When I was young and sexually naïve, one of my first sexual experiences was uncomfortable, as is common. I was high and alone in a room with a guy much bigger than me and while we were hanging out he reached under my shirt and started touching me. It was sudden, I didn’t want any of it, and I remember a blank mind: feeling the sensation of what he was doing, and the inability to respond.
I was frozen for several minutes while he continued to touch me, and then I snapped out of my state to come to and leave. He watched me climb out the fire escape, certainly disappointed, perhaps confused. I didn’t at any point say “no,” so I figured that those minutes of unwanted touch were my fault.
My friend Lisa (not her real name) has also experienced this type of freeze. After a long night of partying, she found herself in her roommate’s boyfriend’s room. He suddenly started sweet-talking her into sex. For her this was shocking—he was her roommate’s boyfriend, after all. She froze and felt him climb on top of her. He unzipped her pants.
She was adrenaline-fueled by this point. In her head, she was screaming at him, forcing him off, and running away. But instead, she didn’t move. She imagines her face was completely blank during all of this, like a doll. He had sex with her and she didn’t stop him, didn’t say no, didn’t “do anything.” It was over so fast, but the fallout lasted for years. She felt haunted by the experience, and blamed only herself. Her roommate also blamed her for the assault because she didn’t scream, didn’t run, didn’t fight back.
Years later, Lisa found herself in medical school, learning about the fight-flight-freeze response. It was new to her because she (and I) had been taught the very old-school (read: 1920s) fight-or-flight response, the lens through which she’d always viewed her experience. She told me about the freeze response and we started talking to friends about it, and learned that many of them have had a similar experience.
It seemed that people often froze in uncomfortable or dangerous sexual situations. In these situations—ranging from unwanted touch to rape—people often didn’t fight or run, and thus considered themselves at fault. It’s one of the reasons that the old “no means no” guidance is so broken.
So, I decided to talk to an expert about freezing. Jim Hopper, an independent consultant and a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard Medical School, has written extensively about the freeze response in the context of sexual assault and harassment and also treats patients in clinical practice. The first thing he tells me is that, yes, freezing is a typical, automatic first response to being attacked—whether sexually or physically—and that many assault victims experience some version of this response.
From a scientific standpoint, freezing is when there’s a temporary hold of movement. You’re not paralyzed and unable to move or speak (which is happens in very different responses called tonic immobility and collapsed immobility), but holding still is your brain’s automatic reaction. He also tells me that, through his research, he’s articulated and coined titles for several different types of freezing.
The “detection freeze” happens instantly and briefly when something dangerous in the situation has been detected. Your brain stops movement and speech so it can receive information about the attack and the possibilities for escaping it. Your lack of movement also makes it less likely that (in the original biological context) the predator will see you. Your mind can be blank, even though you’re receiving information about your environment, because your brain isn’t generating options of how to respond yet. This type of freezing has been studied by scientists in both human and animal populations.
“Shocked freezing” can be a continuation of the detection freeze, but you’re unable to think. You don’t have any options of what to do because your brain literally hasn’t come up with any yet, and you can get stuck there for several (long) seconds. People describe it as being totally blank or “in a state of shock,” or as Hopper says, “it didn’t compute.”
The third type of freezing, which he calls “No Good Choices Freezing,” is where you’re paralyzed between the very extreme options you’ve imagined. Sometimes people are being assaulted in a room next to a party, and they can’t choose between calling out and exposing their vulnerable situation (such as revealing a naked body) or fighting against this person, which could bring even more violence. They’re unable to make a choice between the two horrible options.
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The consequences for people experiencing a freeze response to sexual assault are dramatic. “If they don’t understand that these are normal, brain-based responses that evolution put into our brains to help us survive attack by larger predators, then they are likely to misunderstand and blame themselves,” Hopper says. “[They might] think ‘Oh, it’s because I’m weak, because I’m stupid, because I’m a coward.’” People blame themselves because they seemingly didn’t do anything that they “should have” or “could have,” he says.
These misunderstandings of the freeze response can also lead people around the survivor to misunderstand their lack of action. Hopper spends some of his work as an expert witness in these types of assault cases by explaining that the brain’s automatic responses don’t follow logic.
In these situations, people don’t have the time or the brain capacity to think things through in a sophisticated way. “You’ve got to be able to fall back on reflexes that evolution baked into your brains, or maybe habits that you’ve learned from prior encounters with perpetrators, or through combat training or good self-defense training,” Hopper says.
Evolution shaped our highly stressed brains to fall back on habits and reflexes, because rational thought processes take too much time. For this reason, Hopper suggests that one of the few ways to be able to respond to an attacker effectively—at least in theory—is to bake in new responses. That’s what the military does with highly repetitive combat training. In his recent article for Psychology Today , he discusses the importance of self-defense training that accurately mimics real-world situations.
For Lisa and I, it helps to understand the freeze response so we can reframe our stories. It wasn’t a personal failure: Our bodies responded to the fear in the best ways they knew how. Our brains were protecting our bodies and what happened wasn’t our fault.
These days, some states, universities, and countries are considering or are already using a “yes means yes” model of consent. It encourages positive sexual affirmation that both parties are interested and desire what is happening. This could make all the difference in terms of how people interpret the freeze response. In our frozen moments, we are unable to speak, a behavior which could no longer be interpreted as silent consent.
If you need someone to talk to about an experience with sexual abuse you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), where trained staff can provide you with support, information, advice, or a referral. You can also access 24/7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org .
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