A common and terrible reaction to harassment and assault stories is to blame the victim for not speaking up or walking out when it happened. “I would have left!” many people assert. But not everyone can simply leave or speak up. Not everyone has words, or actions, when they most need them. We’re all familiar with fight or flight, but not so much with the impractical freeze. Sudden inertia in stressful or threatening situations is a real phenomenon that doesn’t get enough coverage.
In “Cognitive Paralysis in an Emergency: The Role of the Supervisory Attentional System,” Dr. John Leach states: “Many witnesses attest that victims of a disaster often perish because they ‘freeze’ in the face of danger.” This can happen to anyone at any time, but I’ve experienced it off and on my whole life. This freeze, or inertia—sometimes called autistic inertia—is more common in neurodivergent people, from those with ADD and anxiety disorders to those who are on the autism spectrum or autism-adjacent. It’s not as simple as freezing, though: It’s more of an inability to form a reaction in the moment than it is an inability to do something that you consciously want to do.
To spend a lifetime “freezing” or becoming inactive in times of stress is to spend a lifetime being chastised, dismissed, and even insulted by family, peers, and adults. Even though I had a fierce and clear sense of injustice as a child, I eventually became one of the voices chastising myself. Feeling guilty. Beating myself up for inaction that I wasn’t responsible for. Usually, this inertia involved me not knowing what to think at the time, and not processing the situation until later. My tendency toward a natural “straight face” or slight frown—another common characteristic of non-neurotypical people and one that, for me, often accompanied my efforts at processing information—didn’t help.
Interactive Autism Network (IAN) defines executive function as “ the ability to coordinate and apply one’s own mental capacity.” Executive function is what allows us to choose alternate actions when roadblocks arise. Being harassed or threatened by another person is a roadblock. Stress-induced inertia, a sort of stalling of executive function, can happen when people treat you inappropriately, or when you are being bullied or harassed. It can also happen when you are touched without your consent.
In my eighth-grade science class, I sat in front of a boy who would often sexually harass me, leaning forward to whisper graphic opinions about my body in my ear. Sometimes he whispered threats, telling me in detail what he would do to me. A few times, he put his hands on me and pinched me in places I was too embarrassed to even think about discussing with anyone. He would grab my bra strap and pull it just enough to let me know he meant business and I would, characteristically, freeze.
In my head, I practiced words I could say to the teacher but never managed to say aloud: “He is bothering me.” Those words might seem simple enough, but I couldn’t force myself to march to the teacher’s desk and say them. I remember overhearing a girl in the next row whisper to someone that she didn’t know why I let him do it. I never let him do it. He did it, and I froze.
Years later, when I was twenty-two, I was a victim of date rape. Again, I experienced frightened inaction: the freeze. The inertia of not knowing what to do, or how to say, “Don’t.” The man was an acquaintance of mine. We had mutual friends. He offered me a ride home, and I sort of accepted—mostly, I just followed, because I wasn’t getting along with the friend I’d come with, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
Instead of taking me home, the man, who was ten years my senior, took me to his apartment. I didn’t say anything; I just followed him up the stairs and into his apartment when he told me to. I didn’t know what would happen, and I was unable to think about what would happen. Within minutes of entering his apartment, I became violently ill. He helped me to the bathroom—only later did I realize he had given me something that contributed to my sickness. In the midst of being sick, he told me to take my clothes off so they wouldn’t get messy. I was ashamed I was sick, ashamed I was naked, and I didn’t have the words to say no.
At some point, my stomach and my brain calmed down, and I cleaned myself up a bit and started to get dressed. He said, “Oh, no you don’t.” He took me to his bed and again told me what to do. All the time, I was wordless, motionless and afraid. I didn’t know how to get home. I didn’t have a cell phone. I did what he told me to do, and when it was over, he drove me home.
Unreasonably, but characteristically, I was ashamed afterward. I was horrified at the thought of seeing him again in public, horrified that my friends might find out what had happened. I knew it was wrong, but it took years for me to realize that yes, this had been real assault. I hadn’t said “no.” I hadn’t been able to. More importantly, I hadn’t said “yes.” I hadn’t been asked.
“Why didn’t they tell someone?” is often the reaction of those who swear they wouldn’t have allowed it to happen in the first place. But executive function can fail people following a trauma, too.
So many boys and men view sex as something you pursue and get, rather than something that mutually consenting adults participate in. The practice of “keep going until she says no” is dangerous for so many reasons. There’s more discussion now about the necessity of clear and enthusiastic consent. When we hear stories of physically and intellectually disabled people being sexually abused, it is important to discuss and understand how executive function and inertia can affect behavior in stressful or traumatic situations.
One of the reasons that clear, capacitated, and enthusiastic consent is needed is that not everybody has the right words when they’re afraid or traumatized. I used to worry that drawing attention to the additional vulnerability of disabled or neurodivergent people would just give some abusers another tool to use, but then I realized: Abusers already know. They already choose who they choose. They practice. They single people out.
In light of the #MeToo conversation, I hope more men are acknowledging, at least to themselves, that they may have coerced or forced or mistreated others. I hope abusers become more afraid to abuse. And I hope the voices of people who haven’t necessarily had the words when they needed them can also be heard.