If someone gets punched by another person, do we ask the assault victim "yes, but did you fight back?" and use that as a measure for how guilty the attacker is. Link
Survivors of sexual assault who come forward often confront doubt on the part of others. Did you fight back? they are asked. Did you scream? Just as painful for them, if not more so, can be a sense of guilt and shame. Why did I not resist? they may ask themselves. Is it my fault? And to make matters worse, although the laws are in flux in various jurisdictions, active resistance can be seen as necessary for a legal or even "common sense" definition of rape. Unless it is clearly too dangerous, as when the rapist is armed, resisting is generally thought to be the "normal" reaction to sexual assault.
But new research adds to the evidence debunking this common belief. According to a recent study, a majority of female rape survivors who visited the Emergency Clinic for Rape Victims in Stockholm reported they did not fight back. Many also did not yell for help. During the assault they experienced a kind of temporary paralysis called tonic immobility. And those who experienced extreme tonic immobility were twice as likely to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and three times more likely to suffer severe depression in the months after the attack than women who did not have this response.
Tonic immobility (TI) describes a state of involuntary paralysis in which individuals cannot move or, in many cases, even speak. In animals this reaction is considered an evolutionary adaptive defense to an attack by a predator when other forms of defense are not possible. Much less is known about this phenomenon in humans, although it has been observed in soldiers in battle as well as in survivors of sexual assault. A study from 2005, for example, found 52 percent of female undergraduates who reported childhood sexual abuse said they experienced this paralysis.
We have the expressions "deer in the headlights" and "frozen with fear". I'm sure there are plenty of horror movies depicting a victim standing still with their mouth moving silently as the terrible thing approaches. Is it really so amazing that someone who is threatened with sexual assault will experience the same kind of paralysis?
This "rape-induced paralysis," [University of Sydney psychiatrist Kasia Kozlowska] explains, is one of six automatically activated defense behaviors in animals and humans that make up the "defense cascade." Typically, nonhuman animals are programmed to go through each of the states as the proximity of the danger escalates. The stages are: arousal (alertness to possible danger); freezing (momentarily putting flight or fight on hold while assessing danger); "flight or fight"; tonic immobility; collapsed immobility (fainting in fear); and quiescent immobility (a subsequent state of rest that promotes healing). People who experience sexual assault may go through several of these stages, or skip straight to tonic immobility.
Each of the defense reactions, she explains, involves activation of motor and arousal centers in the brain and changes in pain and sensory processing. When flight or fight is possible, motor programs for running or fighting are activated, the arousal system is switched to a high-energy setting and nonopioid analgesia is switched on. This helps the victim either run away or fight the predator. When flight or fight is not possible, immobility motor programs are activated, causing the paralysis. At the same time, the arousal system is switched to a low-energy setting, and the brain is flooded with "opioid analgesia" to reduce the intensity of the fear and pain.
Humans and other animals cannot control these defense mechanisms. In humans who are being raped, tonic immobility may be immediately triggered when their sensory inputs (touch, smell and so on) reach a critical threshold and they feel there is no escape.
The system should be focusing on the rapists and their behavior and not on trying to shift responsibility to the victims.