Recently a group of men who gang raped a woman in Pamplona had their conviction reduced from rape to sexual assault, despite the fact that they raped their victim. There is no question about this as they filmed it on their phones. The reason why their convictions were downgraded was because the victim didn’t fight, but was ‘passive or neutral’ according to the police reports. This has lead to many demonstrations and anger over this apparent judgement of the victims behaviour.
It also ignores the fact that there is another response to violent attack than fight or flight – there is also freeze or ‘tonic immobility’ to give it its formal name. Ignoring, for now, the fact that this victim blaming attitude goes right back at least as far as the Bible (read Deuteronomy 22:23-27) let’s look at the evidence for this third reaction to fear and violence.
Like in animals there is evidence that humans can sometimes freeze when faced with danger, literally be unable to move. Moller (2017) et al, interviewed 298 women who had been victims of a sexual assault. Of those 70% reported significant tonic immobility and 48% reported extreme tonic immobility – so nearly half could not move at all during the assault. They also found that the women who had experienced this were more likely to develop c-PTSD and/or severe depression.
So it looks as though the ‘freeze’ reflex is very common and I’d argue it may even be more common in children where, even more so than adults, fight or flight may not be options.
Going back to the Pamplona case it did inspire the nuns of Hondarribia to send out the following message.
Möller, A., Söndergaard, H.P. & Helström, L., 2017. Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 96(8), pp.932–938.