This is part one in a two part series where I use neurobiology to challenge popular arguments used to blame victims after sexual assault.
It isn’t the disturbing details of the sexual assault victim’s story that is most upsetting to me as a therapist. It is listening to the victim blame themself for not doing more to prevent or stop the assault. The media and society’s questions about the events that lead to blaming victims not only prevent as many as 60% from reporting but also impedes the emotional recovery of the victim. This is not ok and this needs to stop. There is known neurobiological evidence that challenge many of these blaming questions. Each blog in the series will address one of these questions.
First it is important to understand the basic events that happen in the brain during a traumatic event.
What happens within the body during a traumatic event?
The fear felt when experiencing a traumatic/life threatening event activates the amygdala. The amygdala is a structure in the brain made up of neurons that is responsible for detecting and processing fear. The amygdala sends messages to the body thereby placing the body on high alert, heightening our senses. Pupils dilate, specific hormones are released in the body, hearing improves, and the heart rate increases.
A surge of stress hormones are released that assist the body in coping with the physical and emotional trauma. These hormones impair or often shut down the prefrontal cortex and limit the ability of the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for rational thought and focusing attention while the hippocampus is responsible for encoding and storing contextual information. An example of contextual data would be the layout of the room where the assault took place.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the process in the brain, let’s delve a little deeper into the process and address one popular argument.
Why didn’t she fight back?
Many people, including victims themselves, ask why didn’t the victim fight back? Neurobiology has the answer to this.
When the fear circuitry takes over, the body automatically and unconsciously responds. You may have heard of the fight or flight response. Science has provided enough data for us to understand this now as the fight, flight or freeze response. The amygdala sends a message to the brainstem to prohibit movement when it appears there is no escape and fighting is pointless. The body instantaneously and uncontrollably becomes paralyzed. Preventing movement and sometimes vocalizations. This is known as the freeze response or tonic immobility. The obvious analogy would be a deer looking into a car’s headlights before it is hit.
Another reflexive defense response is collapsed immobility. This is when the body responds by going limp. Like when an animal “plays dead.” When the body responds in this way, the heart rate and blood pressure drop. The victim may pass out or feel tired.
Very often the victim will dissociate. That is when the victim feels disconnected from the events that are happening. They feel it is not real or may feel they are not in their body.
Remember that the rational part of the brain has been impacted by the trauma therefore the ability to make a plan escape is impossible.
It is not uncommon for victims to experience some or all of these responses throughout the traumatic event. Some may fight back briefly then freeze while others may be passive and cry.
How you can put an end to the victim blaming culture?
The fact that the victim did not fight, move or call out did not mean that the act was consensual! The victim did not do anything wrong. The body responded in survival mode to prevent the perpetrator from becoming more violent.
Use this information to evaluate stories of trauma you hear or read about. Stop using details of the attack inappropriately to blame the victim. Share this article. Educate others about the research. We need to put an end to victim blaming and create a society where more people feel safe and supported enough to report the assault. There are many things that need to change in order to help victims heal but this is something we can all do.
Click here to read part two of this series, where I will delve into the neurobiology behind why victims of sexual assault can sometimes have inconsistent reports of their attack.