So much self-blame can be avoided by really understanding how the brain copes
Like most American women, I’ve been prepared to defend myself against sexual assault and rape. I know to “never take your eye off your drink” and “don’t walk alone at night” and “if you have to, put your key between your fingers to use as a weapon.” Even as a kid, I was taught not to talk to adult men I didn’t know. The message has been very clear: There are predators out there ready to take advantage of you, so be alert and prepared.
I’ve taken my role of self-protector seriously. I learned self-defense moves from a friend training to be a cop and felt ready to take down an assailant no matter their size or if they had a weapon. A therapist I worked with taught me to repeat the numbers “911” so I wouldn’t forget in an emergency. It sounds silly, but she said I’d be shocked at the number of people who get distraught and dial “411,” the number for local directory assistance.
Despite the years of effort and preparation, when I was sexually assaulted in 2005, I did not defend myself. I did not use my key as a weapon. I did not disarm the weapon he held against my neck. I did not dial 911. I didn’t even scream or move. I froze and complied.
The people who had guided and instructed me on how to respond to an assault neglected to explain how my body and mind would respond. I don’t blame them, because they didn’t know. In a practical sense, it’s true that training can prepare people to defend themselves and escape, but when it comes to cognitive functions, it’s not a given. And most people have no clue how the brain functions because basic neuroscience isn’t a core curriculum.
Understanding how the brain responds to emotional stimuli like fear would have saved me over a decade of guilt and anxiety.
To graduate high school in most U.S. states, you must understand cellular respiration, the sexual anatomy of a flower, and how to calculate the hydrogen ion concentration for a strong acid, but you don’t need to understand what controls your ability to function as a healthy, happy, well-rounded person.
Understanding how the brain responds to emotional stimuli like fear would have saved me over a decade of guilt and anxiety. It might or might not have allowed me to respond any differently to my assault, but it certainly would have changed how I felt about my response to it. In fact, it would have changed the entire narrative surrounding the event — things like victim-blaming and fear of reporting.
When society expects you to say no and defend yourself and you spend your life training to protect yourself but then you comply during an assault, you’re left with immense shame and devastating guilt about how your body responded. But imagine a police officer, a judge, or a victims’ hotline advocate with an understanding of how the brain really functions during trauma. We’d live in a world far more compassionate about how survivors actually react during assaults.
In offering a scientific explanation of why I froze during my assault and smiled afterward, I’m hoping to help people — whether they’ve been assaulted or not — understand why this response is so common. And I want those who have been assaulted to feel less alone and have less shame.
During My Sexual Assault, I Froze Up
Trigger warning: details of sexual assault
During my senior year of college, I directed a low-budget, one-act play. To fund the production, I approached local businesses to ask if they wanted to purchase program advertisements and asked my friends to recommend locally-owned businesses where they had a connection. Some sorority members heard about my request and raved to me about a salon owner down the street from the school. “He’s the best!” they said. “He cuts everyone’s hair in the sorority. You’re going to love him! Book an appointment with him!”
I called the salon owner, told him about my production, and asked if I could set up an appointment to discuss advertising. He agreed to discuss it over a haircut, which he said he’d give me a great discount on.
The following week, I arrived at the salon and was surprised to see it completely empty of customers and hairdressers, except for one frustrated stylist cleaning her station and the owner. The owner led me to his chair and draped a cutting gown around my shoulders. In the mirror in front of me, I saw the stylist roll her eyes and leave. The tension between them was apparent, but what concerned me most was that I was then completely alone with someone I didn’t really know anything about.
The owner followed the stylist as she left and locked the salon’s front door behind her. He came back and began to cut my hair. There was something aggressive about his presence, the type of feeling you get around a sleazy guy who will do anything to get what he wants — a used-car salesman vibe. He didn’t ask how I wanted my hair cut or styled and instead went at it with an attitude of “I know what will look good on you. You don’t.”
As my hair fell on the cutting gown, he wiped it off. It was a peculiar gesture that gave me pause. I tried to remember all my haircuts in the past. Had other stylists brushed the hair off my gown too? I couldn’t recall a time when they did. His touch became more persistent and began to gravitate further down my body to my neck, my shoulders, my chest, and then my breast.
I interrogated myself harshly: “Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you scream?”
I kept asking myself, “Is he doing what I think he’s doing? Is he purposely touching my breast?” At first, I convinced myself that I was so small-chested that he just wasn’t aware of where his hand was landing. I continued to stare at myself in the mirror, the image of a broad man behind me, his pelvis resting against the back of the chair.
Before I had time to process what was happening, he paused from cutting my hair. He rested the sharp shears in his right hand against the base of my neck. His left hand continued to brush the cutting gown. There was no hair left on the gown, but he persisted. He worked his hand slowly down the front of the gown, groping my breasts several times before moving down toward my stomach, my thighs, and in between my legs. The gown prevented him from making full contact with my genitals, but he swept his hand along that area several times, applying pressure in the spots where the gown made contact with my body. His body was still pressed against the back of the chair, his chest pressing against my head.
I continued to sit, frozen, smiling politely, witnessing the assault in the mirror, feeling the cold metal of the sharp shears against my neck. It was a matter of minutes, but it felt eternal. When he was satisfied, he finished cutting my hair and told me the price. We never discussed the advertisement he’d said he’d wanted to purchase. I reached in my bag, handed him cash, smiled, said “thank you,” and walked to the door, which he unlocked, allowing me to leave.
When I got in my car, I was still frozen, mechanical, cold. It wasn’t until I drove away that I returned to myself and began to cry hysterically. At my house, I crawled into my bathtub and shivered and cried for hours. My mind played out the scene over and over again — his hands on my body, the heat of his body against mine, me giving him money and thanking him.
I interrogated myself harshly: “Why didn’t you leave? Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you take the scissors out of his hand and threaten him? Why did you pay him? Why did you thank him? Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?”
Believing fight or flight is our only response to threatening situations makes it easy to victim-blame.
Part of me felt like a victim, part of me felt like an idiot, and part of me wanted justice. I listened to that part. I called a local rape and sexual assault hotline and told them, in detail, what happened. I told them I had never filed a police report before or accused anyone of a crime and that I was 21 and needed some help. The response the advocate gave me triggered the same powerless feelings I felt in the salon chair. She said, “There’s nothing you can do. There were no witnesses, and you have no evidence. You could file a police report, but they won’t do anything about it except ask for his side of the story. They have no reason to believe you.”
I was infuriated and devastated. I called some close family members and told them what had happened; they only echoed what the advocate had said. The next day, I had a rehearsal for my play. I told everyone in the cast and crew. They were sympathetic but also didn’t have any advice about what actions I could take.
Every time someone confirmed what the rape advocate told me, I heard a voice that said, “You allowed this to happen. You let it happen.”
I imagined what would have happened if I had fought back: “Would he have tried to hurt me? That would have been evidence, right? If I had screamed and someone had heard me, they would be a witness, right? What if I had kicked him in the nuts on the way out? That would have been a defense, right?” Every scenario that conjured evidence and witnesses was in my hands, based on my actions. But my action during the assault had been to remain still and politely smile, to allow him to do what he wanted with my body. Why?
The Brain’s Responses to Threats Are Complicated
Most people know the phrase “fight or flight.” We’ve come to rely on it as an explanation for our behavior in times of high stress. The idea was first introduced by Walter B. Cannon in 1915. He observed that provoked animals released adrenaline, which gave their body the extra energy it needed to escape from or attack their predators. He proposed that human bodies work the exact same way. In some ways, he was right, but we’ve made many advancements and discoveries in the past century that shed light on our very complex response to stress. It turns out that humans don’t just run or fight when they’re scared.
I propose we get rid of this phrase entirely. It’s a false idea about instinct.
Believing fight or flight is our only response to threatening situations makes it easy to victim-blame. It becomes natural to think that if we’re only programmed to fight or run away, then anyone who doesn’t clearly wasn’t very threatened. What scientists and psychologists now understand is that the brain has a very intricate system of self-preservation. The first line of defense at certain times is not to immediately pump adrenaline but to slow down the prefrontal cortex.
Think of your brain like an electric grid. During a survival situation, you don’t lose total power to your prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions like decision-making, planning, and communicating emotion — but it does start to run on backup generators with certain non-essential functions shut down to conserve energy.
My prefrontal cortex was offline, and I didn’t have a choice to express my emotions because my brain had redirected power from that system.
This means when you’re faced with a threatening situation, you lose power to the part of your brain that can help you consciously decide what you should do next, understand how the situation will affect your future, make a detailed or complex escape plan, or tell your abuser that you’re not okay. It can happen instantly and often without your control. A different response can be re-trained, but it takes more than people just telling you to defend yourself when the time comes.
The brain takes that extra power to energize other parts deemed more necessary for survival, like the amygdala, which we have no conscious control over. It receives input from various parts of the brain and then sends action signals to other parts. It’s like middle management with tenure. When your amygdala receives the input that you’re in a threatening situation, it sends out the troops as necessary. But it does far more than just trigger adrenaline; it works in tandem with the hippocampus to assess the type of threat and respond in the most appropriate way. The hippocampus is your functional memory bank — the intelligent data storage the amygdala pulls from to figure out if it’s got a security protocol already in place for the type of threat.
Depending on the threat assessment, several things can happen in your brain and body, and this is why the oversimplicity of the fight or flight response is an outdated way of thinking. It’s possible you will be flooded with superhero levels of adrenaline that make you physically stronger and faster than you’ve ever been in your life. It’s also possible that your brain will see no way out and then activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which decreases heart rate and muscle tone, effectively freezing you in place.
And if you’ve ever had a similar threatening experience, your amygdala and hippocampus might deploy a remembered security protocol you previously created to cope that involves fawning, complying, or even laughing. These reactions are typically built up over time by people who experienced trauma as a child. Their brains have developed incredibly clever systems to appease abusers and avoid life-threatening situations.
Complying — and Even Smiling — Doesn’t Mean Assault Is Okay
I was abused at a very early age by a trusted figure. To survive that situation, I had to “be a good girl.” My brain developed a very smart fawning system that allowed me to protect myself by appeasing my abuser. I was not in control of this programming nor was I able to make the conscious decision to choose otherwise.
When I sat down in the salon chair in an empty locked room with sharp scissors against my neck, my brain didn’t give me the option to fight back. I was at the mercy of my programming — which meant I froze, smiled, and politely left before getting in my car and breaking down.
My prefrontal cortex was offline, and I didn’t have a choice to express my emotions because my brain had redirected power from that system. My parasympathetic nervous system weakened my muscles and decreased my blood flow to such an extreme that I was not able to physically move or respond. In that moment, I was the same little girl who had been abused before with the survival memory of “be a good girl.”
My silence was not consent, nor was the fake smile smeared across my face. Paying my abuser for my haircut and thanking him as I walked out the door was not an approval or forgiveness of his actions. It was survival programming, and it doesn’t make me weak or him any less guilty.
We cannot continue to rely on outdated assumptions about how people should respond to threatening situations. It’s imperative that we teach ourselves and others how the brain works, especially during moments of trauma and survival. Victim-blaming and shaming must end. We’re smarter and better than this.