Why Do Victims ‘Freeze Up’ During Sexual Assaults?

It is a widely held but erroneous belief — even within the justice system  — that people who are sexually assaulted will always respond with a “fight-or-flight” response.  But the reality is that many sexual assault victims have neither of these exact responses.  Instead, they have a completely different but also natural, less talked-about reaction to high-stress, fear-filled situations.  That response is to freeze up and withdraw.

To those who have never been sexually assaulted, it may seem weird—unbelievable, even—that people in such a situation wouldn’t be doing everything in their power to resist or get away. After all, we’re programmed with the fight-or-flight instinct that’s supposed to kick in during threatening situations, right? Following that line of thought, if you don’t do either of those things, then you must not have actually felt threatened—and in the context of rape, that must mean the person actually wanted what was happening.  This line of thought, however, is misguided and uninformed.

In actuality, “freezing” is a common response to a threat that we see in many species — not just humans.  Freezing usually lasts briefly and happens in many situations where there’s an element of fear or panic—not being able to speak or think of the right words when you’re nervous, for example, is also the freezing instinct at work.  This involuntary response kicks in to help someone assess the situation and make a decision that isn’t impulsive.

Sexual assault victims who experience the “freeze” response sometimes feel guilt, shame or response after an assault because of their inaction.  It should be remembered, however, that this is an involuntary and completely normal response to trauma.  As such, sexual assault victims who experience this reaction should not have regret about this conduct and the justice system should never misinterpret their response for consent, a failure to mitigate damages, or as anything other than a normal trauma response.

Farmer Jaffe attorney Adam Horowitz is experienced in filing lawsuits on behalf of victims of sexual assault and abuse. You can reach Adam Horowitz at [email protected] or call our law firm at (954) 603-8394.

Shares