On July 22, 2023, The NY Times published an in-depth article, What People Misunderstand about Rape, by Jen Percy, addressing tonic immobility. She had interviewed CAN’s CEO, Joyce Short, in her research, who had written a post on this issue in 2014, and included a brief statement regarding her individual case. Ms. Percy’s insight laid bare the flagrant and direct conflict between the science of the victim’s response versus how our penal laws treat victims.
Joyce’s “freeze” reaction in her personal case was aligned with so many victims who were terrorized; fearing bodily injury or even death during the attack.
Penal laws are blind to the automatic and subconscious responses a victim’s brain will make in order to preserve their life. Their freezing and fawning reactions are treated by investigators as “acquiescing,” a reasoned, non-automatic response. While acquiescing is a conscious decision, freezing and fawning result from surges of the neuropeptides and hormones that terror triggers in the brain. But even acquiescing, agreeing under duress, does not constitute consent.
Consent is a form of agreement that must be freely given, not violently forced or coerced, knowledgeable and informed, not deceived or defrauded, and must not result from exploiting incapacity.
Involuntary, reflexive reactions to inescapable danger produce self-blame in victims who question their own inability to fight back or why they stopped resisting.
Both freezing and fawning directly result from the brain snapping into a protective mode by amping up the hormones and neuropeptides that control bodily and brain functions immediately when the amygdala senses an extreme threat.
- In tonic immobility, the brain causes motor inhibition, a state of paralysis.
- “Fawning” is the brain’s way of “going along to get along” when facing death or intense terror.
While Joyce stated that she did not feel paralyzed, she knew that resisting was putting her life at great risk. Her attacker pushed his forearm into her neck cutting off her airway, causing her freeze response.
Many states and jurisdictions have penal laws that base “consent” on the words or actions of the victim at the time they were terrorized. This “Yes means Yes” concept is misguided, blaming victims for their reactions which could be automatic, involuntary responses, assent, or acquiescence…. none of which are consent.
Archaic victim blaming has been embedded in penal laws for generations and determines how juries decide whether or not the complainant consented. Instead of focusing on causation – what did the accused do to secure the victim’s compliance – their rulings are based on what victims say and do under terrorizing conditions.
How can we change this grotesque injustice?
Ms. Percy’s article goes a long way to explain the phenomenon of freezing, but society needs to take the next step……..
By correctly defining consent in our laws as “freely given, knowledgeable and informed agreement, by a person with the capacity to reason.” #FGKIA, we turn our human right of consent into a powerful civil right backed by law. This definition will protect against rape, all sex crimes, and disrupt victim-blaming and shaming.
Another trending trope, “Enthusiastic Yes,” strips people of their First Amendment right of free speech, right in the privacy of their bedrooms.
CAN not only fights for legislative changes, but also addresses the harm caused by misinformed “consent educators” who sell “consent” education materials and profit from books, speeches, and trainings that promote “Yes Means Yes,’’ “No Means No,” and “Enthusiastic Yes.”
Malicious influence by the offender, not the reactions of their victims, should determine whether or not consent took place. We need our laws to get this right.
Watch the TEDx Talk. When YES Means NO, the Truth about Consent, to get the facts
Join CAN’s mission to change our laws by tapping “Become a ‘Consent Crusader.’”
Read Your Consent – The Key to Conquering Sexual Assault, Revised Edition to save you, your children, and generations to come from sex crimes
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