One Key Way Men Can Help Women Deal with the Aftermath of Sexual Violence
The majority of woman I know have experienced sexual violence.
If you doubt that, the first thing you can do to help women is believe them. Believe the things we tell you. Don’t quote us statistics, your own life experiences, or stories you’ve heard. Just believe the truth coming from our mouths.
That key factor is pretty easy. I’d like to talk about one that isn’t so easy: recognizing and responding to freezing.
What? You may wonder. How can that possibly be the key way I can help a woman?
Let me explain.
When unexpected, confusing things happen, our bodies often respond by freezing. This is a natural nervous system response. It is a chance for our body and mind to assess. To say, “Wait a minute, this is different, what is going on here?”
Sometimes, our bodies remain in a frozen state to protect us. It’s like we cannot find the words or willfully move our bodies. It’s almost like a robot takes over us externally and we’re just watching internally.
It’s suspected that this is the body’s mechanism to minimize the pain and impacts of trauma. (If you’d like to understand more about that, I recommend the book “The Body Keeps the Score”).
A frozen state is especially common when an individual feels unsafe or unsure about the next right move. Some factors that make freezing more likely between two people include:
Power differentials in the relationship, such as:
Body size differences
Hierarchical differences, such as a boss at work or someone in a position of authority (cops, doctor, law, etc.)
Relationship ties (friend of the family, relative, etc.)
The wellbeing of the individual tied in any way to the other (for example, job opportunities or living situation)
Feelings of overall safety or lack thereof
No one around
Difficulty to remove oneself from the environment
These factors can lead a woman to freeze.
I can tell you it’s maddening. I can tell you I, like most women, would much prefer to go into a fight or flight mode. However, when a freeze response kicks in, there is little that can be consciously done by a woman to change that state.
It’s what often keeps women up at night after traumatic experiences. “Why didn’t I run? Why didn’t I fight back?”
What’s even worse is that traumatic experiences can cause women to freeze MORE often. The body’s lived experience of trauma can cause it to activate a freeze response when any similar emotions or body sensations are experienced.
It can cause us to freeze in situations that are actually safe. THIS is where I think men can help women deal with the aftermath of sexual violence.
Caring men can learn to recognize when the women they are with enter into a freeze response. They can then provide a safe, gentle response that allows the woman the time and space she needs to recover.
This will help a woman in multiple ways:
It will ensure she doesn’t have another physical or sexual encounter while frozen. Most men want to have physical and sexual relationships with women who are present, connected, and actively engaged.
It will provide a space of healing for a woman, as she learns she has a safe space for her body to go through a natural response. Many women feel guilty for freezing with a partner or person they care about. A man’s response can assure her that she is not responsible for her body’s response and they can handle it together. Furthermore, a man can reassure a woman that he does not take her response personally. He knows it is not something he did or caused, and he is present for her.
It will provide the woman’s body, nervous system, and mind with the lived experience that she is safe and ok. This will decrease the likelihood of freeze responses in the future and improve future connection between the two people.
So how does a man recognize a woman is in a freeze response?
Watch for changes in the woman’s mood, level of talking, or body. This could look like a woman suddenly not talking, a facial expression that looks like a blank stare, or her body barely moving.
Pause to check in. While many do not like to pause the energy of a sexual encounter, it is worth it. A pause can look like slowing down to look for changes. A pause can also be a verbal check in with a simple question like, “How are you doing?” or “Do you like that?” You can also use your imagination to find sexier ways to say it. A pause is especially important if this is your first physical or sexual encounter together.
Talk about it beforehand. Alright, I understand this takes a truly open, connected relationship to do. However, it can make a significant difference. You can ask the woman in your life if she ever freezes up during physical encounters. You can ask what helps her to feel more comfortable.
What do you do if freezing occurs?
If you notice that she is frozen or uncomfortable, take a pause from physical or sexual activity. If someone is frozen, it means they are not in full control of their faculties. They are actually not capable of continuing to provide consent. That means if you choose to continue, you are engaging with someone who is not providing consent. THAT is what we want to avoid.
The individual experiencing the freeze response may feel deeply embarrassed. They may cry or try to reassure you that it is fine. All you need to do in this moment is reassure them that it’s ok. ALSO, if they are visibly not ok and fully connected, them saying “I’m fine” is not a green light to continue. Again, if you want to engage with a woman who is fully present, connected, and actively engaged … then she needs to recover from her freeze response.
Take time to slowly reassure the person. This could be verbally reassuring such as, “Hey, it’s ok.” This could also look like breathing together. Deep breaths signal to the nervous system that the body is safe and can help take a person out of a freeze response. As a person begins to feel more comfortable, you can offer a hug or other forms of physical affection to reassure them, such as holding their hand.
I understand that my suggestions above are not straightforward and easy. Every human and situation is unique. You will need to tailor your response to the moment. What matters most is that you demonstrate genuine care. Even if you don’t “say” the exact right thing, what will matter most is your intention and creating a safe environment.
Some individuals may feel upset that I suggest a man help in these capacities. They may argue it is the woman who should take action since it is her own body and mind.
For example, there are self defense programs out there to train women how to activate their fight response, physically defend themselves, and flee. These programs serve an essential purpose, but I am angry that these programs are needed. I am angry that we as women have to change ourselves and our lives to be safe in this world. Yes, I have taken self defense classes and encourage other women to do so, but I’m still angry it’s necessary.
Furthermore, these programs are not designed for environments and situations where women are actually safe.
Second, some individuals may suggest that a woman would be better served by going to therapy and healing from her trauma. Yes, I absolutely recommend every woman go to therapy. AND, this doesn’t have to be a one-choice scenario. A woman can go to therapy, take self defense classes, AND be supported by the men in her life.
I’m frustrated that sexual violence is primarily carried about my men and then the ENTIRE focus is on what women can do about it. Men need to step up for men. Let’s stop the violence happening in the first place. Second, men can also step up for women and shoulder some of the horrific aftermath. True care and support.
This article is just ONE way men can provide care and support. If you know of other articles with helpful suggestions, please drop them in the comments. Don’t know any? Please consider writing one yourself - ESPECIALLY if you’re a man. I want your help. I invite it.
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