Study Finds

Rape Victims Experience Paralyzing Phenomenon During Attack, Study Finds

STOCKHOLM — The physical and emotional trauma from rape can last a lifetime for victims, but a new study finds that women being sexually assaulted often report falling into an involuntary paralysis during the attack that prohibits them from fighting back against rapists.

The state of paralysis, referred to as “tonic immobility,” is a known defense mechanism among animals that many experts compare to hypnosis. The natural phenomenon occurs when an animal under attack by a predator is incapable of resisting and has no other means of defense. While “active resistance” is considered a “normal” reaction for a woman being assaulted or raped, little research has been published about tonic immobility among humans.

A new study finds that 70 percent of women experience an involuntary form of paralysis called “tonic immobility” during a rape or sexual assault.

Rsearchers at the Karolinksa Institutet and the Stockholm South General Hospital in Sweden studied the effect in cases of 298 women who visited a hospital within a month of being sexually assaulted. The victims were assessed a second time six months after reporting the attack, with researchers monitoring for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder and/or depression.

The results were quite notable: “Significant” tonic immobility was identified in 70 percent of the women, and nearly half (48 percent) reported “extreme” tonic immobility during a rape or sexual assault.

“The present study shows that tonic immobility is more common than earlier described,” says lead researcher Dr. Anna Möller in a press release. “This information is useful both in legal situations and in the psychoeducation of rape victims. Further, this knowledge can be applied in the education of medical students and law students.”

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In the follow-up assessment, nearly four in 10 women (38.1 percent) reported being diagnosed with PTSD and about 22 percent were being treated for severe depression. That led the researchers to calculate that women who experienced tonic immobility were 2.75 times more likely to experience PTSD, and about 3.4 times more likely to be depressed.

Tonic immobility was also linked to victims who had a prior history of trauma and had sought psychiatric care before being assaulted.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica.

 

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