By: Abrianna Morales
Fight, flight, and now, freeze. When we consider sexual assault, victim blaming, and rape-culture, we are often asked: "Why didn't you fight back?" It's a valid question, but it's often met with an invalid answer. So, let's talk about not fighting back and freezing--also known as tonic immobility--and see how we can bridge the gap in understanding normal responses to trauma, and how we can relate that back to what consent actually is, and isn't. The first article of our "Real-Talk" Series works to understand the reality of sexual assault, trauma, coping, and consent--starting with tonic immobility.
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
“Why didn’t you yell or scream?”
When we talk about victim-blaming and rape culture, we’re usually talking about these questions. They’re questions that people ask survivors, and questions that survivors often ask themselves. It’s completely reasonable to ask these questions—but it’s unreasonable to assume that the answer is:
“Because they wanted it.”
When we assume that they “wanted it,” just because they didn’t fight back, leave, or scream—we create and continue to spread a false depiction of what consent really is. Because more often than not, many victims find themselves feeling paralyzed—unable to fight, unable to run, and unable to scream—and this feeling of paralysis is a normal, common, and even expected neurobiological response to trauma.
In school, we frequently discuss our body’s reaction to fear. The release of adrenaline and other endorphins that triggers a “fight or flight” reaction to a situation. For instance, we might bring up encountering a wild animal: We see the wild animal and perceive it as a threat to our safety, the brain and autonomic nervous system release adrenaline and other endorphins—which triggers our “fight or flight” reaction, and we either fight off the perceived threat, or we run away from it.
“But what about that feeling of paralysis?”
That’s the other segment of our body’s reaction to fear that we don’t talk about as much. So, instead of just “fight or flight,” it’s actually, “fight, flight, or freeze.” This paralysis and “freeze” response is more formally identified as tonic immobility—a biological response seen in animals to become paralyzed when encountered by a perceived threat, in order to survive when the victim instinctively believes they cannot safely fight off or run from the threat at hand.
More simply put: Paralysis, or freezing, is another, completely normal response to trauma—and it’s formally referred to as tonic immobility.
“But some people do fight back, or leave, or scream: How come you didn’t?”
Everyone’s response to trauma is different and, frankly, we don’t really have very much control over our reactions to it. When we discussed our body’s response to a perceived threat, we mentioned the involvement of our “autonomic nervous system,” which is a self-governing bodily system—meaning that we don’t have very much say in what our autonomic nervous system decides to do—and that’s okay, because our bodies and our brains work for us and no matter your response to the trauma, you survived—and that’s what’s important.
So, when you’re asked why you didn’t fight back, leave, or scream, you don’t have to feel like you’re an outlier, or as if you’ve done anything wrong—because your neurobiological response to trauma is normal and justified, and “freezing” is nothing to be ashamed of.
“How does that relate back to consent?”
Like we said earlier, when we assume that not fighting back, leaving, or screaming, is the same thing as consent, we forget to consider all the different responses to trauma—such as tonic immobility. Though it may be seen as passive consent or cooperation, it’s really not—because cooperation is not consent, because fear can present itself in more than one way, and because consent should be affirmative.
So, instead of relying on “no means no,” for consent, let’s try thinking: “Yes means yes.”
Because cooperation isn’t consent; coercion isn’t consent; and freezing isn’t, either.
What do you want to know about sexual assault, trauma, coping, or consent? Let us know! Your questions are valid and you're not alone--comment or send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org, so we can write about what's important to you.
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All articles featured on this website are written by and for survivors, sometimes with the aide of mental health or legal professionals--each survivor or professional that is consulted will be identified within the individual article, unless they request otherwise.