The Four Common Responses to Sexual Assault

January 11, 2022

Many survivors of sexual assault are confused by how they acted during the assault itself. 

The truth is that there is no correct response to being sexually assaulted. It is also helpful to know the common responses that our bodies and brains have to trauma. When the human brain recognizes a threat, the autonomic nervous system reacts, releasing hormones that trigger physical changes to our bodies to protect us. These reactions are usually characterized in four ways – fight, flight, freeze, and fawn:

FIGHT

  • Moving reactively toward the conflict
  • Demonstrating defensive behaviors like yelling, pushing, crying, and arguing 
  • Note: This is the least common response to sexual assault

FLIGHT

  • Hiding or avoiding
  • Attempting to escape the situation

FREEZE

  • Experiencing dissociation, feeling disconnected from body and surroundings
  • Having difficulty moving or speaking 

FAWN

  • People-pleasing in an attempt to safely avoid danger
  • Placating, bargaining, or flattering the aggressor

These characterizations may help to explain why you acted the way you did. Above all, know this; you did what you knew to do in the moment. There is no judgment, blame, or shame that needs to be placed on your actions, or lack thereof, while you were being assaulted.

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