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Devon MacDermott Ph.D.
Devon MacDermott Ph.D.

Why Women Freeze During Sexual Assault

Neurobiology explains why many women can't "just tell him to stop."

Source: FabrikaSimf/Shutterstock

While it is deeply painful to see so many counts of sexual assault in the news, it is even more painful to see how many blog commenters say things like “I don’t get it, why didn’t she just leave?” or “it’s not sexual assault if you stay.” As a trauma therapist, I know that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Victims of sexual assault are twice traumatized: by their assault and the blame they unjustly receive following their assault. For many victims of sexual assault, not being believed is almost as painful as the assault itself.

The Science of Trauma

The human nervous system has two modes. When you are calm and feel safe you are in “safe mode.” In safe mode, your brain is also calm and able to perform your daily functions normally. When you enter into “not-safe mode” your brain reacts by starting to shut down its own non-essential parts. This is part of the fight-flight-freeze mechanism that allows you to focus on surviving a threat. When you enter into not-safe mode you loose access to several essential brain structures including the areas that help you with reason and abstract thought, sensing your own body and mind, planning, and speech production. For example, if you’ve ever been very upset and literally unable to speak (or unable to speak coherently) it was because your brain had entered not-safe mode. Your brain does this because in moments of danger it wants to channel all of it’s energy into keeping you alive. It takes blood flow and nutrients away from “thinking parts” and puts those resources towards “safety parts.” Instead of prioritizing abstract thought and problem solving, your brain prioritizes the input from your five senses and your emotions and the output to your body. This is why people can have superhuman strength or incredible visual awareness in moments of extreme distress. When you are terrified or overwhelmed your brain, automatically, without you ever knowing that it happened, puts everything into keeping you alive.

How Freeze Is Different

Most people have heard of fight or flight. It is a mechanism that has allowed mammals to survive for thousands of years. When something happens that scares you, you don’t think, you just react. If you’ve ever been startled and your body started running before you ever thought “oh no, I should get out of here” that was your flight mechanism at work. Fight and flight are both active defenses in that they are ways to stop something bad from happening.

Freeze is different. The brain uses freeze when there is no perceived way out. It’s used as a method to reduce the likelihood or intensity of harm. Like a deer in headlights, you tend to freeze when you are not sure what to do to escape danger. We all look a little different when we freeze: some people look alarmed and completely rigid while others look numb or vacant. Freeze is a mechanism that the brain resorts to more and more often with repeated trauma. When fight and flight have failed to keep you safe, the brain starts to use freeze as a way to not excite an aggressor more. Think of it like the gazelle or opossum that gets overwhelmed by a predator and slumps to the ground in an attempt to be less-interesting prey.

Freeze is a brilliant mechanism that mammals have used successfully for thousands of years to avoid attack. Victims of sexual assault still experience freeze now for the same purpose. Unfortunately, painfully, freeze is read by many as consent. It isn’t.

Freeze and Sexual Assault

The most common symptoms of freeze are:

  • Your thoughts get cloudy or your mind goes blank
  • You feel panicky but without a sense of direction
  • You feel hopeless or trapped
  • You have a strong desire to get out of the situation or make something stop but you don’t know how
  • You feel that any action you take might make the situation worse and it seems better to do nothing

Freeze is much more likely if you have experienced trauma before. Previous trauma can include sexual assault but it doesn’t have to. If you’ve been a victim of body shaming, manipulation, frequent invalidation, or had repeated feelings of powerlessness over your body’s safety, sexual consent, or boundary violations, freeze can become a more likely response to an overwhelming situation. Freeze is also more likely if the situation has uneven power dynamics like “he’s rich and famous,” “I’m already at his house and I don’t know where the exits are,” or “he’s insulting me or making me feel like I’m allowing this to happen.”

“You Did What You Needed to Survive”

It’s time to change the dialogue about freezing during sexual assault. It is not and never will be consent. It is the body screaming for safety in the only way it knows how. It is the senses being overwhelmed to the point of immobility. It is terror masked as numbness.

We can all contribute to changing the narrative about freeze, consent, and sexual violence. Here are some things you can do:

  • Instead of asking victims of sexual assault questions like “why didn’t you...?” say “you did what you needed to survive.” Use validating, non-victim-blaming language.
  • If you know someone who has been a victim of sexual assault teach them about how freeze is a survival mechanism. It will help them reduce their sense of guilt, shame, and personal responsibility.
  • Educate others on their victim-blaming language.
  • Start conversations about enthusiastic consent and use it in your intimate relationships. If you don’t know what enthusiastic consent is, here’s a great article.
About the Author
Devon MacDermott Ph.D.

Devon MacDermott, Ph.D., is a psychologist in New York City who specializes in trauma and OCD recovery.

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