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Tonic Immobility Affects A Majority Of Sexual Assault Victims

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In a troubling new Swedish study, researchers found that the reason lots of women don't fight back during sexual assault is because they physically can't.

It turns out that in the midst of sexual assault, many women endure a psychological response called "tonic immobility" that leaves them essentially paralyzed.

The study, published today in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, delved deeply into what tonic immobility really is and how it affects survivors of sexual assault.

What is tonic immobility, and how does it relate to sexual assault?

An involuntary psychological response called "tonic immobility" leaves many women feeling paralyzed when they're in extremely frightening situations, such as sexual assault.

It's a normal response for most animals: It's what your dog's doing when he "plays dead."

Not a lot of research has been done on how the response plays out in humans, but according to Live Science, the researchers of the current study describe it as a state in which the "person cannot move, may be unable to speak and is unresponsive."

How did the researchers look into its effect on sexual assault survivors?

In order to conduct their study, the researchers had female survivors of sexual assault fill out questionnaires. Each of the almost 300 women had visited the Emergency Clinic for Raped Women in Sweden between February 2009 and December 2011.

The questionnaires asked the women to explain whether or not they had experienced "tonic immobility" during their assaults and whether or not they were experiencing PTSD, acute stress, or depression since the assault.

After the first questionnaire was given, a second one asking the same questions about the aftermath was sent again six months later.

How common is tonic immobility during assault?

After examining their questionnaires, seven out of 10 of the sexual assault survivors admitted to having faced tonic immobility during their attack. That's 70 percent.

As if that wasn't horrible enough, 48 percent of those same women said they would classify their level of immobility as "extreme."

The worse your circumstances, the higher your chance for immobility it seems.

The odds of enduring this horrible psychological response only go up if you have been sexually assaulted in the past. The study found that women who had been previously assaulted were twice as likely to experience tonic immobility during their second attack.

To make matters worse, the odds of experiencing tonic immobility also doubled for survivors whose predators used any sort of physical violence against them.

The only women who were less likely to undergo the response were those who drank alcohol within 12 hours before the assault.

How does tonic immobility affect women after their assaults?

The questions about the psychological damage survivors faced following their attacks revealed that the women who suffered tonic immobility during their assaults were more than twice as likely to experience PTSD six months after their assault.

Compared to sexual assault survivors who did not have tonic immobility, these women were also over three times (3.4, to be exact) more likely to develop severe depression.

And it only gets sadder from there.

The sexual assault survivors who suffered through tonic immobility were also twice as likely to already be experiencing PTSD from a previous incident.

When compared to women who had been assaulted for the first time, these women were also more likely to have acute stress disorder and to have severe depression two weeks after their most recent experience.

So what does this all mean in terms of our justice system?

Well, the fact that tonic immobility is so common is a pretty BFD when it comes to legal situations, where cases are often dismissed if it can't be proven that the survivor made an attempt to fight back.

According to a statement from the study's lead author, Dr. Anna Möller, an OB-GYN at Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden, the study's finding that the psychological response is so common "is useful in both legal situations and in the psychoeducation of rape victims."

Hopefully the findings of this troubling study bring about some positive change in our society by raising the efficiency of the way in which we handle sexual assault trials.