Freezing: Why “Yes Means Yes” is So Important


NOT EVERYONE can say “No.”

This post is not about rape culture, the objectification of women, or male entitlement to female bodies. These are important conversations to have, and they are happening. The issues they address are real.

What I don’t hear much about are mistakes. I fully believe that not all instances of sexual misconduct are perpetrated by people who view the other as an object or feel entitled to the other’s body. There are some things people don’t understand that can lead to mistakes, regardless of the amount of respect they have for others. And that’s why consent education is so important.

I first heard the phrase “freeze response” one week ago, at the age of 29. This strikes me as absurd, particularly because I’m a “freezer.” I have known for a long time that this is how I respond to certain uncomfortable situations, particularly when touch is involved, but I never knew it was a “thing.” We really need to know that it is.

We usually hear about “fight or flight,” as though these are the only two modes of response instinct has given us when we’re confronted by some sort of threat. The body assesses a threat and we either flee the situation or fight against it, depending on which the body decides is most likely to protect us (whatever “protection” may look like in the given situation).

If someone tries to put a hand on me and I push it away, or if I say “no,” I’ve fought the gesture. If I get up and leave instead, I’ve fled the situation. Whether I fight or flee, “no” is quite clear.

Freezing is a third fear response recognized in the field of psychology but, for some reason, missing from public discourse. Someone tries to put a hand on me; I’m uncomfortable, but I can’t move or speak. “No” is not clear.

And it’s f**king awful. I know that I could keep what is happening from happening, and I know that I can make it stop, but something has disrupted the connection between brain and voice box, between brain and muscles.

Wait for it to end, it will end, this isn’t happening, I’m not in my body, wait for it to end.

Science tells me that the freeze response originates in the periaqueductal grey (PAG) region of the cerebellum. Psychological theory tells me the response is part of instinctive survival strategy; psychologist Susan LaCombe compares it to playing dead when confronted by an animal predator, and says that it’s what we do when “fight or flight” is not an option, when freezing is determined by the body to provide the best chance for survival.

I’ve never been in a situation in which I thought I was going to die. I never thought that saying “no” or moving away would put me in danger. I know, in my head, that freezing is not the best option, but my body chooses differently. Then I try to break my mind apart from my body – dissociation. I know that I freeze when what is happening is more than I can process at the time – when reality clashes a little too hard with what I need, with what I want from the world, with what I want from other people. I know that freeze doesn’t only happen in life-or-death situations; the body fears many things.

And now, for the first time in 29 years, I know that other people freeze, too. I think that people need to know about the freeze response in order to fully understand why “Yes Means Yes” is so important.

I understand the importance of this education not only as a person who freezes, but as someone whose lack of knowledge about the freeze response has left her susceptible to making mistakes for 29 years. I thought I was the only person who responded this way to situations in which boundaries are crossed. I didn’t just figure out that a lack of “no” doesn’t mean “yes” over the past week. I knew there are other reasons why a person might not say no – fearing that the other might fly into a rage and become violent, or being unconscious/impaired, for example. But I didn’t know that a cognizant person who is not afraid of me might freeze with me. I was wrong. And I could have done wrong because of it.

Ask first. If there’s any hesitation in the response, understand that this itself could indicate freezing. And even if you ask and hear “YES!”, remember that minds can change and the only indication may be unresponsiveness. That’s as close to saying “no” as some people can get in these situations, and we need to hear it.

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