What does the Freeze Response Have to do with Consent?
Updated: Jul 24
What is the Freeze Response and what does it have to do with consent? Most of us have heard of the autonomic Fight and Flight responses that kick in when a person (or any mammal!) faces a perceived danger. But there is a third autonomic response – the Freeze response. (There is also a fourth response, Fawn, which has been less studied and is not as well understood scientifically.)
The Freeze Response, also known as tonic immobility, is a physical survival mechanism that is completely outside of our conscious control. It causes changes to a person’s heart rate, circulation, breathing, vision and hearing. Activity in the prefrontal cortex diminishes and memories formed during this time will be disjointed, intense, or not fully formed. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.
For children who are threatened, the response is almost always Freeze(or Fawn), since fight or flight are often impossible. The Freeze response is also what occurs for over 70% of sexual assault victims. And once a person experiences the Freeze response, they are most likely to have that response in the future.
So, for people with childhood trauma or a history of sexual assault, they are most likely to experience a Freeze response any time they are threatened.
This is important when it comes to consent for two reasons. We all need to be aware of the Freeze response so that we don’t blame ourselves or others for not yelling, running away, or fighting back. These actions become impossible during a Freeze response, and victims should not be judged or shamed for what they were unable to do.
Many victims fail to report assaults because they themselves don’t understand why they didn’t fight back or run away. They either blame themselves, or they are confused and are worried that others will blame them. Which does happen. If someone tells you that they don't know why they didn't run away or fight back, you can tell them that they were probably having a freeze response, and that it's not their fault.
Another reason is that it’s important for all of us to be able to recognize the Freeze response in others. If we are with a person who has a history of trauma, we can be aware that if they become silent, or seem rigid or unresponsive, that they may be having a Freeze response.
Understanding the Freeze response gives even more importance to making sure that we have enthusiastic consent from others. If someone is very quiet or passive, we need to stop and make sure that they are not having a trauma response.
In our book Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators, we have an entire chapter on the Freeze Response. My co-author Marcia Baczynski and I feel that this is such an important subject that we all need to understand better. Also, young people have given me the feedback that it was very impactful for them to learn this information.
To learn more about the Freeze Response, the workshop, or the book, come learn more at my website, www.creatingconsentculture.com.
Order the book here!