• Mon, 22, Aug, 2016 - 5:00:AM

How the fight or flight response discredits sexual assault survivors [Trigger Warning]

Over the past decade, I have unwittingly been testing the fight or flight hypothesis over and over again. I, like an alarming number of other Kiwi women, have been unlucky enough to be presented with numerous traumatic situations requiring some kind of innate response to a stressor. Most (but not all) of the time, that stressor has been a man.

I’m well aware that my first paragraph contains the kind of content that makes people uncomfortable. The kind of brutal honesty contained therein is the whole reason for the #NotAllMen hashtag. It’s the reason why random men feel that they have to come up to me in a bar on a Friday evening to passionately inform me that not all men are evil, refuting an argument I’ve never made. It’s the motivation that informs the great leap that people take to read anything pro-woman as anti-man.

It’s a defence mechanism, just like the so-called fight or flight response. Fight or flight, however, is just as problematic as #NotAllMen.

Much has been written about the supposedly evolutionary fight or flight response. The theory, first described by psychologist Walter Cannon, claims that organisms generally respond to a threat by physiologically preparing to attack or flee from the enemy. The original research underpinning the theory was conducted in 1932 by observing cats and dogs.

Somehow, over the 84 years since then, this theory has been extrapolated and applied to situations of sexual abuse and assault, during which human beings are ‘supposed’ to either fight their attacker or flee.

When I’ve found myself in situations of sexual harassment, abuse and attempted sexual assault, I often found that I did neither. What has been lost in the discussion is that while the body may physiologically prepare to run or fight (your heart rate accelerates, breathing becomes quick and shallow, pupils dilate, and your blood-pressure surges as adrenal hormones are released throughout your body) those autonomic physiological changes can influence, but do not control your psychological responses – or at least, they don’t represent the full picture. As I have discovered anecdotally. When my body went into prepare-for-action mode in response to a threat I would sometimes flee the situation, but I often found myself responding in a manner completely outside of the fight-flight dichotomy: I froze.

Which is, in fact, pretty common. For women. The main problem with the fight or flight theory? It was developed with men in mind. Combine that with the fact that the bulk of psychological research has been carried out on college-aged white male Americans, and a different picture begins to emerge. As researchers such as Shelley Taylor and her colleagues have pointed out, however, in an evolutionary sense, fighting or fleeing would likely have endangered a female organism’s offspring, and so a parallel female stress response was more likely: tend and befriend. While the physiological responses in men and women (racing heart beat, dilated pupils etc.) may be the same, it is absolutely possible that men and women will respond differently to a threat.

The freeze response, unlike its considerably more famous siblings, hasn’t been studied all that much. There is evidence for its existence in the animal kingdom, when animals low on the food chain will freeze by ‘playing dead’ so that predators might stop attacking and the victim may have a chance of getting away. A 2014 study found underlying neural pathways to underscore the existence of the freeze response, and researchers have begun to understand the implications for the response in human beings.

Harvard psychologist Dr. James W. Hopper attempted to unpack the theory in an article for the Washington Post.

In the midst of sexual assault, the brain’s fear circuitry dominates. The prefrontal cortex can be severely impaired, and all that’s left may be reflexes and habits.

“Freezing occurs when the amygdala – a crucial structure in the brain’s fear circuitry – detects an attack and signals the brainstem to inhibit movement. It happens in a flash, automatically and beyond conscious control.

“It’s a brain response that rapidly shifts the organism into a state of vigilance for incoming attacks and avenues of escape. Eyes widen, pupils dilate. Hearing becomes more acute. The body is primed for fight or flight. But as we shall see, neither fight nor flight necessarily follows.”

Instead, Hopper explains, the brain’s fear circuit floods the prefrontal cortex (the part of our brains responsible for higher reasoning and rational thought) with stress chemicals, which significantly impair the prefrontal cortex’s ability to process rational thought. To put it simply, rational thought flies straight out the window.

When you can’t think clearly, you could argue that freezing is a rational response to an irrational situation. The freeze response, Hopper argues, is the reason why military training is so repetitive. Deeply effective habit learning can reliably equip a human being to overcome their psychology – something the vast majority of victims of sexual assault have never been taught.

But even when fantastic articles like Hopper’s are published in some of the world’s biggest newspapers, the fight or flight response is still used to discredit and invalidate victims and survivors. To make them believe what they already fear: that the attack was somehow their fault.

It’s just another tool in the rape culture arsenal, and it’s bullshit. It’s pop science gone rogue in the most macabre of ways.

#NotAllPeople fight or flee during sexual abuse. And the physiology and psychology of those who don’t has absolutely no place in discussions about blame. 


  • Sexual Assault /
  • Fight or Flight /
  • Fight Flight or Freeze /
  • Psychology /
  • Rape /
  • Sexual Violence /
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