When 'the freeze' hits
When I was a sophomore in college, a guy I had been sporadically hooking up with attempted to rape me. I agreed to walk him home after he had been kicked out of a party. On the walk, he repeatedly insisted that we would sleep together that evening. I playfully sing-songed, “No we won’t” in response. In the elevator of his dorm, he pulled my hands into his boxers. I brushed it off as harmless, and figured I could shame him for it later. But when we exited the elevator and I tried to leave, he became more aggressive. He raised his voice and held onto my wrists. Hearing the commotion, his roommate came into the hallway and physically restrained him as I stood stunned. Only when his roommate yelled at me to get in the elevator did I actually leave.
In the weeks that followed, I began to recognize the seriousness of that night — and other things that had occurred over the course of our relationship, too. Our inconsistent pattern of drunkenly spending the night together took on a more sinister tone as I reflected on specific occasions, like the way he would encourage me to get high when I was already severely intoxicated, the way he would push past any other forms of my resistance. Disturbed that I had never stood up to him, I wrote and read him a letter explaining how the ways he had acted, as I said then, were “disrespectful, unacceptable.” I did not yet have the language to appropriately label my experiences. When he apologized and asked if he could hug me, I said, “No, I don’t want you to touch me,” and left.
My senior year of college, I received training to become a confidential peer resource for students dealing with Title IX issues such as rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence. During this training, I gained access to the language necessary to contextualize my experiences within systemic gender violence and discrimination. One topic we covered in particular — a response to trauma called the “freeze” — fundamentally altered the way I understand gender violence and our ability to combat it.
Up until the training, one of my own most pressing questions, and one I frequently heard repeated by my peers, was “Why couldn’t I stand up for myself?”
It turns out, there is a very simple answer: I, we, froze.
“Freezing” is a neurobiological response to danger. When the brain registers an impending threat, it triggers the release of a stress hormone that impairs the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain. This hormone inhibits movement and thoughts as control is diverted to the sympathetic nervous system. This is the moment that triggers what is commonly understood as a “fight or flight” response, but is actually “fight, flight, or freeze.” If the brain does not have an instinctive inclination toward action, the freeze continues. It can present itself in a number of ways, from experiencing a blank mind, stiff body, or numb limbs, to actually disassociating — a feeling of having detached from the body. In the event of a sexual assault, a situation in which physical and emotional safety is threatened by the transgression of personal boundaries, an inhibited ability to physically or verbally self-advocate therefore makes complete physiological sense.
Despite this biological reality, however, our culture has historically normalized the vast majority of sexual violence. In doing so, we have failed to recognize many manifestations of sexual violence as serious threats, engaging instead in a long history of blaming victims for their inability to extricate themselves from an unwanted sexual encounter. Unsurprisingly, outside of the context of gender violence, society has long understood freezing. Growing up as a gymnast, my coaches made me drill my routines over and over again so that under the extreme stress of competitions, I could default to autopilot, to muscle memory. As Dr. James Hopper points out in The Washington Post, “That’s why combat training is rigorous and repetitive. When bullets are flying and blood is flowing, you had better have some really effective habit learning to rely upon.” When the prefrontal cortex is impaired, a person may lose the ability to decide on speech or movement, but the sympathetic nervous system draws on practiced behavior. The better the training, the better the body performs under threat.
And what training do victims of gender violence have to draw on? After all, we live in a culture that egregiously objectifies women and posits female sexuality as a commodity to be consumed by men for their pleasure. Women are expected to be polite, to acquiesce, and are disproportionately reprimanded when they don’t. I would call that really effective habit learning. Our culture not only disseminates cognitive-behavioral training that effectively renders women defenseless to sexual attacks, but also simultaneously denies the attack they have experienced. The “freeze” response to gender violence has further been twisted into a prop for victim blaming — the very passive behavior that has been encouraged in women is disavowed in a way that is horribly easy for victims to internalize.
Thanks to progressive movements like #MeToo, these mind-bending contradictions that constitute rape culture are finally garnering mainstream attention and criticism. People are beginning to understand that sexual contact without active consent is assault, so victim-centric questions like, “Why didn’t you leave/fight harder/say no?” are inappropriate and unjust. An expectation of active consent in sexual encounters discontinues the long-upheld pattern of capitalizing on the “freeze” to get away with sexual violence. Similarly, a shift away from victim-blaming fosters support for holding perpetrators accountable. In order to actually eradicate rape culture, however, we will need to understand the biological realities of doing so.
One night at the end of my senior year of college, I returned home from the library to find the same guy who attempted to rape me years before among the attendees of a party in my living room. His intrusion into my own space completely shocked me. I could not produce the thoughts that would have allowed me to demand his departure and articulate the fact that his presence in my home was unacceptable. While he mingled freely with mutual friends, I was made extremely uncomfortable, my behavior drastically inhibited by the trigger of someone who posed a threat to me.
Despite the fact that I had confronted the perpetrators of others by that point, proudly and with confidence, I froze when faced with my own. My training had covered how to help victims change their class schedule or dormitories so they could avoid their perpetrator; it validated the excruciating discomfort I felt when affronted with his presence. Frozen, however, I reverted to the norms of rape culture. A lifetime of really effective habit learning had taught me that confronting a perpetrator of sexual violence might draw social criticism and result in my own ridiculing. I internalized my own discomfort.
I am fully confident that if I had asked him to leave, my housemates would have supported me. In fact, if I had privately asked any one of my housemates to make him leave for me, she would have. But in the moment, the thoughts simply weren’t there. Subconsciously, he bargained on the fact that I, and the many people in the room aware of our history, would uphold norms of rape culture, affording him the privilege to flagrantly violate my boundaries without consequence. He was right.
Consciousness surrounding sexual violence is rising steadily, as is support for its many victims. However, cultural norms are what we do on autopilot. They are also most often what we revert to when “frozen.” A culture that does not tolerate gender violence also must not tolerate all aspects of rape culture; it must subvert male privilege by prioritizing the comfort and experience of people victimized by gender discrimination. That way, when the freeze hits, society will stand with the victim.
More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence, Violence against women
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