Author’s Note: This essay was originally published on Hamilton and Griffin on Rights, a site run by Professor Marci Hamilton and Professor Leslie Griffin, which is dedicated to the healthy separation of church and state and the rights of women and children (specifically surrounding childhood sexual abuse). I encourage you to check out the site and the amazing work these women are doing. It is currently the only legal blog that has the majority of content authored by women, and you can find my writing there on the last Tuesday of each month. This post has been republished with permission.
I have a recurring nightmare where I am being hunted. It looks like a chase scene from an action movie, except that whenever I try to fight back, my body becomes paralyzed. If I attempt to scream, my throat only releases breathy gasps. Running away? Forget about it. I am weighed down with inaction, and left completely vulnerable to my attackers.
It’s no mystery to me why this nightmare haunts me: On September 11th, 2004, I was raped. I said “no,” but he didn’t listen. I always thought I’d be prepared for such a situation, and imagined myself as somebody who would fight back, or at very least get myself out of there. I was, after all, an outspoken woman and a force to be reckoned with — a star basketball and rugby player of considerable size and spirit. But when the time came to rescue myself, I completely froze. My dissociative state was almost like an out-of-body experience: I could see myself lying there taking it, but I was powerless to intervene. The worst part is that there was another person besides my attacker in the room, drunkenly passed out. If only I’d screamed, I probably could have escaped. Instead, I played dead.
The shame followed me around like a shadow. I remember sitting across from my mother in a booth in my hometown’s tavern on a mild, late December day. It had been over three months since my assault and I was finally home for winter break to recover and decompress from a painful semester. We’d just finished up lunch, and as she was paying the bill, she slid two crisp twenty dollar bills across the table towards me.
“What’s this for?” I asked, confused.
“To get your nails done — one of those acrylic manicures you like. So the next time a man tries to take advantage of you, you can scratch his eyes out,” she said matter-of-factly.
I thanked her, and put the money in my pocket. I could recognize objectively that she was trying to support me and to do something nice for me, but all I could feel was the burning shame that I hadn’t done enough to prevent my rape. I felt that, even in the eyes of my own mother, I’d been an imperfect victim.
Why didn’t I fight back?
It’s a question I ask myself constantly, and one I’ve been asked by a surprising number of well-intentioned friends and family members. I know that they don’t mean anything by it. They’re genuinely trying to understand my state of mind all those years ago; what made me tick during that unimaginable moment when I realized that my body was no longer my own and my worst nightmare was coming to life.
For years, I beat myself up over not fighting back: Why would I just lie there? Why didn’t I fight? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I do something? In my mind, it was as though I had acquiesced to my own sexual assault; “go ahead, I’ll just be quiet and lie here.”
But is that really what happened? Of course not. The true reason I froze is likely the same reason that so many people freeze in traumatic situations: Survival.
The freezing response to trauma is called “tonic immobility,” and it’s extremely common among survivors of sexual assault. According to The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault:
Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.”
It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. Because sometimes the safest thing to do to protect the safety is to fight back. Sometimes the safest thing to do is to flee. Sometimes the stupidest thing to do is to flee because it will incite chase. Therefore, our bodies have been wired for a freeze response too — to play dead, to look dead, because that may be the safest thing for the survival of the organism. So it is a mammalian response that is in all of us — we can’t control it. And it happens in extremely fearful situations.
Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear.
Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to the 50 percent than the 12 percent.
There’s also some emerging data that suggests that tonic immobility is slightly more common if a victim has a prior history of sexual assault. So if he or she had been sexually assaulted as a child and then was subsequently assaulted in adolescence or adulthood, the likelihood of experiencing tonic immobility at those later assaults tends to increase.
Learning about tonic immobility and the neuroscience behind it made me feel infinitely better about freezing in such a perilous moment of my life. It was incredibly healing to learn that my freezing response was both normal and natural. Of course, people will say that I should have done this or that to prevent my assault, and at one point, I might have agreed with them. However, the reality is that trauma changes the way your brain functions — you are not able to think rationally in that moment. You are all instincts and survival, and as much as you think you will be able to choose between fight, flight, and freeze, you don’t have much of a choice at all. Your brain chooses for you, based on complex information you don’t even realize you’ve processed.
Learning to Understand Myself
This past weekend, I was reminded of just how easy it is for me to freeze and lose all sense of power or control over my body. My partner and I went for our monthly massage. We walked into our usual parlour, set ourselves up in our usual room, and waited for our usual masseuses to enter. Everything was going off without a hitch, except, about fifteen minutes into our rubdowns, something bizarre happened: my female masseuse called over a male colleague and asked him to finish my massage. Nobody asked me if this was ok. In fact, nothing was communicated to me at all, and the switch took place so swiftly and quietly that I didn’t have time to process what was happening, much less protest.
My cheeks went hot with rage and fear. I had previously told the staff that I only wanted female masseuses, but I hadn’t bothered to specify anything that day, because I figured why bother saying something when they’ve assigned me a woman anyway? I stared at the man’s feet through the face hole in the massage table, wanting desperately to scream for him to stop — to tell him that he was being too rough and hurting me; to ask for the woman back. My muscles tightened and I internally begged and berated myself to just say something; anything. Instead, I seethed in silence, unable to act.
My partner lay just four feet away from me, completely oblivious to my suffering — unaware that any change had been made, or that I was so deeply affected by it.
As we walked to the car, I felt myself falling apart. I sobbed, and told him what happened.
“Why didn’t you just say something?” he asked, obviously hurt that the entire traumatic experience had happened right under his nose without his stepping in.
“I couldn’t. You don’t understand,” I said through my tears, trying to find a way to understand myself; knowing that there will be many more instances like this, where I long to stand up for myself but simply can’t; feeling so incredibly pathetic and small.
I explained to him why “just saying something” is so terrifyingly impossible to me and why I play dead rather than assert my needs. In the process, I found myself easing up on the self-judgment for a moment and really understanding my own actions from an outsider’s perspective, rather than colored by my fear and shame. At the moment, that really feels like a huge step.
I know my healing will never end. It comes in tides and there will always be something around the corner to challenge my ability to forgive myself. In times like these, I must remind myself of the same mantra I’ve been repeating daily for decades: you did nothing wrong; it’s not your fault.