Immobility during a rape or sexual assault is involuntary, and could be explained by the blocking of brain circuits in response to an acute threat, according to an article published this Monday in the journal “Nature”.
Frozen limbs, and bodies unable to move despite the desire to escape: this is the story shared by 70% of women who have visited the emergency room after being victims of sexual assault or rape. A “tonic immobility”, which participates both in maintaining the “rape myth” and helps shift responsibility for the abuse from the perpetrator to the victim – which often manifests itself through expressions like: “Why didn’t she fight?”
However, in an article published this Monday in the scientific journal Nature, two researchers put forward that this lack of reaction during a rape or a sexual attack could be explained by the blocking of the cerebral circuits in reaction to an acute threat. A study conducted by Ebani Dhawan and Patrick Haggard, both researchers at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (University College London), and which aims to understand the neuroscientific mechanisms underlying this phenomenon, and this in particular in order to prevent victims be unfairly blamed for their lack of response.
Because, the authors of the study point out, “The legal definitions of rape and sexual assault are based on the absence of consent. However, proving consent or the absence of consent is difficult. “Victims of rape and sexual assault often describe that they “froze” in response to the assault and therefore were unable to act, but neuroscientific evidence in this area is limited,” they continue.
Thus, researchers argue that immobility in response to extreme threat is likely involuntary. They explain it by a known response of the brain faced with a threat: in front of the aggressor, the cerebral circuits which ensure the voluntary control of the movements of the body are blocked. According to them, immediate and serious threats can thus involuntarily trigger a state of immobility in humans, as is the case in certain animals.
“Prevent inappropriate blaming of the victim”
Gold, “a better legal understanding of neuroscientific evidence relating to involuntary immobility […] could prevent inappropriate blaming of the victim and draw society’s attention to the crucial importance of active consent” justify the researchers. Because according to them, “the argument “Why didn’t she fight?” is based on a cognitive model of intentional action that underlies all of criminal law. Healthy adults are expected to voluntarily control their actions and perform them intentionally, they recall. In the event of an assault or rape, this argument incorrectly assumes that the victim could have resisted the assailant or fled, but intentionally decided not to do so”, they add again.
If this reaction remains for the moment in the state of a scientific hypothesis – since the arguments are based on testimonies of victims and studies of defense circuits in animals, which are common to humans – the objective of the authors is to draw attention to the frequency, mechanism and legal implications of involuntary immobility. And although indirect, the evidence is according to them “substantial and convergent.” Finally, the researchers insist, by way of conclusion, on the fact that “neuroscience can play a role in helping legal systems and society as a whole to guard against such rape myths.”