Tonic Immobility: Does Sexual Assault Make You Freeze?

Tonic Immobility: Does Sexual Assault Make You Freeze?

Tonic immobility: Why do women freeze up or smile when they are the target of a sexual offense?

Survivors of sexual assault can feel guilty for not protecting themselves from their attackers – I know I did. Despite spending years studying animals’ responses to severe stress, I never connected the dots between our evolutionary fight/flight/freeze response and my own inaction. After a recent assault, I looked to nature to understand why it is, that I, and other women, immobilize, smile, and simply wait for the pain to pass.

Do you blame yourself for the abuse you went through? Read Ways We Rationalize Abuse And Blame Ourselves Instead 

I am no stranger to sexual assault. At 18, a professor called me into his office, rubbed my shoulders and suggested we go to a hotel to “continue the conversation.” I managed to slink out of his office only to later find several explicit emails from him detailing all of the things he wanted to do to me. My boyfriend at the time read these and assumed I had been a participant in the fantasy. His revenge, as it were, was to assert his dominance over my body, holding me by the throat and forcing me to perform oral sex.

I didn’t report either of them.

Obviously, it was me. There was something about me. Something about the way I behaved that turned these men into monsters. Maybe it was that I never said no.

I had always been taught that women had to say no! We are told that we need to respect ourselves enough to fight, but that was the mystery to me. I did respect myself, but I could never bring myself to literally say the word “no” or fight back. My voice always just seemed to shrink away as my body went limp. Worse yet, sometimes I found myself smiling, hoping that by encouraging these behaviors at the moment I could cooperate myself out of the situation.

“Just play along until you can escape,” I thought.

I had no way of shutting down all of these men who would lurk, or stare or do something worse. Ask me outside of any of these situations what I would do and you’d hear my confident, resounding intentions to swiftly put an end to it. But each time a man harassed me, repeatedly asked me out, held me, hostage, in a booth at a bar, I didn’t stop him. Nor was I able to prevent the harassment from escalating.

Through my teens, 20s and early 30s, I believed that my inability to just say no was my own shortcoming. If I had really wanted it to stop, wouldn’t I have found away? Certainly, that’s the story we tell about countless women who have faced sexual assaults. William Henry, a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, made the following statement in defense of Roy Moore, who currently faces sexual misconduct charges from nine women:

“I think someone should prosecute and go after them.”

It should be no surprise that women blame themselves for the abuse so many of us experience.

Not long before the time of this writing, another powerful man forced his tongue down my throat and groped my breast—a pattern of behavior that was unlikely to have begun with or ended with me—and once again, I found myself frozen. But this was the incident that broke me. I could not live the rest of my life blaming myself.

Are you trying to move on from the abuse you went through? Read How My Journey Through Abuse Transformed My Life For The Better 

This time, I became a student of my own experience and began to study my behavior through a lens I’d never considered, even though it’s my specialty. As a scientist, I conducted experiments on the stress responses of birds.

One phenomenon I have seen over and over is something called tonic immobility. We would trap birds, handle them extensively and put colorful bands on their legs to mark them. Understandably, all this could severely stress the bird, but when we released them they usually didn’t try to fight back or escape. We would carefully place them on the ground and often they would lay just like that, perfectly immobile, for several minutes before flying freely away.

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