Fight, Flight or FREEZE?

By understanding the complexities of stress reactions in the human body, we may be better prepared to support survivors of sexual violence. Changing our language and narrative to support survivors could be monumental in their healing process and force the conversation to where it really belongs, on the perpetrators.

Have you ever heard “fight or flight” as a human reaction to high stress or life-threatening situations? Turns out there is more to it. Recently, scientists have begun including freeze as one of the “normal” or “natural” reactions that happens to humans in dangerous situations. I bet it’s familiar. Have you ever taken a walk through the woods and seen a deer or rabbit stop moving when they become aware of you walking near them? They do this in order to protect themselves. Guess what? Humans do that too. And by recognizing that humans freeze in high stress situations we can better understand why a “survivor didn’t run away or fight back” when they were sexually assaulted or violated.

Think back to a recent sexual assault allegation and consider how the news and media portrays the alleged assault. Much of the language and narrative of that assault focuses on the individual who has been sexually assaulted or violated, the victim. This is victim-blaming. Terms and phrases may include “why were you there?”, “why didn’t you leave?”, “why did you stay?”, “what were you wearing,” and “you should have known better.” Although I have noticed a shift in the language used since the #metoo campaign, there are many false beliefs held by the public as illustrated by the questions above. Amy Schumer’s Comedy Central skit, Military Video Game and Victim Blaming, portrays these toxic and untrue viewpoints. If we understood that freezing is a natural and common reaction to high stress situations, we will be more empathetic and understanding of survivors. This would allow us to focus on SOLUTIONS to the underlying issues instead of judging and making assumptions when none are needed.  

It’s important to know that this judgement, blame, and narrative is a also common theme for a survivor’s own story. Although survivors tend not to pass that judgement and blame on to other survivors, they do hold a critical voice and viewpoint for themselves. I believe it may have to do with the false illusion of control that a survivor thinks they might have had in the moment. But remember, hindsight is 20/20, and “shoulda,” “coulda,” “woulda” does not help the healing process. This can be a toxic mindset for survivors. The only person to blame is the individual that physically and sexually forced themselves on another. If we focus our judgement on the perpetrators, asking questions such as “why would you make someone do something sexually they didn’t want to do?” or “why would you force someone to sexually engage with you when they were incoherent?” the framing of this issue would change and we could begin to hold the right individuals accountable for their actions.

If we all understood that freezing is in fact a very normal reaction to high stress situations, including sexual assault, I believe our conversation and progress on this issue would transform. The public may become more empathetic and proactive about these situations, instead of making assumptions and passing on language that keeps us in victim-blaming mode. Survivors may stop judging themselves for what they did or did not do, and begin to have compassion for how they responded to a traumatizing event. Let’s shift the conversation and focus our questioning, judgment and blame on current and future perpetrators and ensuring there are far fewer of them in the future.

That’s a world I want to live in. What about you?

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