By Anole Halper
Survivors of sexual violence sometimes blame themselves because in the moment of violence, they did something they don’t understand: rather than run away or fight back, they stayed still; they did nothing.
This response to sexual violence is extremely common. In one study, 88% of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and 75% of survivors of adult sexual assault experienced moderate to high levels of paralysis during the assault.
Yet our culture and the legal system re-enforce survivors’ this self-blame, asking them, “but why didn’t you leave or run away or fight back?”
The truth is that In those moments when survivors were perfectly still, their bodies and brains were not doing nothing. They were engaged in a survival strategy encoded into our brains by our ancient ancestors, called freeze/fold. They were doing something wise.
When survivors froze, they were not doing nothing…they were doing something wise.
You’ve heard a lot about the stress responses, fight and flight. Freeze/fold is the third stress response, their quieter sibling. You’ve seen the freeze response when the deer in your yard stayed perfectly still when your car pulled up, or when you picked up an insect in childhood and it curled up in a ball and didn’t move, playing dead. Some argue that the latter response is a distinct variation on the freeze response, called tonic immobility.
[Image description: In the forground, brown leaves are on the pavement. In the background, green trees are out of focus. Centered in the frame vertically and horizontally is a brown baby deer. Its ears are up and their body language appears alert.]
Regardless, like fight and flight, freezing (in all its forms) is a survival strategy we share with many animals. According to FORGE’s Self-Help Guide to Healing and Understanding for trans survivors,
“While the advantages of fighting or fleeing are obvious, freezing or folding can also be life-saving
if they cause the predator to lose interest.” We may be sophisticated mammals with complex brains, but we have retained the part of our brains wired not for problem-solving, but for survival, the brain stem. We share this part of our brain with reptiles, and therefore call it our “reptilian brain.”
In dangerous situations, our reptile brain activates, and the part of our brains that think and feel, the frontal cortex and limbic system respectively, shut down. This is why, during an assault, survivors are unable to think through how to get out of the situation.
[Image description: Two diagrams of the brain are side-by-side. They are both the same vaguely brain-shaped imahes, bulbous with a long stem, with three concentric parts outlined and labeled. The left diagram is in shades of gray. The right is in blue and green. On the left, the bottom-most part of the diagram including the stem is labeled “reptilian.” The same part of the brain on the right is labeled “survival.” The middle section in the right diagram is labeled “Limbic system (old mammalian.” The middle section in the right diagram is labeled “emotional.” On the left, the top most part of the diagram is labeled “Neocortex (neomammalian). On the right, the top most part of the diagram is labeled “thinking.”]
Instead when the freeze response takes over, survivors are not only unable to think, they are literally unable to move. So if you froze during your sexual assault, please know that you were protecting yourself, and that there is nothing you could have done differently.
Read more on how to heal and understand your experience here.