Earlier this year, the state of Maryland finally got rid of a law that requires sexual assault victims to prove that they tried to defend themselves before police could charge a rapist. Now, a new study out of Europe shows that most sexual assault victims don’t “fight back.” In reality, most victims actually freeze up in response to trauma.
Anna Möller, MD, PhD, of the Karolinksa Institute and the Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden, led a study that evaluated the cases of almost 300 women who visited an emergency clinic after being sexually assaulted. The majority of women — 70% — reported “significant tonic immobility,” which is the technical term for “involuntary, temporary motor inhibition when exposed to extreme threat,” when facing their assailant. Another 48% reported “extreme tonic immobility” during their assaults, which means that most victims, once they realize there is no way of getting out of the attack, essentially freeze up.
This research is exactly why states should take a look at laws concerning sexual assault and victims’ rights. In Maryland, the law required survivors to show that there was physical proof that they tried to fight their rapists before police could bring charges. The law was changed after an investigative report by BuzzFeed found that Maryland police officers were labeling a disproportionate number of rape cases “unfounded.”
This new study shows that fighting back while being sexually assaulted is, in most cases, physically impossible.
The study also found that 38% of sexual assault victims developed PTSD after their attacks, and 22% were diagnosed with severe depression; the women who reported tonic immobility were more likely to develop PTSD and depression. Hopefully, the results of the study can be used by public health officials and lawmakers who want to ensure that sexual assault victims have access to affordable follow up-care for their mental health.
The study also disproves a common misunderstanding about rape culture — that victims have some sort of choice about whether or not they’re assaulted. There are still way too many states that have laws about “forcible” or “legitimate” rape on the books, which require victims to prove their assaults involved a physical struggle.
It’s unfortunate that we need studies like this to change state legislators’ minds and back up victims’ accounts, but hopefully this one can be used to help survivors get the care they need after being assaulted.