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Sexual Violence & Common Responses

Feb 9, 2021

According to national statistics, one in six women are sexually assaulted during their lifetime. As disturbing as this statistic is, the number of victims is higher, as these reports do not include marital rape, or the many women and men who do not report sexual assault because of fear or shame. For every 1,000 sexual assaults reported in the United States, fewer than five rapists will be incarcerated, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network’s analysis of federal criminal justice data. 

Reported sexual assaults are true, with very few exceptions.  FBI crime statistics indicate that only 2% of reported rapes are false.  This is the same rate of false reporting as other major crime reports.  According to the Department of Justice, one in every 2.7 million heterosexual males will have a false claim made against them.

The words “violence against women,” do not begin to capture the full breadth and depth of the infinite forms of violence used against women, and children by proxy. Women are more often victimized by sexual assault, domestic violence, and stalking than men are, and children are frequently victimized in the process. “Violence against women,” is inadequate a phrase to express the nature, consequences, and impact of sexual violence has on multitudes of survivors.

An estimated 302,100 women and 92,700 men are forcibly raped each year in the United States.  For the individual victim, rape and other forms of sexual violence are the degradation of the soul. For society, rape is the degradation of the human race. Sexual assault contributes to the deterioration of community‘s well-being and impacts everyone. This traumatic crime, all too often accepted in American culture, affects women, men, children, families, economic progress, and our national pride.

Almost half of all survivors of rape are fearful of serious injury or death during a rape. This affects an individual’s sense of safety and control. Rape survivors are nine times more likely than victims of other crimes to attempt suicide.

Sexual assault exists as a continuum of violence that includes the exploitation of women and girls; sexual harassment; molestation; incest; rape by dates, acquaintances, spouses, significant others, and strangers.  Sexual violence permeates our society; it can be found in our families and our marriages, throughout the media and the workplace, on school yards and college campuses, and in collective attitudes that blame the victim and excuse the perpetrator.

Sexual assault has demonstrated links to other forms of violence such as gang violence, domestic violence and violence related to drug and alcohol use. Rape occurs routinely in prison life and remains a universal aspect of war. Sexual violence represents the ultimate wielding of power and control. It constitutes a violation of a sacred place that is the intimate, soulful core of the self. Sexual assault is a crime that impacts survivors on multiple levels. It’s a violation of the survivor’s body that also affects her emotional and even spiritual well-being. The impacts of sexual violence can be far-reaching.

The roots of sexual violence are deeply entrenched in our cultural values. As a result, sexual violence impacts the people who have the least power in our culture more than those from more dominant groups. Women, children, people of color, people with disabilities, people who are gay/lesbian/bisexual, people who are transgender, and people who are from many other historically marginalized groups are more often victimized than men in dominant culture groups.

An enduring myth exists that claims women often lie about abuse and assault. This myth is extremely damaging, because the fear of being called a liar can and does deter women from reporting the abuse they have experienced.

False allegations about domestic abuse are extremely rare as well.

Between the ages of 17 to 24 I was sexually assaulted 4 times that I remember. Three while I was under the influence, two happened at college, and one after I was newly sober. Each time perpetrated by strangers. Each time I didn’t report.​  Ages 12-34 are the highest risk years for rape and sexual assault. The subsequent events of those crimes and finally addressing my accumulative pain,  led me to realize the importance of speaking out against injustice and fighting for the rights of others.

In the 1990’s, I attended college outside of Boston, Massachusetts.  At this time my tolerance for alcohol began to change.  Instead of blacking out at the end of my drinking, I began blacking out after a couple beers.  I was 22 years old.  School was a few miles out of town, and after closing down the bars, sometimes I would set out walking back to school because I couldn’t find my car. On nights like these, I would wake up under a bush in the park, in an alleyway, or up in the cemetery, not knowing how I got there or what happened leading up to it.  

Every morning I woke up with dread that I was still alive. I was the one initiating behavior that led to trauma, then drank and used to forget the trauma, which only created more situations to be traumatized.  Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not an invitation for non-consensual sexual activity. A person under the influence of drugs or alcohol does not cause others to assault; others choose to take advantage of the person in the vulnerable position. My pain from multiple sexual assaults consumed me and drove my behaviors to stay numb until I hit rock bottom.

The core experiences of rape include psychological trauma, feelings of disempowerment and disconnection. The guiding principles of recovery efforts must include re-empowerment and the establishment of new and meaningful relationships.  I had to make a choice: continue down the path of self-destruction or admit I needed help, address the issues, and begin living again with a newfound appreciation for the purpose in my pain. It was then that I found my passion and mission, to forge connectedness and be of service to others, and not allow adversity to stand in my way.  When we choose to salvage our suffering through strength and empathy, we can also become a beacon of hope and support for those still lost in the dark.

Research indicates that when abuse victims feel like they can’t or shouldn’t talk about their experiences, their trauma can worsen.  Part of why silence is so destructive is because we’re not made to cope with trauma in isolation. Those in pain should be surrounded with support by their communities, the way they do when death or other tragedies strike. Unfortunately, most victims of sexual violence and/or abuse do not get support, and isolation brings continued shame and confusion. Many victims suffer in silence, since studies indicate that only one half to two-thirds of adult women disclose their sexual assault experience to someone at some point in their lives.  When victims are silenced, the adverse effects cannot be overstated.

Some of the most common ways that victims react to sexual assault are precisely what people often have difficulty understanding. Women who experience sexual violence may not always be able to make decisions to protect themselves. In fact, they might:

  • freeze
  • not report or delay reporting
  • not remember aspects of the event
  • have blanks in memory
  • have inconsistencies in memory
  • struggle with decision making
  • not say no clearly to unwanted sexual contact
  • exhibit no physical evidence of injury from a sexual assault
  • be unable to identify the perpetrator to police
  • exhibit no apparent emotional expression following a sexual assault
  • provide what might appear to be inconsistent statements at different points in time
  • blame themselves for the assault
  • have a relationship with the perpetrator after the assault
  • deny or minimize the assault

There is a social expectation that sexual assault victims should relay information about their sexual assault experiences in a calm, linear, and straightforward manner, as if they were speaking about any other routine matter, rather than one that is privatized, stigmatized, or sexualized and involves being violated and humiliated. Not only is this entirely unrealistic and unreasonable, it’s at odds with basic knowledge about human psychology and about how trauma affects memory and recall. It is neither trauma-informed, nor trauma-aware.

In the aftermath of trauma, victims may make statements that appear to be incomplete or inconsistent. They may also seek to hide or minimize behaviors they used to survive, such as appeasement, or flattery, out of fear that they will not be believed or that they will be blamed for their assault. But what might appear to be an “inconsistency,” in the way a victim reacts, or tells her story, may actually be a typical, predictable, and normal way of responding to life-threatening events and coping with traumatic experiences.

Many responses that seem inexplicable to those who are unfamiliar with normal trauma responses can be appreciated by understanding the brain’s way of coping with and processing overwhelming psychological events. A significant number of sexual assault victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, research suggests that sexual assault is by far the most frequent cause of PTSD in women. (National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 2005)  

Women who have been sexually assaulted are more than twice as likely as men victims of sexual assault to develop PTSD, with PTSD symptoms lasting up to four times longer. Women also report greater degrees of emotional numbing, less range of feeling, and avoidance responses, and experience higher levels of psychological reactivity to traumatic stimuli.

It is helpful for those in the criminal justice system to understand the defense circuitry and the neurobiology of trauma to understand the range of reactions victims might exhibit in threatening circumstances. To understand the effects of trauma, it is necessary to grasp the fundamentals of the brain’s defense circuitry – how it protects itself – and the crucial role this circuitry plays in shaping victim responses to, and coping with, traumatic events; both at the time they occur, and in recalling and narrating them later.

The public, the criminal justice system, and even victims themselves often misunderstand neurobiological based responses to threat and to traumatic events. Victims cannot explain many of the responses they experienced, nor do they understand their own coping and reflexes. Sexual assault victims often find these reactions extremely frightening and confusing and they often blame themselves for these responses.

The self-blame and lack of information about these natural brain-based responses keeps many victims from coming forward to report their sexual assault experiences to police or to get support services. Many police also do not understand these responses and they may respond verbally or non-verbally (for example, through body language) in a manner that communicates disbelief, as a result undermining their investigation.

Rape is the least reported and convicted violence crime in the U.S. There are many reasons why victims may choose not to report to law enforcement or tell anyone about what happened to him/her. Some include:

  • concern for not being believed
  • fear of the attackers getting back at her
  • embarrassment or shame
  • fear of being blamed
  • pressure from others not to tell
  • distrust of law enforcement
  • belief that there is not enough evidence
  • desire to protect the attacker

 

In court, victims’ credibility is often undermined when lawyers inaccurately characterize, question, and challenge these seemingly counterintuitive behaviors. It is essential that members of the entire criminal justice system receive specialized education to understand the neurobiology of trauma, the defense circuitry, and the types of habits and reflex behaviors that victims of sexual assault often exhibit.

There is a social expectation that “ideal,” “real,” and “credible” victims of sexual assault should report their experiences of sexual assault to the police and follow through the criminal justice system. This is an unrealistic and unreasonable expectation for multiple reasons: the victim’s sense of shame and stigma, compounded by a victim-blaming society, along with fear of what might happen to the perpetrator if the assailant is someone they know. One of the major reasons for the extremely low reporting rate of sexual assault is victims’ lack of confidence in the police and the criminal justice system. Taking a trauma-informed approach to the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault in the criminal justice system might reduce these difficulties.

It is important for police officers to recognize that disclosure is a process, not a one-time event. It is also important for police to recognize that disclosing sexual assault incidents, which victims often experience as humiliating and disempowering, is particularly difficult. This is especially true in a society where rape myths still exist.

Taking a victim-centered approach to how the criminal justice system processes a sexual assault case means treating victim-witnesses with care and respect and recognizing the unique difficulties and needs facing those who have experienced this type of crime and the social stigma surrounding it. According to many experts, the attitude conveyed by law enforcement is “the single most important factor in determining the success of the victim interview, and therefore the entire investigation.”  Effective sexual assault investigations require impartial, skilled, empathic, well-trained, and experienced investigators, who carefully document all the details of the crime and properly collect all available evidence. 

Insufficiently trained police can contribute to assaulted women experiencing secondary victimization. If victims feel unsafe when questioned they may not be able to use their prefrontal cortex to understand the questions and retrieve certain memories. If victims feel traumatized by the questioning, it may trigger the retrieval of fragmentary sensations and emotions that are nearly as intense as those they experienced during the assault itself. Also, poor memory retrieval is associated with high levels of stress and high arousal, which in turn is associated with the prefrontal cortex being threatened.

Domestic violence and sexual assault victims frequently encounter police services that mirror the unequal power and control experienced in the abusive relationships that caused past trauma. This retraumatizes victims and is to be assiduously avoided. Instead, police should focus on making it easier for victims to recall and disclose the assault. This can include allowing the victim to make a delayed disclosure several days or weeks after the assault.

Offering more support to victims and responding to them patiently and with respect increases their ability to retell what happened to them. This speaks to the importance of trauma-informed interviewing approaches by police officers, and trauma-informed questioning by lawyers. It requires specialized training, which should also be made available to the judiciary. This kind of knowledge is not taught in law schools.

Shame, blame, and the experience of social isolation that sexual assault victims feel, creates a significant barrier to receiving much needed social support. In some cases, that isolation and the negative emotional responses a victim receives increase the feeling of threat and lack of safety.  A social context of victim blaming, therefore, has a neurophysiological consequence for the victim of sexual assault, by keeping her in a protracted state of anxiety and fear.

Trauma enhances the need for protective relationships. However, one damaging aspect of trauma is that it violates human connection. This can make relationships difficult to establish or maintain. Neurobiological theories of trauma now predominate the trauma literature. They offer considerable insight into both potential trauma responses as well as the critical role and necessity of sensitive and well-informed understanding of these complex responses in delivering services to victims.

Research shows 80 percent of victims report some form of blaming.  Along with problematic views about women and a history of blaming women in general, the power structure of many communities makes it risky for community members to side with victims.  It’s easier to dismiss or blame the person with less power.

Speaking about traumatic life events such as sexual assaults is inherently difficult. They are intensely personal and private, and require discussing the private zones of the body, involve disclosures of sexual acts surrounded by social taboos, and they are also associated with victim blaming and often shame. Speaking about this kind of experience with a stranger, like a police officer or lawyer, let alone speaking about it in public courtroom, only increases these difficulties.

When the physical/mental/sexual abuser is a respected person in the community, the community’s knee-jerk response can be, “Is she lying? Please tell me she is lying,” because the stakes are so high for the community if it were true.  This can lead to interrogating the victim with questions that imply guilt or cast suspicion onto the victim.

Minimizing comments often made to victims, such as the victim “took it wrong,” was “too sensitive,” they are “reading into things,” or “they are exaggerating.” Other blaming responses can include comments such as “they don’t dress modestly enough,” “they tend to flirt,” or “it takes two to tango.”

Most people find it difficult to hear about traumatic events such as a rape, sexual assault, or other experiences of sexual violation or abuse. In a trauma-informed criminal justice system, it is important to develop this capacity and it is one that can be learned.

Empathy is the capacity to understand the experience of another. Being empathic is an important skill when listening to the experience of a victim of sexual assault. Listening with empathy does not make one biased. Connecting with the victim-witness depends on empathy and compassion for the sexual assault victim.

It is possible to be both neutral and impartial, and to be compassionate and empathic. Emotional competency requires developing essential social skills to recognize, interpret, and respond constructively to emotions in yourself and others. This means developing the ability to interview victims in ways that empower and calm them, so they can provide more accurate, coherent, consistent, and persuasive narratives.

Empathy is not a skill that is typically taught in law schools or during police training. But it should be. It is a skill that can be learned and refined. Not only is it essential to effective work with sexual assault victims, it can also be widely applied to many other spheres of legal and police work.

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