Mar 30 2014

Rape Myths About How Victims “Should” Behave

In the wake of the Tejpal rape case, some articles and comments in Indian media have propagated certain myths about how “true” rape victims “should” behave. These myths echo depictions of rape in cinema and television, and go something like this:

  • rape victims always fight back against their attackers;
  • rape victims always scream “rape” and display hysterical distress after the assault;
  • rape victims always give complete and consistent testimony to the police after the assault.

When one looks at the scientific research on victim responses to sexual assault however, it becomes clear that the expectations that all rape victims “should” behave this way are unfounded. So let’s take a look at the research.

The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault

The first resource to see, is this seminar from the U.S. National Institute of Justice (NIJ), titled “The Neurobiology of Sexual Assault”. The NIJ is the research and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice – it improves knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. The seminar is part of a series of seminars on translational criminology, which attempts to guide and improve criminal justice through scientific research. The speaker is Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, who has conducted research on rape for the past twenty years – in particular on medical, legal and mental systems’ responses to rape. The seminar is an hour and a half long (and includes a lengthy Q&A with law enforcement and legal professionals); you can view all the slides along with the audio at the link above, and you can also read the entire written transcript here.

Here are the key research findings she shares during the talk, which are relevant to the above myths. She describes the neurobiology of sexual assault: the hormonal and emotional effects of the assault on the brain. Various hormones come into effect in the victim of a sexual assault – the catecholamines (one of which is adrenaline), cortisol (the “stress hormone”), endogenous opioids (like endorphins), and oxytocin. These hormones affect two parts of the brain: the amygdala, which modulates events that are important for the organism’s survival, and the hippocampus, which processes memory. The consequences of this on the victim are:

1) Tonic Immobility, also known as rape-induced paralysis. This is a muscular paralysis experienced by the victim during the assault, and explains why some victims do not fight back. As Dr. Campbell says, (emphasis mine):

The catecholamines are often going to be at very, very high levels during the assault. We talked about how these hormones are very helpful for the fight-or-flight response. On the other hand, we’ve also hinted at a little bit that those hormones may not be the best things in terms of memory. The other thing that these hormones are not the greatest at is that they impair the circuits in our brain that control rational thought. So the parts of our prefrontal cortex that allow us to do “IF this THEN that” — that’s rational thought in simple terms — those circuits literally do not work at their optimal levels when catecholamine levels are high. So a victim under sort of normal levels of catecholamine — meaning not being victimized — might be able to look at a situation and say, “Oh, well of course the rational, logical thing for me to do is this.”

The victim literally can’t think like that during the assault. The catecholamines have caused structural cellular damage to those circuits. It’s not permanent; it’s temporary. But at the same time, they can’t do that “IF this THEN that” thought. So when they’re in the middle of the assault, strategies like “Oh, you coulda, you shoulda, you would have done this” — they can’t even think of the options, let alone execute them. So again, kind of a tragic situation where our body is working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, it can help here, and on the other hand it’s not going to help the rational thought mechanisms.

[...] And then finally, for some victims, it’s the corticosteroids that have dumped out at very high levels and actually reduces the energy available to the body. Now, I’ve been talking so far about fight-or-flight. It’s actually fight, flight, or freeze — that for some victims, they don’t fight back. They don’t flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the HPA axis. And it can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body. And the technical name for this is tonic immobility. Tonic immobility is often referred to as “rape-induced paralysis.” It is an autonomic response, meaning that it’s uncontrollable. This is not something a victim decides to do. It is a mammalian response. It is evolutionarily wired into us to protect the survival of the organism. [...] 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 cannot move her hands. She cannot move her arms. She cannot move her legs. She cannot move her torso. She cannot move her head. 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 the 50 percent than the 12 percent.

[...] Because they had this reaction, they’re afraid of how it’s going to be perceived by others, so they’re very reluctant to seek help. And when they do come help, it’s always there in the back of their mind. They are dreading that question “What did you do?” Because their answer is one that they don’t think anybody’s going to understand and quite frankly they don’t understand, because their answer is “I did nothing. I couldn’t do anything. I just laid there.” When people disclose tonic immobility, when victims disclose it, family, friends and service providers often react very negatively to this. You got the, “Well you must have wanted it, because you just laid there. You coulda, woulda [skips] something.” They can’t. Remember, it’s an autonomic mammalian response wired into our brains to protect the survival of the organism. So it can be helpful to try to explain tonic immobility and normalize this. Fight, flight, or freeze.

2) The victims’ emotional response after the assault is not always “hysterical” and “upset”:

Opiates released in very, very high levels during sexual assault, again blocking the physical pain, the emotional pain. But morphine — if any of you have had major surgery — morphine’s not sensitive to subtleties. It’s out. It blocks the pain. So the affect that a victim might be communicating during the assault and afterward may be very flat, incredibly monotone — like seeing no emotional reaction, which again sometimes can seem counterintuitive to both the victim and other people. It’s like “This was a horrible traumatic event. Why aren’t you showing these kinds of emotions?” Opiate morphine is not letting it come through. It has been blunted.

[...] These neurobiological changes can lead to very flat affect, that sort of bluntness or what appears to them to be strange emotions, or huge emotional swings that over the course of the interview you can see them high, you can see them low, you can see them somewhere in between. And you can see that all unfold in a span of about 90 seconds or less. And then the cycle will repeat.

So the behavior that they see is due to a hormonal soup. Remember how we talked about how those hormones can sometimes even be working at cross-purposes. Which hormones are released at which levels? We don’t know yet. We don’t have data on that, but we know that there’s a lot — that those are the four main ones that are being released and that they can kind of put the body at cross-purposes. So what is often interpreted as a victim being cavalier because she’s just sitting there or interpreted as lying because she seems so cavalier and not upset about it, is very likely attributable to the opiate levels in her body, because those will be released at the time of the assault and they can stay very elevated for 96 hours post assault. So the key thing that practitioners need to know is that there is, in fact, a wide reaction of emotional reactions to sexual assault, and it can be helpful to normalize those reactions for victims, because they don’t understand why they’re behaving that way either.

3) Memory consolidation and recall is difficult for victims. The encoding and consolidation of a sexual assault into memory happens in a fragmented way. There might be several gaps in memory too, particularly if the victim was assaulted while under the influence of alcohol.

That’s why memory can be slow and difficult — because the encoding and the consolidation went down in a fragmented way. It went down on little tiny post-it notes and they were put in all different places in the mind. And you have to sort through all of it, and it’s not well-organized, because remember I told you to put some of them in folders that had nothing to do with this. I told you to put one in the pencil jar. It’s not where it’s supposed to be. It takes a while to find all the pieces and put them together. So that’s why victims, when they’re trying to talk about this assault, it comes out slow and difficult.

But the question everybody wants to know about is the accuracy of that information, okay. And what we know from the research is that the laying down of that memory is accurate and the recall of it is accurate. So what gets written on the post-it notes — accurate. The storage of it is disorganized and fragmented.

However, there is an exception — alcohol. If the victim was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault, the encoding process might not have happened at all or in any degree of accuracy. I think in a group of this size all 21 and over, we can appreciate that alcohol impairs encoding across the board — not just for traumatic events, for a lot of events. So if you have a traumatic event that occurred under the context of alcohol, the information might not have been encoded, and it may not be consolidated, and it may not be transferred into long-term memory. So for victims who are assaulted under the influence of alcohol, they may not have anything to retrieve. So to speak, their post-it notes are just blank. They may not have it, okay? But for those who are able to remember it, either in pieces and parts, it does go in accurately, it does come out accurately, but it comes out slow, steady, fragmented and disorganized.

[...] How are law enforcement and prosecutors trained to handle something that looks fragmented and sketchy? They’re trained to believe that that is something that is not truthful, and their job is to hone in on it and look at it from multiple points of views and keep cycling back on it to try to ferret out what is true and what is false. And again, they interpret this victim’s behavior as evasiveness or lying. And again, what it really is, most often, is that the victim is having difficulty accessing the memories. Again, the content of the memory the research tell us very clearly is accurate. It’s just going to take some time and patience for it to come together.

Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive?

Here’s a second resource on the subject: the publication Victim Responses to Sexual Assault: Counterintuitive or Simply Adaptive? by the U.S. National District Attorneys Association. Again it examines responses to sexual victimisation, and how these responses appear “counterintuitive” to the general public. The authors are careful to explain what they mean by that term:

The term “counterintuitive” is used to explain how a juror may perceive a victim’s behavior and not the behavior itself. For local and state prosecutors involved in sexual assault cases, it is important to remember that labeling these certain victim behaviors for members of a jury as “counterintuitive” reinforces the notion that there is an appropriate or “normal” way to behave after a sexual assault and that anything outside the realm of a presupposed reaction is somehow inappropriate or abnormal.

The authors go on to present research on (1) how victims cope with sexual victimisation, (2) the variability in victim responses, and (3) rape myth acceptance.

The need of the day is for us to educate ourselves and others about these myths. As Campbell points out, the widespread ignorance about these issues is partly responsible for the secondary victimisation of rape survivors. The police and prosecutors themselves have misconceptions about victim behaviour, which leads them to not believe the victims’ story. In fact, many rape survivors themselves are not aware of these facts, and as a result end up feeling guilty or blaming themselves. Here’s Campbell again, quoting one of many emails she receives from rape survivors:

“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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  1. 1

    This was very helpful. I’m one of the “freezers”, coupled with a post-trauma flat affect. At one time I spent a lot of energy on torturing myself for not fighting back, not raising a stink, hiding instead of standing up for myself. Even now, decades later, there’s a certain amount of shame involved, as if I was in some way responsible for what was done to me without my consent.

    This post clarifies things for me. Thank you.

  2. 2

    Thanks for this article. All said, I once studied cognitive psychology and much of what people are taught and quite a bit of what is even said in court (or perhaps passes as wisdom in law enforcement circles) is just flat-out wrong when it comes to how rape victims behave.

    I’m not sure how likely it is for this information to become common knowledge; I’m in the US, and what psychologists say is often rejected when it goes against what people imagine *seems right.*

  3. 3
    Kilian Hekhuis

    A very insightful article. Most of it I already knew, but it’s nice to have it all in one place. *bookmarked*

  4. 4

    Thank you for this article; very informative. It helps me to understand why I did not do anything in the moment. Much later I had tried to confine in a partner; he did not believe me, because I did not remember every detail of what happened. I made sense of it all by thinking I had complied, just laying there, to prevent anything really bad from happening, like being held down; also I was scared because my abuser was under the influence of drugs. I thought I couldn’t recall details, because I didn’t want to remember it.

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