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What we get wrong about sexual assault: “Fight or flight” aren’t the body’s only responses to danger

What you know about the body and danger is probably wrong, and it affects how we treat sexual assault survivors


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Caitlin SchillerCarrie King
August 26, 2018 5:00pm (UTC)

You already know how your body reacts in the face of danger, right? Fight or flight. Your body floods with adrenalin and gets you ready to either fight off the threat, or to run for your life. Well, while that’s not wrong, it’s also not the whole story.

You need to add another f-word: freeze.

Think about it. Sometimes fighting or fleeing simply won’t save you. Sometimes, your body’s only recourse to protect itself is to freeze stock-still. We’re aware of this reaction within the animal world, but for some reason, we don’t see it as valid for us humanimals (#sorrynotsorry).

Emily Nagoski, author of the bestselling book "Come As You Are," a scientific analysis of factors that affect women’s sexual experience — and a blisteringly good read — recently told Simplify, “...[Freeze is what] people experience — especially under life-threatening circumstances — when you feel trapped, that you have no way out. You’re not fast enough to run, you’re not big enough and strong enough to fight. Women tend to experience it under a lot of circumstances, but especially [during] sexual assault.”

READ MORE: When a woman is accused of sexual misconduct: The strange case of Avital Ronell

Publicizing the freeze response could be a game-changer for how we view survivors of sexual assault, and how they deal with their own conflicting emotions in the wake of that trauma. As Nagoski put it, “If we all knew that freeze is a normal, healthy biological stress response, then nobody would ever wonder, 'Well, why didn’t you fight? Why didn’t you kick? Why didn’t you punch? Why didn’t you run?' It’s because freeze kicked in. Because your brain was totally sure that your best hope of surviving this life-threatening situation was to shut down, play dead and wait either for it to end, or for somebody to come and rescue you.”

While that thought is horrifically sad, it’s also reassuring for many women who have bodies that freeze when they’re under threat. And many people have been subjected to character assassinations and severe mental anguish because society is ill-informed about healthy stress responses.

We inhabit a world that is coded for a particular type of man, and as such it means that women’s typical reactions, and those of men who don’t fit the standard mold, are often cast as inferior. If Nagoski’s book is here to reassure you of anything, it’s that there’s nothing inferior about you.

Men are normal. Women are normal. Non-binary people are normal. And your normality may not look like your friend’s normality, but that doesn’t make it any less valid or beautiful or true.

To find out more about your body’s natural reactions to a range of stressful situations, listen to Simply’s interview with Emily Nagoski. If you’ve been anxious about sex, are struggling to connect to a long-term partner, or just want to understand yourself better, this episode offers lots of calm, informed, empathetic advice on how you can find your way.

"Simplify" is a podcast for anyone who’s taken a close look at their habits, their happiness, their relationships, or their health and thought, “There’s got to be a better way to do this.”  Hosted by Caitlin Schiller and Ben Schuman-Stoler. Brought to you by Blinkist. Subscribe to "Simplify" on iTunes, Stitcher, RadioPublic or wherever you get your podcasts.


Caitlin Schiller

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