Law should consider evidence that fear causes rape victims to freeze, London experts argue

Researchers say victims can freeze in cases of rape or sexual assault  (PA Archive)
Researchers say victims can freeze in cases of rape or sexual assault (PA Archive)

The law should take into consideration neuroscientific evidence that suggests fear can cause victims to become “frozen” in cases of rape or sexual assault, experts have argued.

Patrick Haggard, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London (UCL), and former UCL undergraduate Ebani Dhawan say that victims are often blamed for not fighting or fleeing their attackers despite clear scientific evidence that sexual assault and rape affects control over a victim’s body movement.

Around 30 per cent of women worldwide are thought to experience sexual assault or rape in their lifetime, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Of those who have attended an emergency clinic, 70 per cent reported being “frozen” and unable to move or cry out.

Police in England and Wales recorded over 700,000 rapes in 2021-2022, but just three per cent led to a charge.

Writing in the Nature Human Behaviour journal on Monday, the researchers highlight court cases such as R v Lennox (2018) in Australia in which the defence lawyer questioned the victim as to why she froze and did not show signs of struggle. This transferred the blame of the sexual assault to her.

The researchers argue that the victim’s immobility may be entirely involuntary — in which case blame is inappropriate.

Research has shown that when presented with threats, the brain’s response can include blocking the neural circuits that provide voluntary control over body movement.

Many animals freeze briefly in response to mild threat, so they are poised to trigger a fight or flight reaction.

But in response to immediate and severe threat, the behaviour may change to a prolonged immobility where the body becomes either completely frozen or limp.

The researchers note that similar processes occur in humans, with questionnaire studies showing that sexual assault victims often report being unable to move or cry out during the assault, even when they are not physically constrained.

Arguments for the defence in rape and sexual assault cases sometimes misinterpret the absence of struggle as an indication of consent, they argue.

But if the victim is involuntarily immobile, this argument is incorrect.

More research is needed to determine the immediate impact of rape and sexual assault on a victim’s ability to move, the researchers write.

Professor Haggard said: “The law has long recognised ‘loss of control’ defences and can accord diminished responsibility in specific situations, in which evidence shows that actions were made outside of voluntary control.

“This can include some medical conditions, such as sleep disorders, alongside extreme situations such as coercive control and emotional triggering.

“After reviewing neuroscientific evidence, we suggest that the same consideration should be made towards involuntary immobility during rape and sexual assault.

“We hope that this could help prevent inappropriate victim blaming and potentially draw wider societal attention to the crucial importance of active consent.”

Ms Dhawan said: “Legal definitions of rape and sexual assault are based on the absence of consent.

“However, it is not unusual for victims’ reports of non-consent to be questioned in court — against un-evidenced stereotypes of how a ‘real’ victim would allegedly behave.

“For example, perpetrators may claim that they assumed the victim was consenting due to absence of any clear attempt to resist.

“We should use neuroscientific findings to prevent these myths being peddled as a defence argument for sexual violence, and to ensure justice for victims.”