A victim’s reaction to trauma
You awake to a very large, strong man covering your mouth with one hand, making it difficult to breathe, let alone scream. In the other hand, he’s clenching a knife millimeters from your face. Terror seizes your entire body and you react…. but how?
Fight or flight is the response society expects in violent attacks. Your amygdala springs into action engaging with your hypothalamus and pituitary, instantly flooding you with hormones to protect your sustainability:
- Adrenalin arouses you to your circumstance.
- Cortisol provides you with uncommon energy.
- Opioids act like morphine to temporarily blind you to your pain.
- Oxytocin attempts to stabilize your emotions.
Totally apart from your conscious control, you may be like millions of sexual assault survivors who freeze, some in a form of temporary paralysis called tonic immobility, and others in an effort to “go along to get along” known as fawning. It is estimated that as many as 50% of rape victims will respond by freezing.
The impacts of neurology on seeking justice
Our current laws labor under the misconception that victims will either fight with all their might to fend off brutality, or do everything in their power to free themselves. Absent evidence of doing either or both, police assume that the victim’s crime report is a lie. Approximately 86% of rapes, even those supported by a rape kit, do not make their way from the intake officer to the Prosecutor for this reason. Yet data reported by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women indicates only 2-8% of rape accusations are false.
A natural phenomenon
The most widely
known is the
opossum, which is why “playing dead” is also referred to as “playing opossum.” Mammals are wired with the option to look and appear dead to their attacker for protection.
Additional neurological impacts on the victim’s post-rape “affect”
Because of their involuntary, reflexive reactions to inescapable danger, victims experience self blame and question their own inability to fight back or why they stopped resisting. Their personal sense of shame can inhibit their reporting the offense.
During rape, the cocktail of trauma-stimulated hormones blocks the ability of the brain’s hippocampus to organize and store thought. Many rape victims, who are interrogated shortly after their trauma, have yet to recover cognition. Investigator who do not understand this condition suspect that the victim is inventing the story as they speak, when they are actually attempting to puzzle together disparate pieces of the events that their brain’s hormonal overload blocked from encoding.
Their “affect” or appearance, may not seem as emotionally charged as one would expect after a heinous assault. They could remain under the influence of those same opioids that deterred their reaction and dulled their senses during the crime.
Undermining self esteem
Victims who freeze struggle with an innate sense of guilt. Their response defied their own personal expectation that if something frightening took place, they would fight to the death or flee. We go through life taking comfort in the concept that we’ll be able to protect ourselves in life or death decisions, and doing nothing seems shameful, even though it very well may have saved our lives. Our brains are wired to react before our reasoning ability kicks in.
Penal laws on sex crimes have yet to grasp the impact of tonic immobility and fawning. Victims are seen as compliant rather than resistant. Our laws focus on the behavior of the victim to determine whether consent took place instead of determining whether the accused used malicious influence to dominate them. Jurors are tasked with determining consent by what the victim said or did, regardless that they were terrorized into compliant behavior.
Watch this TEDx Talk for the key to combating sexual assault!
Inspiration for this post came from information I received from a woman who comments under the name “Semi” on US Weekly. Unless otherwise linked, the source for the data and statistics is The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault, written and presented by Dr. Rebecca Campbell, Professor of Psychology at Michigan State University. I wholeheartedly encourage everyone to watch her scholarly presentation.