Last Sunday, I stood across the table from my friend, Sarah, as our eyes locked on to one other. We uttered no words to each other at first, but in our eyes locking, we were asking each other the same question. “Did that just happen?”
Her eyes filled with tears as my mind filled with total and complete disbelief.
Someone had just sexually assaulted me and I froze like a deer in headlights.
My friend, Sarah, had just watched as someone sexually assaulted me and she froze, too.
Everything that happened before “the grab” is a blur. Much of what happened after that is too.
Except my rage.
I was livid after this happened, but I wasn’t angry at the man who grabbed me. I was angry with myself for freezing. Sarah was in tears when she looked at me and said, “I’m so sorry I didn’t jump over the table to help you.”
Importantly, this post is not just about sexual assault. It is about the consequences of actions that many of us do not appreciate or even recognize. This post is for people who have engaged in inappropriate, behavior to help them understand how their actions might affect others & it is for people who have experienced moments like this to help them to understand why they may have reacted as they did.
When most people think about trauma, they think about fight or flight, but in reality, one major response to traumatic experiences is the freeze response. In reality, how we react to traumatic situations is beyond our control. The “thinking” part of our brains go “off line”, so we cannot really think. We can only react. Much of our action or inaction in traumatic situations are reflexes brought on by specific hormones released in our bodies. All of this happens in a matter of seconds.
In situations where our brains assess that we can defeat or overcome the traumatic situation, we fight. Likewise, in situations where the traumatic situation is too much to overcome, we flee as fast as we can. You may be wondering about situations where we freeze.
“By default, this reaction refers to a situation in which you’ve concluded (in a matter of seconds—if not milliseconds) that you can neither defeat the frighteningly dangerous opponent confronting you nor safely bolt from it… Consider situations in which, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself. You have neither the hormone-assisted strength to respond aggressively to the inimical force nor the anxiety-driven speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you.
Say, you’re attacked by a ferocious dog who’s sunk his teeth into your neck and you’re totally at his mercy. Or a child suddenly finding yourself captive to a vicious bully who’s pulled you to the ground and is pummeling you with all his might. Or a victim of a sexual predator who’s overpowered you and literally taken custody of your body…In such alarming instances, you’d experience trepidation, panic, horror, dread. And these extreme feelings would be so fraught with anxiety, so laden with terror, that almost no one is “gifted” with the resources required to stay fully in the present…”
The freeze response is just as important and self-preserving as fight or flight. People who behave in sexually inappropriate ways often do not understand this response. They often question the reaction or lack of reaction from the other person. Why didn’t they say no? Why didn’t they stop me? Why didn’t they tell me they didn’t like it?
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the same freeze response that frustrates those of us who experience it. The medical and psychological literature refers to the freeze response as tonic immobility. Dr. Jon Finch writes, “tonic immobility is a common but involuntary response to inescapable life-threatening events”. While professionals, including social workers, therapists, and psychologists understand that tonic immobility is a common response to sexual trauma, few people who experience sexual trauma are aware that this happens.
Just as I’ve heard people who have perpetrated inappropriate acts question it, I have heard hundreds of survivors question why they didn’t fight back or run away. I’ve listened while survivors have questioned why they didn’t say no & I’ve heard many suggest that if they had just fought harder they could have protected themselves.
Someone sexually assaulted me and I froze. Despite my anger at myself, rationally I know that I had no control over my freeze response. The act was seemingly harmless to the person who did it, but to me, someone who has experienced sexual violence, the violation of my body space without my consent sent me into an automatic trauma response that I am still working through. Of course, the man who did this could not have known my history.
I could be angry with him. I could write him off as a misogynist or a jerk. Instead, I chose to educate him.
Educating people about the impacts of trauma is integral to preventing sexual victimization. If people understood that their actions have unforeseeable & invisible consequences, they might think twice before acting. At the very least, they might begin to appreciate why someone might not say anything when another person violates their boundaries.
What might this education look like? What does it feel like to lean into an uncomfortable conversation with someone who violated your space and your body?
In part 2 of this blog, I will speak with my friend Sarah, who was in the room when I was sexually assaulted last week. We will discuss what the week entailed for both of us and how Sarah and I found healing from the experience and the surprising conversations that arose.