During Rape, Victims May Be Unable to Fight Back Due to Temporary Paralysis

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer
New evidence explains why rape victims may be unable to fight back.
(Photo: Getty Images)

New research only further reinforces what many experts on sexual violence have long believed: that when it comes to sexual violence, a victim’s response might not be fight or flight, but rather “tonic immobility,” or a state of involuntary paralysis.

The findings, published in the official scientific journal of the English language Nordic Federation of Societies of Obstetrics and Gynecology (NFOG),  Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, confirmed that for most victims, “tonic immobility” is the “normal” response to a sexual assault.

For the study, Anna Möller, MD, PhD, of the Karolinksa Institutet and the Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden, led an evaluation of 298 women who had visited the Emergency Clinic for Rape Victims in Stockholm within one month of a sexual assault. After six months, 189 of these women women were assessed for the development of PTSD and depression.

Of the 298 women, 70 percent reported significant tonic immobility and 48 percent reported extreme tonic immobility during the sexual assault they had experienced. And among the 189 women who were evaluated six months after their assault, 38.1 percent had developed PTSD and 22.2 percent had developed severe depression. Furthermore, women who had experienced tonic immobility during their assault were nearly three times more likely to develop PTSD and more than three times as likely to develop severe depression.

The findings square with past understandings of how the brain reacts to sexual assault. “Part of what it means to be a victim of a major trauma is to be in a state of shock. And when you’re in shock, you don’t always make the kind of decisions you would make otherwise,” Rebecca Campbell, PhD, a professor of ecological-community psychology at Michigan State University and a leading expert on neurobiology, trauma, and sexual assault, previously explained to Yahoo. “The circuits in the pre-frontal cortex, the key part of the brain for the decision-making process, are not functioning optimally after trauma.”

This shock, and its impact on the brain, can also explain why a victim of sexual violence might experience temporary paralysis, instead of acting in a more seemingly “rational” way and attempting to fight back or flee.

Tonic immobility has long been studied in the animal kingdom and is why animals are seen “playing dead” as an instinctual defense mechanism when they feel threatened. The same goes for humans.

“When rape victims learn about tonic immobility, it helps them forgive themselves a bit because they are often so angry that they couldn’t do something in that moment,” Maureen McDonald of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence previously told Yahoo.

Möller herself only further emphasized the importance of this understanding, saying in a statement that her work “shows that tonic immobility is more common than earlier described. This information is useful both in legal situations and in the psychoeducation of rape victims. Further, this knowledge can be applied in the education of medical students and law students.”

An American is sexually assaulted in the United States every 98 seconds, according to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). Out of every 1,000 rapes, 310 are reported to the police, 57 reports lead to arrest, 11 cases get referred to prosecutors, seven cases will lead to a felony conviction, and six rapists will be incarcerated. Perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals.

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