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More Women Experience Paralysis During Sexual Assault Than You May Assume

A new Swedish survey found 7 out of 10 women experienced “tonic immobility” during sexual assault.

The general public tends to consider “fighting back” as the “normal” response to rape.

But is it?

A new Swedish survey found 7 out of 10 women experienced “tonic immobility” during sexual assault.

What Is Tonic Immobility?

Tonic immobility is a natural state of paralysis, often observed in animals as “playing dead.” It is an involuntary and temporary inability to move or speak, to varying degrees, and it is often a reaction to an extreme threat or extreme fear.

This study assessed these experiences of paralysis during assault using the Tonic Immobility Scale in 298 women who had visited the Emergency clinic for raped women within 1 month of a sexual assault.

How Does This Impact Our Treatment of Rape Victims?

The Swedish study shows that “tonic immobility is more common than earlier described,” said lead study author Dr. Anna Möller, an OB-GYN at Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden. “This information is useful in both legal situations and in the psychoeducation of rape victims.”

Legally, courts sometimes dismiss sexual assault cases if there are not any physical signs of a struggle. For example, a 2002 study from Florida found that evidence of trauma (which was only identified in 57% of the cases) was correlated with an increased likelihood of conviction.

While each case is different, it is useful for law makers and judges to be aware of the common phenomenon of paralysis during such attacks.

Further, the response of tonic immobility was associated with the development of post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression by 6 months after the assault. In addition to this, prior history of trauma or psychiatric treatment among the victims were associated with the tonic immobility response to assault.

This is important information for therapists, psychologists, social workers, friends, family and others who work with or know survivors.

Overall, we need greater awareness about the diverse responses or experiences of those impacted by sexual assault, and to systematically deconstruct any myths that some responses are “right” or “wrong” in the moment of the assault.

You can help spread the word, and encourage unknown survivors in your midst, by sharing this article and the below resources on social media.

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. You can also find a local Crisis and Counseling Center (Open 24/7).

If anyone has watched "13 Reasons Why," there is a scene that showcases this phenomenon quite explicitly. It's hard to watch, but after seeing it, tonic immobility is an indisputable effect of rape.

@lbrindley - when in the show does that happen?? I just started, and now I'm nervous to watch until the end.

@vegforlife, you'll have to keep watching and see! It's worth watching, so I would hate to completely ruin it for you.

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