This is all well worth reading! The last part especially. I have been going back and forth in my head and beating myself up tonight. So, when I read this, it definitely helped me with that. The whole FREEZING thing gets to me all the time. How could he see it not as rape? Hmmm. Well, if you need a little help in that department, its a good read. If you’ve never been a rape victim, this is very educational. I know A LOT of people who need to read this. Mostly Family!
Freezing and paralysis during rape
from Resurrection After Rape by Matt Atkinson, LCSW
“I just lay there and took it!”
At first, few rape victims can tolerate alternate explanations for their rapes. For example, you may habitually tell yourself “I should have fought more,” without considering the possibility that you might have been harmed even worse had you done so. Because rape is about power and control, a rapist will use a level of aggression that exceeds any resistance in order to maintain that control. Furthermore, during a traumatic assault the body’s sympathetic nervous system takes over, instinctively regulating your behaviors for the sake of survival. That means your conscious mind stops choosing what to do, and your physical systems grab control, producing one of three basic responses: fight, flee, or freeze.
All three instincts have helpful and harmful aspects about them; they may either increase or decrease your safety. But contrary to what we see in movies and what we read in booklets promoted by the self-defense industry, the “fight instinct” is actually rather rare in both men and women. By far the most common instinct is the “freeze instinct,” in which the body becomes very still, rigid, and silent. This is called “tonic immobility,” and is a simple survival behavior. During rape, temporary paralysis is very common (it occurs in up to 88% of rape victims during the assault, according to studies) and entirely normal, and probably even quite healthy. (source: Heidt, J. M., Marx, B. P., & Forsyth, J. P. (2005). Tonic immobility and childhood sexual abuse: Evaluating the sequela of rape-induced paralysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy,43,1157–1171.)
However, until someone explains to a survivor that this instinct is normal and appropriate, she will often spend years criticizing herself (“What’s the matter with me? I just laid there! I’m such a fool! Why didn’t I fight, or at least scream?”), and even lawyers and juries can be misled into lenience toward rapists whose victims are inaccurately described as “passive.” This behavior is not “passive;” it is a biologically-driven form of resistance! But this fact is so rarely understood that rape victims often multiply their own sense of guilt and shame because of the freeze instinct. One study even found that the link between this “temporary paralysis” during rape and later feelings of guilt and self-blame are directly related to increased depression, anxiety, and PTSD later.
This is why it is so crucial that rape survivors receive basic education about the body’s adaptations to trauma, so that you can understand and accept these behaviors as normal, rather than as failure. “This is a biologically hard-wired response that just kicks in, typically when there’s extreme fear coupled with physical restraint,” states one study of victims’ temporary paralysis during rape. Jennifer Heidt, commenting on a study she helped organize, wrote, “if we can help to show them [in therapy] that they weren’t letting this happen to themselves, that this is an unlearned response, that they were incapable of changing it, that they were incapable of fighting back, then we can help deal with that guilt.” (source: Finn, Robert. “Involuntary paralysis common during rape – Legal and TX Implications.” OB/GYN News, Jan. 15, 2003. http://findarticles.com/p/articles…)
It can also be difficult to separate the issues of “compliance” with “consent.” In most rapes where the victim is conscious, there is some degree of forced compliance with the rapist, simply as a reasonable way to protect herself from further harm. Although this is a very normal form of self-preservation, it can also produce one hell of a stuck point afterward:
• “The fact that I stopped struggling when he ordered me to means I am guilty of permitting the rape.”
• “I removed my underpants when he told me to. That means I participated or led him on about sex.”
• “I kept quiet and never screamed. Does that mean I wasn’t really raped?”
• “My whole body froze and I couldn’t move.”
• “They always say ‘no means no.’ But I never said the word ‘no’ because I was paralyzed with fear.”
• “I can’t remember how I got into the closet [where the rape happened]…If I put myself there, it must mean I helped him rape me.”
When a person is mugged, they instinctively freeze and will typically say to the attacker, “Take whatever you want.” They will compliantly hand over wallets, purses, watches, anything demanded of them, in a desperate, terrified hope that the assault will end without further injury or death. And nobody questions this cooperation; police even advise it as the correct course of action. People will support you and assure you that you did the right thing. Nobody blames you for carrying money by saying, well, didn’t you realize that would only lead a robber on?” Nobody would blame you for all the times you willingly spent money by implying that this means you “have a history of giving it away, so aren’t you just ‘crying robbery’ now?” Nobody would claim that the incident was probably just a cash transaction that “got out of hand” or you regretted later.
Yet when the violent assault becomes sexual, many people implausibly lose all their insights about the importance of cooperation to reduce harm. Suddenly, the guilty questions begin: “Why didn’t I fight back? What if I had resisted more? Why did I stay quiet? Why did I freeze? Why did I take off something I wore when he ordered me to?”
These stuck points exist because of the gap between what we want to believe (“I would never ‘let’ anyone rape me”) and what the rape itself seems to prove (“I must have failed to prevent rape. Or worse yet, I must have permitted it!”). It may seem like an unusual statement, but analyzing your stuck points is really a form of forgiving yourself for whatever actions you had to do to survive, and for whatever it’s taken to cope since, and for whatever misguided self-blame you have felt in spite of the facts. When Shannon* wrote the words “I’m sorry, little girl” in her story, it was written after she had finished writing and reading it aloud, and she had recognized the many forms of resistance she had used. The comment was her apology to herself for spending the next three years crucifying herself. She discovered during her “stuck point” work that she was neither weak nor willing, and that her younger self had never deserved the heaps of blame and guilt she had carried.