Understand your responses during the encounter or assault

If you experienced an uncomfortable sexual situation, or sexual assault, you might not have responded the way you thought you would or may feel like you should or could have done more to stop it from happening—this is common and can be very confusing. Understanding your responses can be empowering, and help you take steps towards regaining a sense of agency, and reduce possible feelings of misplaced self-blame.

A common misconception is that victims of sexual assault will fight back or try to run away1. In reality, women typically resist ‘passively’ not by fighting back.1 There is no “right” or uniform response to sexual assault, yet victims may feel shame and embarrassment about their response especially if they succumbed to the perpetrator.2 It’s important to understand that victims can experience what is called habitual1,5 and/or survival reactionsand that these responses are automatic.3

The Stages of Responses During Sexual Assault

When the sexual assault starts, the victim usually experiences a heightened sense of awareness called “arousal”,2 followed by an initial freeze4 and finally the brain defaulting to habitual behaviours1,5 and/or extreme survival responses which can be accompanied by involuntarily bodily responses.6 Victims may go through several of these stages, or skip straight to a survival response. It’s important to understand that these reactions are automatic.2


STAGE I: Evolution has endowed all humans with a continuum of innate, hard-wired, automatically activated defence behaviours. When the sexual assault starts, victims usually experience a heightened awareness or ‘arousal’. It’s the first step in activating the defence behaviours.3 

STAGE II: Following the heightened awareness, victims typically experience an immediate and initial brain based freeze response. This is why for example first responders receive repetitive training on using specific check list protocols so they are able to overcome the initial freeze and not default to habitual responses in stressful and unexpected situations.4

STAGE V: After the initial freeze, victims tend to default to habit-based reactions that is how they would usually react in situations that resembles the one they’re in. For example, if they usually ward off unwanted sexual advances politely by saying  “It’s getting late, perhaps I should go”, they might default to the same during an assault.1,5,6 At the same time, the victim may experience psychobiological responses such as sexual arousal to protect itself from injury. It’s not a sign of consent.6 Read more about habitual and psychobiological responses in the below section.

STAGE IV: When habitual forms of resistance don’t work and the assault seems inevitable, extreme survival responses can take over.7 These can be active (fight, flight) but more commonly passive (e.g. temporary paralysis, fainting or zoning out).1 These reactions are automatic.3,5 Read more about extreme survival in the below section.

Habitual, Survival and Psychobiological Responses

Majority of survivors experienced ‘passive’ resistance7 with for example freezing8 and submitting9 being common. Fight and flight are activate forms of resistance and the least common responses.1 There’s no uniform response – explore habitual, survival and psychobiological (e.g. arousal) responses below. 

“I didn’t say no, but I didn’t really know what to do. I just kind of froze.”

– Survivor33


Along with submission, freezing is a very common response during sexual assault. This does not mean that the victim consented.9 Based on one study, 70 percent of rape victims experienced “significant” and 48 percent  “extreme” tonic immobility (temporary paralysis).8


“It felt as though I had been an object in the truest sense of the word, like my body had been used while I was not completely there. I knew that I had, at least to some degree, participated sexually. But it hadn’t felt like participation in anything other than a disembodied, robotic sense.”

– Survivor35


Along with freezing, submitting is a very common response.9  The perpetrator may try to coerce submission with physical force (e.g. physical restrain or threats of harm) or without force (e.g. verbal coercion, emotional manipulation, intoxication10 or misuse of authority11).

Women may go along with the aggressor without saying anything thinking this will help the threat be over quicker or to prevent additional harm.9 Women may also try to first refuse but then give in if they realise that the other person is not going to stop the sexual activity coupled with feelings of powerlessness and wanting to avoid the self-stigma and trauma of being raped. If a man is clearly disregarding the woman’s lack of consent and continuing to pressure or coerce her into engaging in sex, she may genuinely believe that there is nothing she can do to stop the behaviour, and “submit to survive”.12 Possible “co-operation” in such circumstances does not mean consent. Instead it can be a survival defence mechanism that is activated in the presence of fear and danger.13

Studies of coercion in intimate partner relationships show that men were aware of their partner refusing sex and not providing consent, but offenders ignored the lack of consent and proceeded with utilising coercive tactics to obtain sex. These studies also showed that men are able to evaluate refusal regardless of whether or not it was provided verbally or nonverbally.14 & 15 via 16 Indeed, majority of communication overall is nonverbal and we read cues and signs all of the time to understand each other.

Pugh and Becker (2018) argue that if we do not acknowledge consent resulting from verbal sexual coercion as a lack of freely given consent, we also fail to acknowledge the initial lack of consent. This in turn treads closely to the idea that women should physically resist sex throughout the entire encounter to clearly demonstrate lack of consent, which is an antiquated view.16


“I clenched my legs together and said “no, no, no” playfully, to ease the tension a bit. (—) I also hoped it would lighten the mood and lessen the blow of my sexual rejections for him. I was still thinking about how this was making him feel instead of the implications of what he was doing to me”

– Survivor44

Befriend or Tend

Trying to politely negotiate or talk down the offender in order to maintain the relationship (e.g. trying to avoid insulting the perpetrator or hurting their feelings).17,18  If the perpetrator is for example in a position of authority and holds power over the woman’s career or livelihood a rejection that offends the perpetrator can have consequences on the woman. In addition, women are often “politeness conditioned” and therefore it’s not so surprising befriending/tending is a habitual response women experience during assault.19


“I felt faint, trembling and cold… I went limp.”

– Survivor41

Faint or flop

Collapsed immobility (e.g. fainting) is the involuntary equivalent of an animal playing dead. The victim typically loses muscle tone and their heart rate drops, and they can report feeling limp, sleepy,4 or like rag doll22. After the threat or danger has passed, a state of quiescence that promotes rest and healing can take place which is called quiescent immobility3. Some survivors may report having fallen asleep once the threat is over which can be confusing for those who do not understand these common brain responses to threat.


“When I realized what was happening I made a moment-by-moment decision not to escalate. What increased danger would I be in if I made my internal feelings external?”

– Survivor34


The ‘please’ or ‘fawn’ response is prevalent with complex trauma or complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) resulting from high-stress situations that have often been drawn out over a longer period of time such as partner sexual and domestic abuse.20 However, it can also be response in a one-off situation in particular when the perpetrator has power over the victim either in the moment or in a more sustained sense.21

Fawning has been described as an “all-consuming and inexplicable urge to ingratiate ourselves to the dominant other” and as a biological imperative to ‘make nice’ with the perpetrator by simply letting something happen.21 

It’s the most thoughtful and complex response which involves monitoring and feeling into other people’s state of mind (typically the aggressor) to anticipate a situation and respond by adapting and pleasing to avoid confrontation before a situation escalates into aggression. It’s a survival strategy that is not done at a fully conscious level. The victim may lose their sense of self due to forgoing their own needs and adapting to those of the abuser.20


“I just remember staring up at the ceiling and following the cracks in the paint until he was done.”

– Survivor34


Disassociation is when the brain ‘disconnects’ from what is happening and goes somewhere ‘safe.’23 Victims can report for example ‘being on autopilot’,4 ‘switching off’, ‘spacing out‘, ‘feeling out of body‘ or focusing their gaze or their mental energy on something specific (e.g. staring at a ceiling fan, counting the seconds). Disassociation can also impact the victim’s ability to recall the assault4.


“I tried to push myself away from him and reach for the door.”

– Survivor42


Flight refers to trying to escape the situation, or running away. Along with fight, trying flight is one the least common reactions to sexual assault.6


“Each time I was raped, I knew the perpetrator. When a stranger tried to sexually assault me, I fought him off, but when friends raped me, I froze.”

– Survivor36


Along with flight, trying to fight off the perpetrator is one of the least common responses to sexual assault.1 Women are typically not trained or socially conditioned to fight and it is therefore not a common habitual response. In addition, most perpetrators are men the victim knows from before and use other strategies, not violence, to commit sexual assault, and so the victim may not be initially alarmed by the situation or understand to react with violence.4


“Although I didn’t agree to what was happening, I was physically getting aroused by it.”

– Survivor36

Psychobiological responses (e.g. arousal)

Physical arousal6,25 and/or orgasm25 during sexual assault are normal involuntary psychobiological and bodily responses, and based on studies can be the body’s way of protecting itself from injury and can be triggered by fear or extreme anxiety26. These responses are not a sign of consent25.  Based on studies, approximately 21% of women experience physical arousal25 and 4-5% orgasm27 via 25 during sexual assault.  However, numbers related to arousal responses are presumed to be underreported due to shame and embarrassment. 25 Women can experience genital responses even when exposed to stimuli which do not match their sexual interests, including stimuli depicting nonconsensual or even violent sex.6 The explanation can be that it serves as a protective or preparatory function, that readies the women’s body for sexual intercourse, regardless of whether it is desired or not to prevent injury.27 A common analogy used is tickling – when done against someone’s wishes it can be a very unpleasant experience, yet amid calls to stop, the person tickled may still laugh involuntarily. Furthermore, sometimes it may act as a defence mechanism when the painful feelings resulting from the assault are too much to bear.29 During trauma the sympathetic nervous system takes over physical functions of the body, and as the evolutionary survival behaviours kick in it causes all of the body’s nerves to become hypersensitive. No where in the body is there more nerve fibers than in the female clitoris.37

Some perpetrators have learned how fear, anxiety and physical stimulation can correspond to other forms of heightened arousal, and they exploit the connection29 to try to coerce the victim into continuing the act,13 to confuse the victim into thinking they were somehow complicit and decrease the chances of the victim legitimising it as rape or sexual assault in order to lessen the chances of the victim reporting it while at the same trying to decrease their credibility should they report31. In addition, this may be a way the perpetrator may try to justify the act to themselves (i.e. to try to convince themselves the victim enjoyed the act). For perpetrators (who are often motivated by exercising power over another), it can also symbolise the ultimate form of control over the victim where they are able to induce these responses.31

When arousal is present during assault, trauma symptoms such as anxiety, intrusive thoughts, depression, and dissociation can be exponentially greater. Victims often say, “My body let me down”, and feel shame  about the response25 and like their assault doesn’t count because their body responded30. However, given the protective function of the response, the victim’s body is in fact doing the contrary, it is allying with her by trying to spare her from agony and pain.37


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