Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald: Why people don't always fight sexual assault

Freezing, like fighting back or running away, is hard wired into our brain as a way to protect us from trauma. Image / NZ Herald
Freezing, like fighting back or running away, is hard wired into our brain as a way to protect us from trauma. Image / NZ Herald

"My friend was recently sexually assaulted and she beats herself up for not fighting back. And to be honest I don't really understand why she didn't, what am I missing?" Confused

I can understand why your friend is distressed, and I can also understand why you're struggling to understand her actions. But it's also completely expected.

Sexual assault, whether it be unwanted grabbing and touching, all the way through to rape is (to state the obvious) highly distressing. And people respond to distress and trauma in fairly predictable ways. Most people have likely heard of the "fight or flight" response, but there is one more very important "F" that keeps getting left out:

Freeze.

It's important because it's actually incredibly common. And we all do it, if we're put under enough stress.

You've likely encountered stage fright, felt like a "deer in the headlights", or found yourself momentarily lost for words.

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Freezing, like fighting back or running away, is hard wired into our brain as a way to protect us from trauma.

How? In extreme forms freezing also involves cutting yourself off emotionally, or dissociating. And if we're in a situation where we can't escape or it isn't safe to fight back, freezing until it's over is actually the safest response.

And that's why it's so common in rape and sexual assault.

It may be literally true that escape isn't physically possible, because the person is bigger and stronger than you. Or fighting back might make the situation more dangerous, or it might just feel socially difficult because it's happening in a public place like a bar.

Freezing and doing nothing until you can get away is, in my experience, the most common response.

It's also true that we don't talk about it enough.

There is no doubt we have huge problems with sexual violence in New Zealand, our rates are among the worst in the OECD. So when we talk about consent it's vital to understand that consent needs to be explicit, enthusiastic and ongoing. Freezing and shutting off is not consent.

So just because your friend didn't fight back or try to escape doesn't mean she was consenting. And, of course, blaming yourself is also common for victims of sexual violence. Hopefully once your friend understands that freezing is an instinctual response, it can also help her place the blame where it belongs.

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Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
Samaritans 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Follow Kyle on Facebook and check out his website here.

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Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald is in private practice at the Robert Street Clinic in Auckland. For more: psychotherapy.org.nz or his Social Anxiety resource site: overcomingsocialanxiety.com.

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