Paralysis Can Be a Natural Reaction to Date Rape

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The authors of an article published in the new issue of Biofeeback describe date rape as a prime example of a situation in which freezing is the body's reaction for self-preservation. The article explains how immobilization is a natural neurobiological response to being attacked.

Biofeedback Volume 43, Issue 1

After our brain identifies risk, our body reacts either with a fight-or-flight response or, especially in dire situations, can become completely immobilized

Biofeedback – Stigma is often associated with inaction during a crisis. Those who freeze in the face of a life-threatening situation often experience feelings of shame and guilt, and they often feel that they are constantly being judged for their inaction. While others may confidently assert that they would have been more “heroic” in that situation, there is a far greater chance that their bodies would have reacted in exactly the same way, freezing as an innate part of self-preservation.

The authors of an article published in the new issue of Biofeedback describe date rape as a prime example of this type of freeze response. In an article titled “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” Stephen Porges and Erik Peper explain how immobilization is a natural neurobiological response to being attacked.

The authors explain the immobilization response in light of the polyvagal theory, which Porges introduced about 20 years ago. According to this theory, the brain reacts to various risk situations in three ways: The situation is safe, the situation is dangerous, or the situation is life-threatening. After our brain identifies risk, our body reacts either with a fight-or-flight response or, especially in dire situations, can become completely immobilized. The likelihood of an immobilization response increases when the person is physically restrained or is in a confined environment. Immobilization is also often accompanied by a higher pain threshold and a tendency to disassociate.

In the case of rape, it is often assumed that the victim should simply have said No, should have fought back, or should have made it clear that the sexual attention was unwanted. However, the more we learn about the brain’s response to extreme threats, the more we realize that it may be difficult to recruit the neural circuits necessary to verbally express oneself or to fight or flee, especially when drugs or alcohol are involved. Instead, it is a natural response for victims to freeze, to feel so physically threatened that their own body will not allow them to fight or flee.

The authors note that polyvagal theory supports a law passed in California in September 2014. The new law requires the governing boards of the state’s colleges and universities to adopt policies and procedures that require students who engage in sexual activity to obtain “affirmative, unambiguous, and conscious decision by each participant.” In other words, simply not saying No will no longer be tolerated as an excuse for rape.

The authors conclude that victims of date rape should not feel shame or guilt if they froze in that situation. The body’s natural defense reactions are not just flight or fight; sometimes it is complete immobilization. The authors hope that recognizing this will help people deal with trauma and help those around them understand their experiences. After a lecture, Dr. Peper, one of the authors, had a profound experience with a student in which she came up to “…me with tears in her eyes because the same process happened to her two weeks before when she was robbed… Just listening to her made the efforts of writing the article worthwhile.”

Full text of the article, “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” Biofeedback, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2015, is now available.

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About Biofeedback
Biofeedback is published four times per year and distributed by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. AAPB’s mission is to advance the development, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge about applied psychophysiology and biofeedback to improve health and the quality of life through research, education, and practice. For more information about the Association, see http://www.aapb.org.

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Jason Snell
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