Thank you, very much, for this courageous and insightful piece.
Years and years ago when I was just a girl of 10 or so, I was confronted on the deserted school field by two older boys who threatened to “pants” me. This was a sport among our local teenage boys: chasing down younger girls and pulling their panties off. I don’t think it went much further than that, but it was terrifying and humiliating for the girls (which was the point).
I had been roller skating — remember those big heavy metal rollerskates that adjusted to your foot size with a clamp mechanism? — and just before paralysis set in, I lifted up one skate to shoulder height, determined to hit the first one that touched me. Standoff. But I was completely frozen. I could not speak or breathe or move, and I don’t think I could actually have hit them, because I was too frozen. But they didn’t know that.
Eventually my rigid silence unnerved them (in combination with the poised skate which was getting heavy) and they yelled some insults at me and then slouched away “casually”. They were round the corner and out of sight, half a minute or more passed, before I could move. I froze like a mouse in the leaf litter when the shadow of the hawk passes over. Then of course I ran like hell, hysterical with fear and rage, home to Mama…who got the story out of me in bits and pieces between heaving sobs and would have half-killed those boys if she could have caught them, I’m sure.
I remember that frozen state as clearly as if it were yesterday. It comes to me in dreams sometimes: a male attacker/molester is moving slowly, deliberately, confidently towards me and I can’t move, can’t speak, can’t run, can’t scream. I know from talking to other women that this is a common, shared experience, but I’ve never read such an accurate, scientific, moving account of it. Thank you again, for lightening the load of shame and blame that so many survivors carry in addition to the nasty memory of being attacked. I still blame my child self for not whacking one of those jerks and teaching him a lesson.
I am fairly sure that this freeze mechanism, combined with rigorous politeness training, explains why so many women don’t react in real time to even minor sexual aggression by men. Men often complain that women “wait to complain,” that we should confront them right away, object immediately, tell them they’re out of line rather than “running to whine to teacher” days later. But I think for a lot of us, unless we’ve been lucky in our training or our neurology, the threat of rape (even the implicit threat, as in harassment) is literally paralyzing. The brain shuts off. The brilliant put-down or comeback occurs three days later.
I would hate to think that this is an evolutionary adaptation designed to ensure that mating takes place even against the female’s will. What a ghastly thought. But it does seem sometimes that if men and women were evenly matched physically and women were not neurologically programmed to freeze, birth rates world wide might be a lot lower…