The Brain Under (Sexual) Assault


Nobody can tell you how it feels. Maybe you can’t even make sense of how it feels yourself. Your feelings — along with what feels like most of your organs — might be twisted in knots so bad you want to throw up.

What happens to your brain after surviving being raped? Understanding that might be one of the first steps to long term healing. Your brain, let’s not forget, is one of the parts of you most affected by sexual assault. It’s where the effects, trauma, memories, and any restoration of your sense of emotional self are going to take place, after all.

According to a leading clinical psychologist with experience in psychological trauma, the key is what the brain does when it’s afraid, and it’s not what you think. “Evolution has selected for brains that, upon detection of danger or attack or even the perception of them, rapidly shift to running on reflexes and habits,” says Dr. Jim Hopper.

No sexual assault is the same, but whether it’s an unknown lunatic with a knife dragging a screaming woman into the undergrowth or (more common by orders of magnitude) someone known to and trusted by the victim and not necessarily involving physical violence, Hopper says the brain falling back onto reflexes and habits is a universal response.

It calls into action what neuroscience has called “defense circuitry” resulting in not just the shift to automatic reflex and habit, but rapid impairment of our powers of reason, which Hopper says can be “taken offline within a couple of seconds.” Hopper continues, “It happens when the defense circuitry unleashes a surge of stress chemicals into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally — to recall the bedroom door is open, that people are in the room next door — and make use of that information.” Says Hopper, “Despite our dominant role on the planet we evolved as prey, and when a predator is upon us, stopping to think is fatal.”

Fight or …

Most of us think animals (including humans) respond to danger by either running away or turning savage to protect ourselves — the phrase “fight or flight” is a cultural meme as much as an anthropological principle. But when faced with a traumatic incident there are more responses in the human behavioral repertoire, from disassociation to what’s been described by victims as going on “autopilot.”

But among the scariest must be tonic immobility — when you quite literally freeze from fear. It occurs when the fear circuitry detects an attack and signals the brainstem to inhibit movement. It happens in a flash, automatically and beyond conscious control. There’s also collapsed immobility, when blood pressure and heart rate can drop from sudden fear and the victim might go limp and pass out completely, like you see people do in YouTube videos of those slingshot rides.

Alexandra Allred holds a master’s degree in kinesiology, is an expert in functional movements and behaviors, and the author of “Trumping the Rape Culture and Sexual Assault.” She thinks most attackers rely on the shock of the assault to go further. “That single ‘what is happening?!’ moment the victim feels affords the attacker so much leverage,” she says. Hopper agrees, saying that when the defense circuitry takes over it can leave victims “very vulnerable to be manipulated and assaulted.”

Dr. Nancy Irwin, primary therapist at Seasons, Malibu, explains further reasons the freezing response might kick in. “I’ve had victims who froze because their perpetrator was a close friend or someone they knew, and their immediate intellectual response is denial that this is happening for fear of harming the relationship — it’s an all-too common dynamic with acquaintance rapes. Another explanation is fear the perpetrator will do more harm. If the victim has been assaulted before, the brain has archived that experience and the freeze response ‘worked’.”

Allred talks about a 2017 Stockholm study that called it “normal” for rape victims to experience temporary paralysis. Of almost 300 women who reported sexual assaults in Stockholm emergency rooms, 70 percent of them reported the phenomenon. Half of those experienced “extreme — almost catatonic — paralysis.”

The arguments used by lawyers to attack the credibility of rape victims in courts is highly politicized and the subject of a much longer story that isn’t about neuroscience, but among the most popular and (as tonic immobility might help explain) cruel is that because the victim didn’t fight back, run away, scream, etc., it can’t have been “that bad,” maybe not even sexual assault at all.

But most rapes are what Hopper has called nonviolent, nonstranger rape, and it’s a phenomenon that’s given rise to the very problematic term “gray rape.” In some cases the assault might seem so far removed from the picture a victim has of an assault — even bordering on harmless — it’s only after years of trauma some victims can even face the fact that they were raped.

But to neuroscience, the fear circuitry is not only immediate, it’s specific to just one single variable in the victim’s experience, regardless of whether it’s a maniac in the bushes or a trusted friend — consent. Quoting a victim who admitted to herself that she was raped after years, Hopper states: “To have your needs, your experience, your will ignored by someone you thought you could trust … it’s a horrifying experience.”

“Whether the defense circuitry kicks in and takes over is a function of how that circuitry … appraises the situation and what’s being perceived moment by moment as it unfolds,” he says. “Something that might seem — from the outside, to others, or even to oneself minutes or hours later — to be no big deal and not threatening or dangerous may at the time trigger a huge response.”

The brain is responding, according to Hopper’s view, to the shock of being treated in a disempowered, disconnected way by someone who dominates with force or threats or by taking advantage of the victim’s vulnerability — which is the common denominator that describes rape regardless of other circumstances. How the victim thinks of, characterizes, labels, or responds to their experience can be entirely cultural or social.

In 2016, when pop star Taylor Swift sued a Denver man for indecent assault during a meet and greet with fans, plenty of people might have considered the act (where the man slid his hand up Swift’s skirt to touch her bottom) appalling behavior but no big deal.

Swift herself might have wished she could ignore or laugh it off (as millions of victims do about unwanted sexual advances or touching), but during her court deposition she recalled what’s actually a very common reaction to assault: “As soon as he grabbed my ass, I became shocked and withdrawn and was barely able to say ‘Thanks for coming,’ which is what I say to everybody. I was barely able to get the words out, and it was like somebody switched the lights off in my personality.”

Tags: Best Of 2019

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