This is part two in a two part series where I use neurobiology to challenge popular arguments used to blame victims after sexual assault. Part one explained the reasons many victims are not able to flee, fight, or yell during an attack. Click here to read part one.
The inability of the sexual assault victim to clearly recall events during the attack, the inconsistencies in the victim’s report, and the lack of a clear timeline often lead law enforcement, the media, and others to doubt the validity of the report. Under normal circumstance, these inconsistencies would certainly lead to questioning the reporter’s integrity however this is very normal and expected in regards to a sexual assault victim.
It is these perceptions that are based on faulty information that lead to 86% of reported sexual assault cases not being referred to prosecutors! So out of 100 victims, only 14 are referred to prosecutors. Now consider the fact that nationwide only 40% of assault cases are reported. Again, only 14% of the 40% are referred to prosecutors. Although I don’t have the statistics on the percentage of cases that prosecutors decide to charge, or the percentage of cases that result in a guilty verdict, I’m sure these numbers are even more discouraging.
I’m not saying that false reports of sexual assaults are never made. According to research this number is only between 2 and 8 percent. Even though false reports happen, the percentage is very low. Too low, in my opinion, for the amount of victim blaming that occurs.
In order to address the problems with a victim’s memory we first need to understand what happens in the brain during trauma.
What happens within the body during a traumatic event?
Let’s review the events that occur within the body during a sexual assault as described in part one.
When the brain detects extreme danger, as in sexual assault, the brain’s fear circuitry takes over. Stress hormones are flooded into the body to help cope with the physical and emotional trauma. These changes limit the ability of the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus of the brain to work as it does in normal conditions. The body goes into survival mode to prevent the perpetrator from becoming more violent.
When the prefrontal cortex is impaired, the individual cannot think rationally to solve problems. Impairment of the hippocampus affects the individual’s ability to remember contextual clues during the attack. The victim may not recall the placement of furniture in the room or timeline of events.
Looking further into the functions of the brain’s activity during trauma helps us understand what happens with memories.
Why is her report of the assault fragmented and unclear?
Once the body’s fear responses take over other parts of the brain, mainly the amygdala, controls on where attention is focused. The attention could be on the smell of the rapist or the details of his shirt for example. The brain focuses on meaningless information in order to distract from the intense and painful sensations of the assault. The end result is fragmented sensations that become encoded into memory.
Another key factor is the alteration of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that encodes events into short term memory and then store them as long term memories. When the brain is in fear mode, the functioning of the hippocampus is impaired.
This is why many victims are unable to recall important details and why their memories are often incomplete and non-sequential.
How you can put an end to the victim blaming culture?
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.
If you've ever been a victim of sexual assault, you may have questions like:
Why can't I get over it?
Why do I feel like it is happening over again?
Why a I easily startled?
Why do I feel numb and disconnected from other people?
Why am I self-harming/using drugs or drinking?
How do I get back to the old me?
Why has this assault affected me so much?
If you are struggling with these questions, there is help. Reach out to me for a free 15 minute consultation by clicking here and I can walk you through how working with me can help.