Stop Blaming survivors. Why Survivors of Sexual Assault Blame Themselves


It isn’t the disturbing details of the sexual assault victim’s story that is most upsetting to me as a therapist. It’s listening to survivor after survivor blame them self for not doing more to prevent or stop the assault that I find unreasonable.

Did you know that as many as 60% of sexual assault victims don’t report the crime?

That’s more than half. Why is this number so high?

Sexual assault is a type of traumatic event that activates the part of the brain called the amygdala (a-mig-da-la). This is the part of the brain that is responsible for detecting and processing fear. Once activated, the amygdala sends a message to the body that life is threatened. This is done by triggering a chain of internal actions known as a stress response.

The mechanism that increases the ability of organisms to cope with situations that require actions or defense is defined by scientists as stress response. It is the reflex that is responsible for the survival of the species. 

A stress response triggers the brain to do two things:

  1. Put the senses on high alert to better detect the threat.

  2. Shut down non-essential functions to conserve energy for escaping the threat.

 The flight/fight/freeze is the stress response in humans. The release of stress hormones triggers this response. These hormones impair or often shut down the prefrontal cortex to conserve energy.  The prefrontal cortex  is responsible for rational thought. It limits the ability of the hippocampus which is responsible for encoding and storing contextual information.

 Often, a sexual assault victim demonstrates difficulty in clearly recalling events during the attack. Or has inconsistencies in what they can remember. Many people, including victims themselves, wonder why they didn’t fight back or make a plan to escape? This makes perfect sense when we understand that the stress response is designed to temporarily alter parts of the brain to conserve energy during the traumatic event.

What doesn’t make sense is when I see an article or news show that interviews survivors a way that implies that a victim had some part in inviting the event.

Blaming victims impedes their emotional recovery.