The shame of freezing during my rape

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. 

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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.

The Internet Commenters in My Head

Confession time: I’m addicted to internet comments. They’re probably my worst, most destructive vice. No, really. I have a problem — I absolutely MUST know what anonymous people on the internet think. I will often gloss over huge portions of articles I’m genuinely interested in just to see how the commenters reacted. My problem runs so deep that, if I’m reading an article on my phone and can’t get the comments to load from my mobile browser, I will email the link to myself so that I can read the comments on my laptop later on. Yeah, it’s pretty bad.

Why the obsession with what random people online think? There are too many reasons to list, but the ones I’m most able to articulate are: 1), I’m a glutton for other peoples’ ignorance and stupidity, 2), sometimes commenters genuinely bring perspective or further depth to an article or concept that I’ve never thought of, 3), the lawyer in me simply MUST know what the other side(s) are saying so I can stay in front of their arguments in the inevitability that I end up in a real life debate on the topic, 4), because clearly I hate myself and don’t value my own time. Ha!

I try to keep in mind the fact that the people who consistently comment on internet media are not representative of the entire population — the vast majority of folks are like, “meh, this is not important enough for me to get involved,” while internet commenters are like:

For me, it's more like, "I can't. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to watch someone else destroy them in the comments section!"

For me, it’s more like, “I can’t. This is important. Someone is wrong on the internet and I have to watch someone else destroy them in the comments section!”

According to my brother, most anons who angrily comment on the internet are either teenagers in their rooms with nothing better to do, or worse, adults with nothing better to do.

But still, their words seep into me and I find myself fearful of them. They color both my perceptions of myself and the thoughts I share when I write. Ultimately, I fear both rejection and harassment and as silly as it sounds, one of my worst nightmares is hundreds of anonymous people telling me how horrible, stupid, fat and unworthy I am.

By constantly reading what they write, it’s almost as though I am trying to arm myself against them — trying to stay one step ahead of them, so I can ward them off preemptively. So that nobody will ever say something terrible or hurtful to me anonymously again. Because that’s how THAT works.

I’m no stranger to internet harassment. When I was a Freshman in high school, somebody made a screen name on AIM called “ChelcIsFat” and proceeded to send me bullying messages day after day:

“How much do you weigh? 38729202339392728292 lbs?!”

I blocked them, and they came back around time and time again under different burner screen names — over and over, until I had nothing left but tears and the burning question:

“Why me? Am I really so horrible?”

I had my faults, for sure. I was a hanger on and a bit annoying, but I didn’t deserve cruelty. I didn’t deserve harassment. And I found all of those negative internet experiences to be extremely alienating and scarring. They still profoundly affect me and the way I interact with others.

Sadly, cruelty and harassment are just par for the course when you’re a woman on the internet — or anyone on the internet, really (though, let’s be honest, women are particularly targeted).

Here’s the thing — as much as I try to compartmentalize all of those anons, and tell myself to brush them off, I’ve noticed lately that they’ve taken on a life of their own in my mind.

They’re perpetuating my self-doubt: “I shouldn’t publish that — nobody cares about what I think about racism. I’m no authority!”

They’re lurking beneath my words, urging me to be more diplomatic when I’m really, really not: “Maybe I should tone down that argument… I don’t want to anger anybody or have them criticize me.”

They’re keeping me from fulfilling my potential and being true to myself: “I shouldn’t post too much in my blog, or promote myself too enthusiastically or people will get annoyed,” or “I can’t post two essays in a row about my grief or I’ll drive people away. What if people think that’s all I am?!”

They’re holding me back from fully pursuing writing: to this day, I won’t publish my work anywhere that has anonymous commenting systems, for fear of backlash or harassment.

I’m ashamed to admit that I police myself based on the words of anonymous people who are, for all intents and purposes, extremists. But I also don’t know how to get them out of my head or get past my paralyzing fear of being bullied again.

I’m sensitive, and I don’t want to (slash honestly couldn’t) change that.

So what do I do? Do I keep quiet and let them win, or do I put on a brave face and keep writing? Is it worth it to get hit in order to be authentic? Am I seriously this pathetic and cowardly, when there are people like Malala Yousafzai in this world (who, if you’ll remember, was a CHILD when she risked her life to write about being under Taliban occupation, and despite being shot in the head for that conviction, she is STILL putting herself on the line to advocate for girls’ education)?!

These are the questions I grapple with constantly. And of course, the internet commenters in my head have plenty of opinions in regards to the answers.

But today, I’m going to very maturely give them a big ol’ double middle finger and say, LA LA LA, I’M NOT LISTENING.