Study: Victims Often Experience Paralysis During a Sexual Assault

During a sexual assault, seven out of ten female survivors reported significant immobility while nearly one in two experienced extreme immobility.

Swedish researchers have confirmed what many sexual assault victim advocates and experts have suspected for quite some time — that during a sexual assault, many victims don’t fight back. Instead, they experience a physiological response called “tonic immobility.”

According to LiveScience, “tonic immobility” is an innate, defensive reaction that paralyzes victims. Sometimes referred to as “playing dead,” it’s a normal reaction to extreme fear and happens involuntarily. During a sexual assault, the victim’s sympathetic nervous system activates, and she can’t move or speak and is unresponsive.

Tonic immobility is a common survival response in other animals. When they appear to be dead, a predator might not attack. In the case of human sexual assault, however, tonic immobility often doesn’t stop the perpetrator.

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The study found that during an assault, seven out of ten female sexual assault survivors reported significant immobility while nearly one in two experienced extreme immobility.

These findings apply to sexual assault cases where law enforcement and juries often interpret victim passivity as consent.

Campus Safety magazine previously reported on the impact of trauma and rape on victims. Most, but not all, victims of sexual violence don’t physically resist. The attack may trigger a survival mechanism that allows them to subconsciously evaluate fight/flight options and they remain calm and subservient as a survival strategy. Conversely, they may be in shock or have been, either knowingly or unknowingly, incapacitated by alcohol, drugs or both.

About the Author


Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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