By Meena S Jan. 15, 2018
After #MeToo and #TimesUp and seemingly ceaseless stories of sexual assault by famous, much-loved men, I dug up my own. Just like the girl in Aziz Ansari’s apartment, why didn’t I just leave? Maybe, because my body went into tonic immobility.
It has been a year and three months, but I remember the night as clear as the glass of rum that left me vulnerable to a predator. A widely celebrated, feminist, progressive predator.
We sat across each other. After some banter, he had his way with me, and I, inebriated to the hilt, didn’t push him away.
He smiled. I smiled back. And then I ran like the wind.
We’d agreed to put it past us, but I have never healed fully. Every day, I give him the benefit of doubt. Every day, I feel a surge of guilt. Every day, I force the belief that one “no” could have changed everything. But I’ll never really know.
After #MeToo and #TimesUp and seemingly ceaseless stories of sexual assault by famous, much-loved men, I dug up my own. It was carefully misplaced, buried with my other skeletons. But with it came the internalised policing mechanism most survivors of trauma have.
Why did I act like I was fine, when I wasn’t? Why did I not say no or convey my displeasure clearly? Why didn’t I push him away or slap him? Why did I smile back when I was leaving? Is this really sexual assault, or is it just a good ol’ case of misunderstanding and “misreading the signals”?
Just like the girl in Aziz Ansari’s apartment, why didn’t I just leave? Maybe, because my body went into tonic immobility.
Women and men have lost sleep over years of shame, guilt, and hurt from trauma of various kinds. Rape, sexual assault, physical abuse, being in the army frontlines, severe post-traumatic stress disorder, or depression – individuals affected by these have one thing in common. The state of tonic immobility.
When the body completely shuts down or does as it is believed to during an act of rape or sexual abuse or assault, the survivor loses control.
When the body completely shuts down or does as it is believed to during an act of rape or sexual abuse or assault, the survivor loses control. The basic concept of tonic immobility is best demonstrated in animals. When they sense a predator, they act dead and don’t move, because predators don’t like dead meat. In humans, tonic immobility sets in when the “fight or flight” response fails. The body settles into a non-responsive state out of fear or immediate threat, and the person is unaware of how to defend themselves by moving or speaking. They freeze to wait until it’s over, or follow the abuser’s instructions to minimise further threat and to prevent antagonising the abuser. Tonic immobility, for everyone who asks why she didn’t just get up and leave.
We talk about consent, we talk about communication, we talk about triggers, but we don’t talk about one of the most primal reactions to a traumatic experience, freezing and dissociation.
In my case, my assaulter had clearly violated my boundaries while I was inebriated, and this was obvious to everyone but me. Theoretically, these concepts read sensibly, but emotionally, I had no interest in holding a psychology term responsible for my reaction. Yet, accepting it theoretically was a step I couldn’t discount. It was progress.
Legally and societally, this concept holds no water. In a country that is slowly grasping the idea of accepting “no” as denying consent, tonic immobility is far from being considered a legitimate reason, however scientific. Courts and police are more likely to consider it a form of passive consent. A “feeble no” after all, is still considered a practical yes.
A study conducted in Sweden assessed tonic immobility at the time of assault in 298 women who had visited the Emergency Clinic for Rape Victims in Stockholm within one month of a sexual assault. Of the 298 women, 70 per cent reported significant tonic immobility and 48 per cent reported extreme tonic immobility during the assault. Studies on tonic immobility have not yet been carried out on a large enough scale with regard to sexual trauma, which hasn’t helped the cause of normalising the discussion around the concept in any country, forget India.
I assume there is a fear around making tonic immobility a subject of popular discussion because it is likely to be misused, or used as an excuse to foist a rape case on an innocent person. But now that we’re talking #MeToo, we need to bolster the discourse with the nuances of consent.
Take the Weinstein case. Norwegian actress Natassia Malthe is a classic example of a survivor faced with tonic immobility. “I laid still and closed my eyes and just wanted it to end,” she said. “I was like a dead person. Afterwards I lay there in complete disgust. After he was done he put his pants back on and hurriedly left the room,” she told the LA Times.
Tonic immobility is a lot more common among female sexual abuse survivors because we’ve been taught to be kind, quiet and unassuming for generations now. This idea of internalisation always reminds me of a catchy refrain from my vice principal in school– “Girls should be seen, not heard.” Centuries of trying not to antagonise or ruffle any feathers has made us forget to listen to our own bodies and to register our protest.
Sometimes I wonder if I remember it differently. I, as many others have, get questions ranging from “why didn’t I push him away?” or “why did I say no?”, almost an echo of my inner police station interrogation voice.
I know I can never escape that voice unless I give myself space to heal. Maybe then, these questions will go away one day.