Monday, March 24, 2014

Understanding Evolved Responses to Sexual Assault

An episode of Law & Order: UK aired in Australia just before Christmas involved the rape of a young women who did not say no, scream nor fight back. The defence argues that this passive response to the alleged rape implies consent. The young woman starts to doubt and judge herself and enter into a spiral of self blame. The prosecutor explains to her that she is not to blame and that 'freezing' is a normal and common reaction to a sexual assault.

I contacted the writer of the episode and commended her on bringing this issue to the attention of the general public. As it turns out, the episode was informed by the writers personal experience of being raped and experiencing the 'freezing.'

The freeze response is technically known as tonic immobility (TI). It's an instinctive response where the person cannot speak or move. It was selected for in nature because it conferred a survival advantage on an individual. It is a common response with victims of sexual assault of both sexes and all ages.

Nature does not judge. Nature is only interested in our survival. People judge. Law enforcement officials investigating the assault, medical personnel, everyone involved in the judicial system, friends and family, and worst of all, the sexual assault survivor can all judge the individual who did not/could not say no, scream or fight back when being sexually assaulted. These judgements can lead to increased risk of anxiety, depression, self harm and suicide.

An understanding of these evolved, involuntary responses enables third parties to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem for survivors of sexual assault. It also promotes the interests of justice in these cases.

What if the person did not say no, scream, or fight back but did not suffer TI? Would an explanation of TI alleviate the feelings of guilt and self recrimination for that individual? I'd suggest not. However, fight, flight and freeze/TI are not the only defensive behaviours that were selected for in nature because they conferred a survival advantage in an individual. Another behaviour that has been commonly observed is submission. Submission signals to the predator that the prey no longer poses a threat to the aggressor.

Instructors teaching self defence by whatever name NEED to understand these evolved, instinctive, and involuntary responses in order to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem for survivors of sexual assault.

If anyone would like further information on this issue, please contact me via email. An article on this issue is currently being worked on with a leading women's magazine. Further details will be forthcoming when they become available.