What The Brain Does During Sexual Assault
Over the past year, as I’ve opened up about the sexual abuse, I’ve realized there were so many lies in my head that held me back from healing. One of the very biggest ones was this: I had to keep the abuse a secret.
Obviously I don’t believe that anymore. But I can’t tell you how many girls and women I’ve talked to who said they’ve never felt like they could talk about it.
It’s scary to admit! It’s terrifying to report! Especially so if your attacker(s) are still out there and you feel like it will be their word against yours. Or that calling them out on it would anger them and possibly endanger you all over again.
The Science Behind A Victim’s Brain Function
Talking about the assault can be more than just scary though. Your brain may literally be stopping you from opening your mouth.
In this article from the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault, we learn what chemical reactions take place in the brain when someone is raped.
The reaction that I recognized personally was this one:
“…For some victims, it’s the corticosteroids, a group of steroid hormones, that have dumped out at very high levels and reduce the energy available to the body. For these victims, they don’t fight back or flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the HPA axis. It can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body. This is called tonic immobility.
Tonic immobility is an automatic response: it is not something a victim decides to do. Behaviorally, it is marked by increased breathing, eye closure, but the most marked characteristic of tonic immobility is muscular paralysis. A victim in a state of tonic immobility cannot move. She is paralyzed in that state of incredible fear. Research suggests that between 12 and 50 percent of rape victims experience tonic immobility during a sexual assault, and most data suggests that the rate is actually closer to 50 percent than 12 percent.” (-ACASA)
In my case, this tonic immobility reaction happens during panic attacks. A simple trigger can send me right back into this state. For many years, the mention or depiction of rape could be a trigger. It was literally impossible for me to talk about it.
It took years of hearing other people’s stories, and slowly allowing myself to understand everything that had happened before I could face it without overwhelming fear.
The other hurdle we encounter is the way the brain recollects the attack afterwards. This article from HuffPost describes the reason victims stories and memories are often fragmented and incomplete. The very reason most onlookers dismiss victims claims as unbelievable and scattered are exactly what makes them true.
As I thought about this, a scene from a movie popped into my head. We’ve all seen Miss Congeniality, right? It’s a Sandra Bullock classic. Do you remember though, a certain conversation between the main character and Miss Rhode Island (Heather Burns) about a college professor?
Bullock’s character has taken Burns’ character to a club to get drunk so she can find out if she’s ever done anything illegal. She mentions shoplifting, and that she was once attacked by a college professor. Bullock offers to show her self-defense moves, and Burns passes out. The incident with the professor isn’t mentioned again.
I think we can all assume the meaning of this is that she was raped. And the way she brought it up makes it clear she felt it was her fault and that she had broken a rule. This backward thinking is so common! While it’s interesting that it was written into the script this way, I see a clear difference between this conversation, and real conversations I’ve had with other survivors of sexual abuse.
The girls and women who have come to me to talk about it are most often overwhelmed, usually in tears, telling me their story between sobs, and admitting that they’ve never been able to tell anyone before. It’s clear in the way they clench their arms into themselves that there is a chemical fight-or-flight response happening in their body at the mere remembrance of their attack. It’s not an afterthought, as portrayed in the movie, but a secret they finally feel safe to tell.
Well, at least to tell to someone else who has been in their shoes. Reporting it is still a whole other hurdle.
Hope For Survivors
If you feel stuck in this state, and unable to talk about what happened, know that there is always hope. It may take time, but we are making strides to remove this fear.
One of the hardest things about this whole situation is that the state of a victim’s brain prevents them from reporting the attack to authorities in a timely manner, and sometimes at all. After time has passed it becomes more and more difficult to prove that anything happened, and these crimes go unpunished.
Yes, there are rape kits. There are processes in place for victims. But how can we expect people to seek these things out when their bodies won’t even allow them to accept or process what has happened? It’s heartbreaking.
Still, I think a large part of improving this issue is speaking openly about the fact that it does happen, and educating everyone about what to expect if it does happen to them or someone they love. It really can happen to ANYONE.
I believe the societal shame only compounds the personal shame a victim feels, and ultimately prolongs any hope of healing or reporting. Obviously we need to be reporting these cases. But in the cruel and unfair fashion of this crime, the only person who can report it is the victim.
The way we help is by spreading the message of love and healing so excessively that when someone finds themselves in this terrible situation, they can know that the shame they feel is a lie, and that there is help readily available to them.
It will take everyone lending their voice to this issue, whether they’ve been personally affected or not. If we want to create this change, we all have to work together.
What to Share
If you are unsure how to lend your voice, it can be as simple as sharing what you learn. I have written many posts about this topic. You are more than welcome to share them on social media or however you feel inclined.