Talking About Tonic Immobility on Law & Order: SVU

On Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the fictional detectives have often helped to shed some light on some very real issues. In Episode 3 of Season 14, they discuss a response to trauama called tonic immobility. When it turns out a survivor they’re working with froze during her assault, it’s Det. Benson who helps shed some light on why the freeze response happens, and why it’s not a survivor’s fault.

Tonic immobility isn’t something most of us know about. Most people don’t know about the freeze response. Most people don’t know that research now tells us that “fight or flight” is actually “fight, flight or freeze.”

So why is it important? Why talk about it on SVU? And why Joyful Heart felt compelled to shed some light on this issue?

It’s important because there are too many misconceptions—too many reasons to blame survivors—about what they could have done differently. You know how it goes; you read it in the news everyday, hear it in your office or cafeteria: “Well why didn’t she fight back? Why didn’t she try to run?” The truth is that when someone experiences tonic immobility, the body is paralyzed.

It doesn’t mean an assault wasn’t an assault, or that someone wasn’t doing everything they could do to be safe.

We’re talking about it on SVU because this message, embedded within the fiction of a storyline, is real. And in one single episode, it reaches millions of people. That’s why Joyful Heart hosted an informational session with this season’s writers to talk about how the body reacts and holds onto trauma—with the hope of sharing information about these issues with so many people.

And we’re letting you know that there are resources available on tonic immobility. That if this reaction sounds familiar to you, that you’re not alone. Resources on tonic immobility, trauma and many other aspects of our work are available here. Whether you’re a survivor, you know someone who is, you’re a member of law enforcement or the healing community or you’re someone who just wants to change the way we think about, behave and respond to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, this episode—this conversation—is for you.

We invite you to watch the episode online or when it re-airs, to learn about tonic immobility on Reunion Online and to connect to resources about tonic immobility and trauma in the body.

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