

"I kind of dissociated. I wasn't thinking much of anything. I just remember wanting to go home... I wasn't fully there," Chris said. "Things were happening, but for the most part, I wasn't thinking. I was completely disconnected from the situation."

I haven't been able to find any stats on how many people froze when they were sexually assaulted, and I'm not sure that information even exists; Antony told me little research has been done on the freezing effect at all, never mind on freezing during specific situations. But in this case, I think the experiences of people who have lived through sexual assault says enough.

Freezing and withdrawing are defensive responses—not consent.

*Names have been changed to ensure privacy.

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