By Lauren Cutler
We've all thought that we could easily run away, fight back, or scream if we were to be in a life-threatening situation.
Have you ever thought, after reading a survivor's story, 'Why didn't you just punch him to get him off you?' Or maybe, have you been listening to a friend describe what their experience entailed and you've thought, 'Could you not have run out the room?'
Most of us have heard stories of survivors not fighting back and it is all too common to hear judgments about this"lack of" response. These stories make us uncomfortable and we may kick ourselves for questioning their decision not to fight or scream or run, but we can't help it.
I was always the girl who said, 'If a man tries that on me, I'm going to kick him where it hurts, scream at him and run away.' But in that actual situation, an uncontrollable fear overcomes you and you feel powerless. I was so shocked he could do such a thing, I tried to fight him but it made it worse, so I just froze.
I couldn't give you a concrete timestamp of how long it went on, but there was not one second I didn't feel fear, pain, or numbness. But there was nothing I could physically do. I just lay there, motionless, waiting for him to stop.
After my experience, I would often question my sense of self and my worth. I would feel ashamed for not trying to push him off me. The realisation in myself that this act of freezing was normal and a natural reaction gave me comfort. My body and mind didn’t give up on me, quite the opposite.
I am still asked, “Did you not try to push him off?” As a survivor, there is nothing more devaluing and wounding than when someone asks you this question. I not only have to struggle against the shame of not fighting back, but I have to explain to you my reasons for not fighting back…
If she didn’t scream, try to run away, or physically fight back, then it wasn't sexual assault, abuse, or rape.
Even in court - I say even like it is a surprise the legal system doesn't protect women from sexual violence - survivors have not received justice because they didn't conform to myths about what constitutes certain violence. In 2019 a Spanish court sentenced five men who were initially charged with gang-raping a 14-year-old-girl, for sexual abuse. It was concluded that it wasn't rape because the victim was unconscious and therefore wasn't forcibly assaulted. The five were sentenced to between 10 and 12 years in prison; they would have received 15-20 years if convicted of sexual assault.
In the UK, an alleged victim was judged to not have been raped as she had taken “no physical steps” to stop a man from raping her and that this, therefore, “did not constitute rape.” Because, in a situation of violence and fear, when you don't show evidence of fighting back, you are judged as not a real survivor of sexual violence.
Rape Crisis England works to break this illusion. It’s really common for people who experience sexual violence to find they can’t move or speak. This is one of our bodies’ automatic responses to fear and is designed to keep us safe.
Why do we freeze in these situations?
There are five common reactions to fear and danger - fight, flight, freeze, flop, and friend - and there are all just as instinctive as each other. These are automatic ways of protecting us from further harm and surviving a dangerous situation.
Fight: using physical force to fight the perpetrator, and fighting verbally e.g. saying 'no'.
Flight: physically getting yourself away from danger: including running, hiding or backing away.
Freeze: going tense, still, and silent. Freezing is a brain-based response to detecting danger. Here, we can break another myth in which freezing is not giving consent, it is an instinctive survival response: animals often freeze to avoid harm, or to 'play dead' to avoid being seen and eaten by predators.
Flop: body reaction that is unconsciously employed to reduce the physical pain of what's happening to you which makes your muscles loose and your body goes 'floppy'.
Friend: calling for a 'friend'. This means shouting or screaming to try and attract attention.
We have a one in five chance of responding to trauma in a certain way, and we don't get to choose which one.
It is not a decision to react in one of these five ways. Like how we don't get to decide if we are to experience sexual violence, a reaction response is not a choice, decision or resolution, or any other synonym you can think of for single-mindedness in responding to sexual violence. These responses are all natural and common for experiencing fear and being in danger. It is your body's way to prime you for danger, and sometimes that is through numbing and paralyzing you with fear.
What can I say or do to help empower survivors who struggle with the realisation of freezing?
Because we hear a lot about fighting back, screaming, and running away, we can sometimes feel disappointed, frustrated, or even angry with ourselves when we were in a situation of extreme fear or danger, and we didn't meet our expectations. Similarly, when we hear stories of survivors who didn't meet these superhuman misconceptions that experiencing sexual violence gives us the ability to push our perpetrator off us, we maybe have reduced sympathy for these survivors.
Emotional support is crucial for survivors who struggle with the reality that they didn't fight back. You can provide essential emotional support by acknowledging that their situation was horrifying, difficult, and scary, and the fact that they have come out the other end is the biggest act of bravery. Courage and bravery are emotions we associate with the adrenaline junky who went skydiving or the child who stopped crying after falling over. But these emotions carry much more. Coming out of an experience of sexual violence is the ultimate act of courage.
It is easy to say 'Don't judge', but when a survivor is already questioning their unconscious bodily reaction and holding onto negative emotions, you do not need to impose further judgment and criticism.
Remembering that they couldn't be “rescued” and that this experience was one of ultimate bravery in the face of fear. Continuing to be patient and supportive of them if they do talk about themselves as not fighting back. Reassure them that they are not weak, they are not alone, and that they are safe now. Perhaps you could further research why our body does not automatically go into fight or flight mode.
Presence. If you’re present without any expectations about how they express their emotions' nor have any pre-judgments about fighting back, you can offer your support.
Finally, you are not a professional, and hearing someone devalue their own experience because their body reacted naturally can be hard to hear. You can sense the torture in their voice and the rejection of their defensive body mechanism. Offering to go with them to any mental health service, or checking in on them about their therapy, or sending them moral support networks shows your support.
It is not selfish to find it difficult to reassure someone that they are brave and that they couldn't physically, consciously, and unconsciously control their response, so to provide support through checking up on them is just as good. Perhaps if you struggle to talk about this, you may also find value in opening up and chatting with someone.
For the person reading this who froze during their experience of sexual violence, to the person who is supporting a friend who froze and to the person who is educating themselves on natural bodily reactions to sexual violence, one thing that can be helpful is to try and remind yourself that you are not in present danger. You are safe. You are strong.