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The Neurobiology of a Sexual Assault Victim
Posted by On Wednesday, October 23, 2013

In our ongoing coverage of federal investigations of the University of Montana’s response to sexual assault, we reported on a case in which a UM official overturned a previous ruling against a student accused of sexual assault because he believed that certain statements made by the victim were “hesitant and equivocal.”  The deciding factor?  Her use of the phrases “I think” and “I don’t think” when describing the assault.  The official in question determined that those phrases undermined the victim’s credibility, and as a result overturned the previous ruling against her alleged assailant.
 
The UM case may seem extreme, but researchers suggest that the perceived credibility of the victim of a sexual assault is often the deciding factor in whether or not the assault is prosecuted or even investigated. Dr. Rebecca Campbell, professor of Psychology and Program Evaluation at Michigan State University and an expert in victimology, especially as it applies to victims of sexual assault, found that 86% of sexual assaults reported to police are never referred to prosecutors.  Moreover, through extensive interviews with both law enforcement and victims, Dr. Campbell determined that the perception of a victim’s credibility (or lack thereof) is often an important contributing factor to the failure to refer these cases to prosecutors.  She quotes law enforcement officials who told her “The stuff (sexual assault victims) say makes no sense,” “I see them hedge, making it up as they go along,” and “They can’t get their story straight.”
 
Such attitudes not only contribute to case attrition, they discourage victims from reporting sexual assaults in the first place because they don’t want to subject themselves to the “secondary trauma” of not being believed.
 
Failure to report sexual assault is itself a serious problem, starkly illustrated in this recent post exploring the origins of the oft-quoted statistic that 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted before graduating from college.  That alarming number is even more disturbing when considered in light of researchers’ estimates that less than five percent of attempted and completed sexual assaults of college students are reported.  Which is why new research by Dr. Campbell on the neurobiology of victim’s response to the trauma of sexual assault has the potential to dramatically improve the handling of sexual assault cases.
 
Dr. Campbell’s research suggests that the hesitancy or even inconsistency with which survivors report sexual assault may have nothing to do with their veracity and everything to do with the brain’s natural response to physical trauma.  Such trauma results in the brain releasing a flood of hormones during the assault.  While those hormones may facilitate fight or flight, they are less beneficial to the process of creating memories.  The two structures in the brain responsible for memory creation, the hippocampus and the amygdala, are both highly sensitive to fluctuations in hormone levels. 
 
The flood of hormones triggered by a sexual assault can lead to the victim’s memory of the trauma being fragmented and difficult to recall.  This, in turn, leads to the confusion and hesitancy that law enforcement officials are trained to interpret as clues of dishonesty.  The problem is only compounded by inebriation, a particularly troubling complication given the fact that 70% of sexual assault victims have been drinking at the time of their assault.
 
Dr. Campbell’s research has other important implications for professionals dealing with reports of sexual assault.  Those who deal with victims of sexual assault, as well as victims themselves, are often confused by the flat or emotionless affect survivors sometimes display immediately after an assault.  Such a reaction strikes many as being inappropriate for a person who has just undergone a traumatic experience.  It may lead victims to feel guilty, and others to doubt whether they’re telling the truth.
 
Dr. Campbell, however, explains that such a reaction is not a symptom of dishonesty or a sign that a victim is somehow culpable in their own assault, but instead the consequence of natural painkillers released by the human body in response to physical trauma.  During an assault the body releases opiates to block the physical and emotional pain of the attack.  Those opiates are the natural equivalent of the morphine that might be administered to a surgery patient.  As pointed out by Dr. Campbell, “morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties.”  The body’s naturally-occurring painkillers behave the same way, masking emotional pain and leading to the monotone response that strikes some law enforcement officers as suspicious for a victim of recent sexual assault.
 
Finally, Dr. Campbell’s research posits a phenomenon known as “tonic immobility” as an explanation for certain sexual assault victims’ failure to fight back or to run away.  Tonic immobility (also known, at least in this context, as rape-induced paralysis) is an autonomic response wherein the body freezes in situations that provoke extreme fear.  It is an involuntary response, and its most marked characteristic is total muscular paralysis.  Fighting back or running away is literally impossible for a victim of rape-induced paralysis, whose body has decided for her that the safest course of action is to play dead.  Thus, the failure to fight back, run away, or in some other way physically resist sexual assault does not mean that a victim “wanted it” – the assumption of many institutions and officials who treat such failure of resistance as evidence of consent.
 
And, even when a sexual assault victim is physically capable of moving (research suggests that the proportion of rape victims who suffer from tonic immobility may approach fifty percent) it doesn’t necessarily mean that she is psychologically capable of doing so.  Besides impairing memory formation, the hormones released during a sexual assault prevent optimum operation of the circuits in the prefrontal cortex that make rational thought possible.  For the victim of rape or some other form of sexual assault, the thought process needed to resist may not be present during the assault itself.
 
Dr. Campbell’s research is important not only because it might alleviate the guilt of survivors struggling to understand their reaction to an assault, but also because it suggests certain crucial improvements that might be made to the way law enforcement and other officials handle sexual assault cases.  Failure to resist assault, inability to recall events clearly or sequentially, and surprisingly flat reactions to such trauma aren’t necessarily suspicious, and certainly should not be grounds for throwing out a case.
 
Perhaps most significant though are the implications for interviewing victims.  Dr. Campbell’s research not only suggests why victim’s accounts often seem confused and incoherent – it also suggests a solution to the problem.  She says, “It’s just going to take some time and patience for (a survivor’s recollection) to come together.”  She recounts the story of a veteran detective who insisted on getting a sexual assault victim coffee before interviewing her, having found, after years in his position, that “If you give them a few minutes to breathe, it starts to make more sense” – and made little difference to his ability to discern a false report from an honest one.  While this may go against more traditional interview-taking procedures, Dr. Campbell’s research suggests that the institutionalization of a practice similar to that veteran detective’s coffee-break might not only offer survivors a welcome reprieve in which to gather and consolidate fragmented recollections, but also lead to more accurate investigations.
 
The presentation in which Dr. Campbell outlines these findings, and their implications for law enforcement, began as training for the Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Team in Detroit – around twenty police officers, nurses, prosecutors, and crime lab workers.  Since then, she has educated hundreds of audiences on her findings and what they mean for workers who deal with the victims of sexual assault.  She has delivered a presentation sponsored by the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice, and has collaborated with the writers of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to write an episode involving a sexual assault and rape-induced paralysis.
 
During her presentation for the National Institute of Justice, Dr. Campbell shared a comment posted by a survivor of sexual assault on a blog post connected to that Law & Order episode which movingly illustrated the value of her work.  “I cannot believe I am reading this article. After years of blaming myself, questioning myself, feeling tormented, I now understand why I froze every time I was assaulted. It now has a name. I don’t have to wonder why or what’s wrong with me or why didn’t I do anything. I can’t tell you how much relief this article brings me. You must know how much your website and your work helps those of us who have suffered in silent torment and agony. You give us a voice. You give us compassion. You give us strength and hope. There are no words to express the gratitude I feel.”

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