Updated: Nov 16, 2021
When we are in a dangerous situation the brain's threat-response centre (called the amygdala) puts our body into red-alert so that it can do what it needs to to stay safe.
This is automatic and beyond your conscious control, it is driven by a primal part of the brain which is different to the rational ‘thinking’ part of our brain that we spend most of our time using when we are not under threat (which is called the prefrontal cortex).
When we switch over into red-alert our autonomic nervous system takes over for us, it does this because we can act much quicker when we aren't weighing up what to do (rational thinking is also slower thinking!). We have all experienced this, for example have you ever swerved the car to avoid hitting a something that's blown onto the road, and later thought that this wasn't a well thought out action because you could have swerved into oncoming traffic?
In that moment your red-alert mode took over to avoid a collision but later, when you felt calmer and your rational 'thinking' brain came back online it judges your actions as less wise.
There are four red-alert reactions to danger. What's important to understand is that we don’t get to choose which one takes over, our nervous system chooses the response which it thinks will keep you the safest. Sometimes we do not react in the way we would have expected and often our 'rational-thinking' area of the brain tells us off for reacting that way because it thinks it would have made a better choice (which is pretty harsh of it and incorrect because it's too slow to react quickly!).
The four survival responses
1. Fight response
This means fighting back during an assault. However, in most cases of sexual assault the victim does not do this and outsiders often find this odd. People who do not fight are less likely to sustain further injury. Sometimes survivors of assault report that it felt safer not to fight so that the assault would end sooner.
2. Flight This means fleeing the scene. Again this is not always an option if force is being used, but there may also be emotional blackmail or other forms of coercion that make it hard to run away. From a practical view, if the victim does not believe they can run away and escape with out making the attacker more angry or causing other negative repercussions then they may not use this strategy.
In this state the body freezes, including being unable to talk; feeling temporarily paralysed and dissociating. It is the most common reaction in sexual assault* but is poorly understood by others who often want to know why the person didn’t try to fight back or run away. In fact freezing demonstrates a healthy survival instinct as research** shows that people who fight or attempt to flee are more likely to sustain more physical injuries during a sexual assault.
4. Appease This is when we become compliant to minimise confrontation and harm. The victim might try to negotiate or do as they are told to avoid aggravating the perpetrator. The negotiation may include asking the perpetrator to put a condom on. Again, if appeasement happens then the victim can struggle to understand why they acted like this in the moment, but this in another autonomic nervous system survival response.
The most common response in a sexual assault is to freeze
Remember we do NOT get to choose which of the above four reactions we will do because our survival mode has taken over. You may not have reacted in the way you would have expected, particularly in sexual assault people expect themselves to go into fight or flight mode yet the most common response is to freeze.
In fact, when we are out of danger the blood flow to our rational ‘thinking’ part of the brain returns to normal and begins to analyse how we behaved. This is why a person who has suffered from a sexual assault often starts criticising themselves for the way they responded, blaming themselves and believing incorrectly that their response encouraged the assault. This is exacerbated by incorrect ideas in our culture about what causes sexual assault - blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator.
Want to know more?
Check out the two longer guides I have written about recovering from sexual assault in the Guides section of this website. They are appropriate for someone who has been sexually assaulted but also for their partner, family or friend if you have people who would like to support you.
You may also find my blog post on preparing for a smear test after an assault helpful.
* Moller, Sondergaard & Helstrom. Tonic immobility during sexual assault – a common reaction predicting post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. Obstetrics & Gynaecology, (2017).
** de Heer & Jones. Investigating the Self-Protective Potential of Immobility in Victims of Rape. Violence & Victims (2017), Vol 32, issue 2.