Italian actress Asia Argento arrives for the screening of 'Zulu' and the closing ceremony of the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 26 May 2013. The award ceremony is followed by the screening of 'Zulu', presented out of competition.
Italian actress Asia Argento arrives for the screening of 'Zulu' and the closing ceremony of the 66th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, 26 May 2013. The award ceremony is followed by the screening of 'Zulu', presented out of competition. EPA - IAN LANGSDON

The science of why women don’t always fight back

ONE of the saddest indictments of our society is how we have politicised rape victims and survivors.

Instead of providing support and comfort, far too many of us question victims about how they responded when they were attacked, and if they didn't struggle, scream or try to fight, then we question whether anything bad actually happened.

But different people will respond in different ways, even if it seems counterintuitive to some of us.

In a groundbreaking Swedish study, it's been proven that there is no such thing as a 'normal' response to being violently and sexually violated; in fact, it's more likely for victims to experience involuntary paralysis during an attack. The study of 300 female rape victims found that two-thirds 'froze', and almost half experienced extreme paralysis during their respective attacks.

This type of paralysis is known as 'tonic immobility' and has already been well studied in animals and is thought to be an evolutionary adaptive defensive response to predatory attacks in which it's not possible to escape.

The importance of this study cannot be underestimated. Firstly, it is essential to expand understanding for police and lawyers, who for years have relied on myths to denigrate victims and let rapists free to remain in the community. Secondly, an improved public understanding of how victims respond could also aid their own personal recoveries; researchers also found that victims who experienced involuntary paralysis were also more likely to develop post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression.

Karen Willis, executive officer at Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, says the 'fight, fright or freeze' response is common not just for rape victims, but people who have experienced other traumatic events, such as car crashes.

"For a woman who is being overpowered by a man, fighting against often isn't possible. The mind is overwhelmed with fear - they could die or be seriously injured. The brain just shuts down."

The impact this can have on victims - on being blamed by police or lawyers, plus society at large for not 'fighting back' - can be devastating, Ms Willis explains.

"Less than 20 per cent of victims report their rape and one of the biggest reason is fear of not being believed and being questioned about what they could have done to prevent it from happening.

"By shutting down, rape victims aren't 'letting' anything happen. What they're doing is reducing the pain and trying to survive."

James W. Hopper, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry of Harvard Medical School, adds that victims who do 'freeze' can be left consumed with the belief that their rape was their fault.

"They blame themselves for "failing" to resist. They feel ashamed. They may tell no one, even during an investigation," he wrote. "Sadly, many investigators and prosecutors still don't know some or all of these brain-based responses."

In many cases, victims have not been believed by police and even ridiculed when they tried to report the crimes committed against them. In fact, should a woman fail to struggle or scream, then her (rape victims can certainly be men, but at least 90 per cent are in fact women and girls) story is almost immediately dismissed. It's either claimed that it was consensual sex that she later regretted or perhaps she was drunk and couldn't remember what happened.

The 'perfect victim myth' is one that seriously damages not only victims, but also the justice system. In an obscene number of cases, the way a victim has reacted during the attack is used as confirmation that nothing illegal happened.

In March this year, an Italian man was cleared of raping a woman in a hospital bed because the woman didn't scream. And in Turkey in 2012, a man walked free from court because the victim, a mentally disabled woman, didn't scream.

It's part of the societal narrative that aims to avoid placing any blame on the actual perpetrator, and instead holds the victim responsible.

There is no standard way that victims respond and react to being violently violated, and their reactions should play no role in how these crimes are investigated and prosecuted.

Victimising someone a second time because they don't react like we think they should have will always say more about society then it could ever say about victims.