A lot of people who have been sexually assaulted are further bothered by self-blame over having not fought back. We have ideas about what “strong” people are “supposed to do” in situations like this that are largely informed by movies and TV, and less so by science. But science actually can tell us a great deal about why sexual assault victims often experience themselves as “locking up”, “not thinking”, and even “floating out of their body”.
The “Freeze” system
The reality is that the body prevents you from fighting back in many traumatic circumstances, especially ones that are physically intense. This is known as the “freeze” system. It’s a very normal body response that is brought about by the abnormal circumstance of being confronted with sexual activity that you haven’t consented to.
The “freeze” system is a lot like the “fight or flight system”, but it has a different effect. The fight or flight system gives you more energy to ward someone off or run away and then helps you to try to do just that. The “freeze” system heightens all of your senses but also works to immobilize you and keep you still, in hopes that the danger will go away. In the animal kingdom, the idea is that maybe if you’re very still you are more likely to blend into the background and not get seen by a predator. You might have seen the freeze system activated by animals such as deer or squirrels who, when they’re startled, stop completely in their tracks. It’s the same set of hormones and neurochemicals at play.
It’s worth noting here that the freeze system is completely automatic and outside of your control. You don’t get to choose what system your amygdala (the part of your brain that deals with danger) will decide on. It just happens.
While we’re talking about normal body processes, let’s also make sure to mention that sexual excitement is normal during sexual assault experiences. The parts of your body involved are excited by touch and contact; they don’t understand the context so they just do what they do. Many people feel guilty or shameful about sexual excitement during unwanted sexual experiences, which may in part have to do with a projection of the shame and guilt that the perpetrator should be feeling instead.
Add to this that relationships are extremely complicated and that many people are assaulted by someone they know. Drugs and alcohol may have been involved. It’s often really unclear exactly what’s happening or how you feel about it at the time, because it is so overwhelming and it’s confusing to be emotionally manipulated in this way. It can be overwhelming for some time and people often don’t know how to handle it, which is one reason why many people who have experienced sexual assaults continue to be in contact with their abusers after the incident and why it can take some time and reflection to categorize an experience appropriately as an assault.