tonic immobility
June 7, 2017

More Women Experience Paralysis During Sexual Assault Than You May Assume

The general public tends to consider “fighting back” as the “normal” response to rape.

But is it?

A new Swedish survey found 7 out of 10 women experienced “tonic immobility” during sexual assault.

What Is Tonic Immobility?

Tonic immobility is a natural state of paralysis, often observed in animals as “playing dead.” It is an involuntary and temporary inability to move or speak, to varying degrees, and it is often a reaction to an extreme threat or extreme fear.

This study assessed these experiences of paralysis during assault using the Tonic Immobility Scale in 298 women who had visited the Emergency clinic for raped women within 1 month of a sexual assault.

How Does This Impact Our Treatment of Rape Victims?

The Swedish study shows that “tonic immobility is more common than earlier described,” said lead study author Dr. Anna Möller, an OB-GYN at Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden. “This information is useful in both legal situations and in the psychoeducation of rape victims.”

Legally, courts sometimes dismiss sexual assault cases if there are not any physical signs of a struggle. For example, a 2002 study from Florida found that evidence of trauma (which was only identified in 57% of the cases) was correlated with an increased likelihood of conviction.

While each case is different, it is useful for law makers and judges to be aware of the common phenomenon of paralysis during such attacks.

Further, the response of tonic immobility was associated with the development of post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression by 6 months after the assault. In addition to this, prior history of trauma or psychiatric treatment among the victims were associated with the tonic immobility response to assault.

This is important information for therapists, psychologists, social workers, friends, family and others who work with or know survivors.

Overall, we need greater awareness about the diverse responses or experiences of those impacted by sexual assault, and to systematically deconstruct any myths that some responses are “right” or “wrong” in the moment of the assault.

You can help spread the word, and encourage unknown survivors in your midst, by sharing this article and the below resources on social media.

If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. You can also find a local Crisis and Counseling Center (Open 24/7).

Haley McNamara (Halverson)

Vice President and Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation

Haley McNamara (formerly Halverson) is the Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation in the UK, and a Vice President at the U.S. based National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She leads international efforts and joint campaigns to improve policies and education among global governing bodies, citizenry, and corporations regarding the full web of sexual exploitation issues. Her advocacy work has contributed to policy improvements in social media, online advertising, retail, and hotel industries. She has advocated at the United Nations, led international coalition campaigns, presented to Danish, Croatian, Colombian and Rwandan government officials, and more

She is a former member of the Washington DC Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. This Committee advises DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on the multi-faceted continuum of the District of Columbia’s child welfare services, including prevention, early intervention, treatment, and sources of permanency.

Haley regularly speaks and writes on topics including child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual objectification, the exploitation of males, and more. She has presented before officials at the United Nations, as well as at several national symposia before influencers from the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Croatian government officials. She has provided training to Arlington County Child & Family Services on the social media grooming, recruitment, and advertising for sex trafficking. She has a Master of Arts in Government from Johns Hopkins University where she received honors for her thesis regarding the online commercial sexual exploitation marketplace.

Previously, Haley served for two years as Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she oversaw strategic messaging development, press outreach, email marketing, and social media marketing.

Prior to working at NCOSE, Haley wrote for a cultural media outlet. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) with a double major, and conducted a senior thesis on the abolitionist argument regarding prostitution. During her studies, she studied abroad at Oxford University and established a background in policy research through several internships in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Times, NBC’s The Today Show, BBC News, New York Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, the Washington Examiner, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, The Detroit News, Lifezette, The Christian Post, Lifeline with Neil Boron, EWTN News Nightly, KCBS San Francisco Radio, LifeSiteNews, The Drew Mariano Show on Relevant Radio, News Talk KGVO, and American Family News.

She has written op-eds for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post,, Washington Examiner,, Darling Magazine, the Daytona-Beach News Journal, and has been published in the Journal of Internet Law and the journal Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and ViolenceShe has also contributed to a digital middle school curriculum regarding the links between sex trafficking and pornography as well as the public health impacts of sex trafficking.

Further Reading