Fight, Flight or Freeze: Surviving Assault

(TW: This post is all about unwanted touching, sexual violence, consent, misogyny and feminism.)

If headlines in mainstream news are to be believed, Gigi Hadid is an ungrateful, unladylike miscreant who violently attacked a fan.

Fortunately there’s a video of the incident, in which “prankster” Vitalii Sediuk grabs the supermodel from behind only for her to defend herself by elbowing him in the nose. He puts her back down and she, understandably, shouts “Who the fuck are you, you piece of shit?”

Discourse about the event has varied. While some people are completely on Gigi’s side, and say she has every right to retaliate when her personal space is invaded, others have said that her reaction was disproportionate.

What many people may not understand is that when someone is touched without warning or consent, it’s not just a case of feeling that our “personal space” has been invaded. Particularly when someone from a minority group (whether on basis of gender, race, sexuality etc.) is unexpectedly touched, we feel that our safety is at risk. It’s beyond being annoyed or inconvenienced, we feel endangered.

Being lifted off the ground, touched intimately, surprised, grabbed or otherwise interfered with is startling. It’s alarming. It’s frightening.

At a young age we’re taught that fear causes a rush of adrenaline, and we’re told that this hormone elicits one of two actions: fight or flight. When I was bullied at school, my mum used to tell me to ignore it and walk away, whereas my dad always told me to “punch ‘em on the nose”. My parents often remind me of a time when my youngest brother had just been born, and having watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang I was worried that the Child Catcher would come for my new baby brother. My dad went to the loo in the middle of the night, and opening the door to go back to his bedroom he was confronted four-year-old me, brandishing a baseball bat as long as I was, ready to fight the “intruder”. One of my defining characteristics throughout my life has been my bravery.

Now, evidently Gigi Hadid is a fighter, and that is to be applauded. But it’s not fully accurate to say that fighting or running away are the only two responses to fear. For many people who have been assaulted there’s secret option number three: freeze.

While Gigi’s assault (and that’s what it was) occurred in broad daylight and was observed by numerous people, including press with cameras and her own sister, the situation could have gone very, very differently if it was dark, or somewhere secluded, or if the victim didn’t go for regular boxfit sessions. There are times when fighting an attacker would put the victim in more danger, and where running away simply isn’t possible. In these situations, the victim enters a kind of self-preservation where they comply with their attacker to prevent further harm. While I whole-heartedly defend Gigi’s reaction (I may have fist-pumped when I saw her in the video) I think it’s really, really important that we stop saying “fight or flight” and start talking about “fight, flight or freeze”, and I’m going to tell you why.

The “freeze” reaction is very common, especially in cases of sexual assault. The fact that we only learn that adrenaline causes “fight or flight” means that victims are scared to come forward because they question whether it "counts" if there wasn't a struggle, or screaming, or an escape attempt. I’m going to use myself as an example and talk about four occasions where I’ve been the subject of unwanted touching and sexual assault from strangers, and how I’ve reacted quite differently to each one.

Me on the outward journey to Weymouth (on the right)

The first time was when I was 16, at around 5 in the afternoon. I’d been to the beach as an end-of-exams trip with a group of friends, and we were heading back form Weymouth on the train. A man in his early 20s came and sat next to me and started talking to me. I was polite, and responded to his questions. Then, out of nowhere, he slid his hand across my thigh and into my crotch. I leaped up out of my seat and silently walked to the back of the carriage, and my friends followed. I was shaken and uncomfortable for the rest of the train journey, and I still jump when strangers accidentally brush against me on crowded trains. For weeks afterwards I wished I’d followed my dad’s advice and punched him on the nose. I felt a responsibility to teach the stranger a lesson. I wondered if he’d do the same to other girls because my reaction hadn’t been strong enough. I felt guilty.

When I was 18, I went to Venice alone. I stayed with a host, and I attended language school in the afternoons. I was preparing to study Italian at uni, and I was keen to learn as much as I could, so I took down the email addresses of a couple of people who advertised on the school’s notice board, asking for tandem conversation classes. I got a response from a man called Gregorio, who wanted to meet up with me and practice his English while I practised my Italian. We met at a bar I’d been to a few times and he was perfectly charming. He confessed that he’d found my blog because the URL matched my email address, and that he liked my writing. He insisted on walking me home, all the way across the island, and kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. Several days later he sent me a text saying he was walking past my apartment, asking if he could come in for a cup of coffee. I didn’t see an issue with that, so I invited him up. Within minutes he had me by the hair and was telling me that 

if I didn’t give him oral sex he was going to rape me.

I complied because I was frightened. I couldn’t run, and I was scared that fighting him would make the situation worse. He’d already threatened to rape me, so who knew what else he was capable of. I mentally checked out until it was over. Once he’d left I numbly showered, feeling dirty and angry, and upset. But above all I felt weak and guilty. My dad’s voice was in my head. I should have punched him on the nose. I should have bitten down when he forced himself into my mouth. I should have poked him in the eye like you do with sharks. I promised myself that if anyone so much as looked at me in a way I didn’t like, ever again, I’d fight them. I should have done more. I should have done something.

I felt like I’d let it happen. I felt like it was all my fault. I felt guilty.

Me in Venice

That night I took myself for an evening walk in the rain. I walked to the bar, hoping to bump into friends from school. As it was I met a couple of men I’d met there in my first week and we got chatting. One, named Stefano, spoke very good English and was smiley and chatty, while the other, Evin, only spoke Albanian and broken English. I was soaked through from the rain, my shoes were sodden, but I wasn’t cold. As I prepared to take myself back to my apartment, one of the boys offered to lend me some of his sister’s shoes. We were apparently about the same size, and he said that his mama would be ashamed of him if he let a lady walk home in wet shoes. His flat was a couple of minutes away. I figured any young man with such a sense of chivalry was safe. In truth, I naively thought “Well, I’m not going to get attacked twice in one day.” I walked to the flat with the two young men, wondering if his sister would be in, so I could thank her for the shoes.

When we got to the flat, Stefano went straight to bed, then Evin locked me in. My stomach dropped into the soles of my feet and my gaze went straight to the floor. The last solid thought I remember having was, “There are no girls’ shoes here.” Evin, who hadn’t spoken a word of English all night, said “You scream, I kill you.” He forced me onto the bed, and took out a condom. When I started crying and saying no, he pinned my arms above my head and muttered in my ear, “Why no fuck? Is it because I Albanian?” For the second time in 12 hours I was forced to give a man oral sex to prevent him from raping me. When it was over I asked to leave. He wrapped his arms around me tightly and told me to go to sleep. I tried. I wanted morning to come. I wanted to get out of there and hide in my apartment until my flight the next week. I was beyond feeling damaged, I felt broken. I felt stupid and sick to my stomach. I didn’t understand how mere hours before I’d sworn to myself that I would fight harder. I felt filthy. I felt guilty.

Me at 21, working in the opticians

When I was 21, I worked in an optician’s. It was generally pretty quiet, and often people from local businesses would pop in and talk to us about their offers. It helped pass the time. Mo was one of those. He came in on several occasions, waiting until my manager had gone on lunch before coming in to talk to me, and only ever me, about the discount he could get me on gym membership. He was persistent. He was sort of sweet in a sort of overly-friendly way, showing me his muscular arms and once flashing me his abs. After a couple of weeks, I finally gave in and booked an induction. I went to the gym after work and he got me to sign all the paperwork, including a comprehensive membership contract which said I couldn’t cancel within 12 months, unless I had a doctor’s note saying I was incapable of using a gym, or if I moved out of the area. He showed me the ladies-only area of the gym, the changing rooms and the pool. Then he took me into the studio where yoga lessons happened, which was empty and dark. While we stood in the abandoned, dim room he asked if I had any injuries and I mentioned that I had plantar fasciitis and tight calf muscles. He demonstrated a calf stretch, placing his hands on the barre, extending one leg behind himself and asking me to do the same. When I did, he them moved behind me, pressing his unignorably erect penis into my bum. He held my body firmly against his, and when I tried to move away he held me tighter. We stood motionless for a long time, and I said and did nothing. After what felt like hours, the light suddenly turned on and Mo sprang away from me as a gym instructor entered the room. Nobody said anything. I completed the induction then went home. I cried myself to sleep feeling passive. Weak. Guilty, again.

When I finally told people about any of these assaults, one of the most common responses was, “Why didn’t you fight them?” The simple answer is that I was terrified, and it didn’t feel safe to fight back. As horrible as it is for a stranger to non-consensually jam his erection against you in a dark room, or to force you into sex acts and threaten to rape you, there is something inside you that says, “Being raped is better than being dead, and those may be my options.” I know now that I am far from alone in going boneless in the face of an assault and just doing the bare minimum to survive with the least possible damage. Freezing is sometimes all we can do.

Even brave girls can’t fight the world. There is always someone stronger, with home field advantage, with scarier threats and more power.

I wish someone had told me sooner that compliance under coercion isn’t consent. I hadn’t “allowed” or “encouraged” these men’s actions with my own inaction. It wasn’t my fault.

Gigi Hadid is a great example of a woman who took control of a frightening situation and fought back. But please know that if you’ve ever been attacked in the same way and been unable to react as Gigi did, you are not weak and you are not alone. Sometimes self-preservation isn’t about fist fights or elbows to the nose, it’s just about making it through any way you can. You are no less worthy of help, empathy or support regardless of how you survive, and you shouldn't feel guilty or weak for not physically retaliating.

Fight, flight or freeze. You are a survivor. We are survivors.