Lisak argued that sexual predators like Frank look for vulnerable women. They use alcohol, isolation and then intimidation. He suggested that they might have an eye for women who will be especially easy targets. Then he used a term that I had only heard in the context of extreme animal stress — tonic immobility — a state when prey animals play dead when being attacked by a predator. He recounted that many women in rape situations describe being frozen, unable to defend themselves. This frozen, catatonic-like state is thought to be invoked by activation of the dorsal vagal nerve and to be a very ancient stress response to extreme fear. Tiffany Fuse and colleagues at the SUNY Albany have interviewed rape survivors and found that over 40% report being unable to move, call out or defend themselves. We often hear “no means no” but in some situations some women may have a fear response that makes it impossible to say no. That is why it is so important to “get consent” like the buttons OSAPR hands out encourage. No means no, however some women find themselves in situations where they are too afraid and physiologically unable to even say no.
It’s also important to note that research by Dan Ariely of Duke University and George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon found that men are greatly influenced by sexual arousal and that when sexually aroused men reported a greater likelihood of taking morally questionable actions to get sex. For example, the subjects in their study were twice as likely to express willingness to “keep trying to have sex after your date says no” when they were queried during an aroused state induced by masturbation and exposure to sexual imagery as compared to responses in a non aroused state. They were also significantly more likely to report that they would encourage their date to drink to increase the chance that they would get sex. The differences in decision-making in an aroused or “hot” state suggest that that there is a gap between what men will do when “hot” compared to “cold.” This “cold-to-hot empathy gap” may also contribute to non-stranger rape in college settings. Both men and women would be served well by understanding how sexual arousal affects decision-making. Though it hasn’t been explicitly studied, I imagine that women in a “hot” state are much more likely to consent to sex than in a “cold” state.
Creating a campus culture where sex is supposed to be an opt in experience rather than an opt out can only lead to a reduction in non consensual sex. I believe that educating students about tonic immobility and hot versus cold decision-making can only lead to more hot, consensual sex.