Trigger Warning: This article includes graphic details of sexual violence and can be distressing and/or triggering to read.

Many people are familiar with the nervous system’s response to danger; fight or flight. This is what happens when the brain registers a threat and kick-starts our sympathetic nervous system, sending an immediate burst of energy to our muscles and limbs to prepare our body to fight or flee[i]. More recently, there is more talk of a third common nervous system response – the freeze response. It is less widely researched among scientific literature but demonstrated frequently in nature to be an adaptive response to predatory attack.[ii] Many animals have been noted to “play dead” as a survival mechanism, and many survivors of sexual violence note that they froze during their victimization or experienced paralysis of some kind.

There’s also a more obscure response, but one that is likely the most common when threatened with sexual violence – the fawn response. For some survivors, this is described as a way of “letting go,” “giving in,” or even “submitting.” Many survivors describe that they “went along with it,” perhaps as a way to get through it quickly or as a way to keep it from getting worse, which is NOT the same as providing consent.

As controversial as this may sound, the “fawn” response may be just as adaptive, or perhaps even more effective, of a survival technique as the more widely understood fight/flight/freeze responses. This concept of acquiescing as a self-protective measure makes complete sense when you consider how this could present in other victimizations. With a gun to my head, I would be quick to do anything, perhaps give all my money and all my possessions in the hope that the threat to my life will go away.

In a Psychology Today post, written by Jim Hopper, Ph.D., he thoroughly explains how the nervous system contributes to the “freeze” response during sexual assault and sexual harassment. He explains that in these threatening moments, our brains are often left with impossible choices to make, “extreme lose-lose options…’ choices’ that are no real choices at all” (Hopper, 2018). He gives examples to demonstrate this point; screaming and drawing attention to a humiliating scene that may cause one to feel even further violated vs. lying still in the hope that it’ll be over soon. “Fight back and risk even worse violence vs. offering no resistance at all.”[iii]

I’ve worked with many survivors who describe that in similar threatening moments, they can recall certain behaviors that may sound like normal, consensual, sexual acts, but that they resorted to these things because they felt that they had no other choice. A particular example that I’ve heard multiple times is when survivors described that they “talked dirty” to their rapist after they realized that the nonconsensual encounter wasn’t going to stop.

Of course, these survivors expressed so much shame and guilt over these behaviors. They seemed reluctant to even tell me these details in the first place and often revisited these moments frequently when processing stuck points in their traumatic narratives.

Unfortunately, this specific type of response can too easily be manipulated into victim-blaming. In a society that already looks to blame the victim for sexual violence (“what was she wearing?”, “was there drinking involved?”), “talking dirty” to a rapist fits too well into the same damaging and stigmatizing narrative. But, if I beg for mercy and give all my possessions in exchange for my life to the hypothetical gun-wielding perpetrator, does that imply that I consented to be held at gunpoint?

These individuals who can relate to having experienced such fawning behaviors were not providing consent. They were simply doing whatever it took; to get through this violence with minimal injury, to get through this violence as quickly as possible, and to survive.

Rachel Sullivan, LCSW, is a clinician with 10 years of experience providing psychotherapy to survivors of sexual violence, intimate-partner abuse, and other crimes and consultation to medical providers.

Rachel loves to write about her clinical passions and the inspiring survivors she is privileged to me.

[i] Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, July 6). Understanding the stress response: Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health. Staying Healthy. Available at https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response.

[ii] Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(3), 292–304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.08.002

[iii] Hopper, J. (2018, April 3). Freezing during sexual assault and harassment. Psychology Today. Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sexual-assault-and-the-brain/201804/freezing-during-sexual-assault-and-harassment

Photo by Alex Green from Pexels

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