19% of women and 6.1% of men have been victims of at least one completed or attempted sexual assault since entering college (Krebs et al, 2007). These numbers are probably lower than the actual rate because many rape and other sexual assault victims do not report their attacks to law enforcement (Kruttschnitt et al, 2014). Rape or attempted rape victims sometimes blame themselves for the assault especially when they “did not resist/fight the aggressor”. The rape experience can even be more devastating when it is done by an acquaintance rape and 84% of the victims knew their attacker beforehand (Kuersten, 2003)–it is an experience of total betrayal. The horrifying experience and the challenges to achieve justice is sensitively described in the superb book by Jon Krakauer, Missoula Rape and the justice system in a college town.
It is a MUST book to read for every therapist, educator or anyone interested in understanding the human suffering of rape. The book describes the intimate and long lasting emotional impacts of rape with the challenges of achieving justice. It complements my previous post, Porges and Peper Propose Physiological Basis for Paralysis as Reaction to Date Rape, which explains that paralysis and not fighting the aggressor is not the result of agreeing to further sexual activity but the activation of the reptilian stress response of death fainting and withdrawal. A survival response by which the person cannot respond (Porges & Peper, 2015)..
Krakauer, J. (2015). Missoula-Rape and the justice system in a college town. New York: Doubleday. http://www.jonkrakauer.com/
Krebs, C.P., Lindquist, C.H., Warner, T.D., Fisher, B.S., & Martin, S.L. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study.
Kruttschnitt, Candace; Kalsbeek, William D.; House, Carol C. (2014). Estimating the Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Kuersten, Ashlyn K. (2003). Women and the Law: Leaders, Cases, and Documents. ABC-CLIO. pp. 143–144.
Porges, S.W. & Peper, E. (2015). When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape. Biofeedback. 43(1), 45-48.
Paralysis Can Be a Natural Reaction to Date rape
This is the press release for my recently published article in the journal, Biofeedback, coauthored with Stephen Porges,
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.
Stephen Porges and Erik Peper describe how immobilization is a natural neurobiological response to being attacked as can occur during date rape.in the article titled “When Not Saying NO Does Not Mean Yes: Psychophysiological Factors Involved in Date Rape,” published in the journal Biofeedback .
The article explains 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.
Porges and Peper 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 article 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, one of the authors, Peper, had a profound experience when a student came up to him with tears in her eyes. She explained that the same immobilization process happened to her two weeks before when she was robbed and she had felt so guilty.` 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 available at https://biofeedbackhealth.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/porges-and-peper-date-rape.pdf
About the journal Biofeedback
Biofeedback is published four times per year and distributed by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The chief editor of Biofeedback is Donald Moss, Dean of Saybrook University’s School of Mind-Body Medicine. 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.
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