Neurobiology of Rape and Sexual Assault: Let’s Talk About It

In honor of US National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and for my 100th blog post, I wanted to cover a topic that is really important to me. This will be the first in my Let’s Talk About It series, looking at complicated or serious topics and exploring it in pieces a post at a time.

Today I want to talk about the neurobiology of trauma, specifically in regards to rape or sexual assault. This is a complicated topic that many others cover better than me so I’m going to do as much of an overview as I can, and because there’s a lot to cover I will only touch on pieces.

TRIGGER WARNING FOR ANYONE WHO HAS SURVIVED RAPE OR SEXUAL ASSAULT: I will be talking about what happens in the body and brain during trauma, so it’s possible some wording might be triggering. This focuses on hormonal reactions and the chemistry of the brain. Please do not read further if you think this will be detrimental for you.

Regarding this post:

First, you might notice me switch between victim, survivor, and victim/survivor. There is no specific reason for where I use each. The term ‘survivor’ is what I’ve seen preferred by those who have survived assaults and they are part of my target audience; however, another large part of my target audience is people who have never experienced an assault and who do not understand why things happen the way they do, and oftentimes that demographic uses the term ‘victim.’

Second, you should know that there are a lot of misconceptions about rape and sexual assault, and this feeds into rape culture. Two main myths of rape/sexual assault can be explained by neurobiology and very human responses to trauma so those are the two I will cover in this post. There are a lot of other myths and misconceptions so if you are interested in me talking more about this topic, let me know.

  1. MYTH NUMBER ONE: It isn’t rape if the person didn’t say no/fight back.

  2. MYTH NUMBER TWO: If someone says they were raped but their story doesn’t make sense, it means they’re lying or covering something up.

Other myths that could be covered in more detail if anyone wants:

  • If a person is raped when they are drugged or drunk it’s their fault and/or it isn’t actually rape (untrue; in many places you can’t legally consent if you’re under the influence of anything)
  • People lie about being raped all the time (actually, only about 2-8% do, compared to 66% who don’t report to authorities for fear that they won’t be believed)
  • You have to worry most about being raped by a stranger (not accurate; over 2/3 of rape or sexual assault is committed by someone the person knows)
  • Men can’t be raped, especially by a woman, because men always want sex (this is a huge topic so in short, this myth is completely untrue and pisses me off every time I see it said or implied)
  • Everyone is just as likely to be raped as anyone else (another huge topic, but: no. While some forms of sexual assault may have similar percentages for different demographics, there are some statistics and likelihood of vulnerability based on sexual orientation, gender identity, race, age, and more)

NEUROBIOLOGY AND TRAUMA

Myths #1 and #2 listed in red above can very easily be explained by the way the brain and body respond to trauma. Important facts to know right away that I will explain in detail beneath the cut:

  • It isn’t fight or flight– it’s fight, flight, or freeze
  • The hormones that are released at the time of trauma determine the response the victim/survivor will have, and the survivor has no control over this response
  • Memories are recorded completely differently in traumatic situations vs normal situations
  • A percentage of rape victims/survivors are literally paralyzed by their own body during the assault

Disclaimer: I gathered this information through research in multiple sources but especially from three nationally recognized subject matter experts. I listed their names, credentials, and links at the bottom of this post. I highly recommend you check them out if you find this topic interesting at all.

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