The Science Behind Sexual Assault


Here’s What Really Happens In Your Brain During A Sexual Assault

by Ines Lotfi

Here’s an interesting exercise. Just have a little think about how many times you’ve been touched, spoken to, or even looked at in a way that’s made you feel uncomfortable. A stroke on the leg, an unsolicited kiss on the cheek or a smooching sound as you walk past. An “innocent” comment about your body (whether that’s a “nice rack” or “should you be eating that”), a wolf whistle or a persistent follow home.

 If you’re a woman, chances are you didn’t have to think for too long. “Just the other day,” is a thought often followed by one of the above events.

Now think again. This time, think of something that makes you feel way more uncomfortable. Something you don’t really want to talk about, and frankly, don’t even really want to remember. Something that feels uncomfortable saying out loud. A forced kiss, a grabbed breast, an unwelcome hand in your pants.

These were a bit harder to summon up, right? But again, didn’t take too long.

Now dig deep, and find a memory where you’ve been in a situation you knew you had to get out of, but you were frozen. At least for a few minutes. A situation where possibly, your opinion on sex changed. Your sexual self confidence disappeared. Your relationship with your body changed. You felt shame over something that you had no control over. Remember the day. Remember the walls. Remember how you got there or what happened an hour before this very particular, crystal clear event you have in mind…

You can’t?

That’s the science of sexual assault.

In the US alone, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. That we know of. Let that statistic sink in.

Four out of five women consider themselves lucky that they’ve never been raped. That’s not to say any of the above hasn’t happened to them, because be assured that five out of five women will be sexually harassed in their lives.

And for a lot of women, the line is a bit vague. “Wait, did that actually technically count as rape?” is a thought that often goes through a woman’s mind. “It wasn’t THAT bad, I’ve heard worse stories.” We downplay our experiences because other women have been through way worse. And if we have gone through something truly horrific such as sexual assault or rape, we don’t want to be the girl who cried wolf. Who’s going to believe us?

We make ourselves small. And we make the memories small. So we can continue to function at a basic level. So we can survive.

Here’s another statistic. 81 percent of women will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, major depression, suicidal behaviors and many more ongoing mental health issues as a direct consequence of the assault. And most victims don’t report it at all. Why?

Quite simply, because they are re-victimised. In short – they’re blamed.

“What were you wearing?”
“How much were you drinking?”
“Are you sure he knew you didn’t want to?”
“What did you say?”
“Did you resist?”
“You clearly lack self confidence, maybe you interpreted it wrong.”

While the perpetrators escape unscathed. “They’re only young, they don’t know any better”, “That’s just locker-room talk,” and the all-time favorite: “Boys will be boys”.

So how does the mind deal with that victimization and re-victimization? Well, the short version is: it suppresses it. But all the while, it never forgets.

Memories are stored in the hippocampus, which sits at the front of the brain. It also stores emotions, so you can see how one of these elements going into overdrive can affect the other. Unexpected events trigger unexpected emotions and unexpected actions.

How many times have you heard someone talk about “if it were me I would have…” or ask ignorant questions such as “why didn’t she just stop it?” – well, quite simply: because her brain took over.

In front of the hippocampus sits the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s most responsible for feeling afraid. During a sexual assault, the amygdala is going to detect a threat and send signals to the hypothalamus, which sets off the release of adrenaline.

The adrenals then secrete hormones, which trigger our fight-or-flight instinct. However, hormones impair our rational thought. Which means the RATIONAL school of thought in this situation, which allows us to think “IF this THEN the logical thing for me to do is this” does not work. Plus, hormones at this stage are pre-occupied functioning as a type of natural morphine, to block physical and emotional pain during this psychically and emotionally horrific experience.

In some cases, steroid hormones called corticosteroids are released into the body and basically numb the victim’s body. This tonic immobility is what we consider “freezing” in that moment. It’s not a decision, it’s a physical response. It’s a state of incredible fear that results in paralysis.

This emotional and physical paralysis also causes the hippocampus to only store memories that are essential for survival. Anything that is not crucial is not stored. Which is why the victim can’t recall the day, how she got there, the walls, … Only the assailant, the assault, the exit, and anything else the brain determined was important storing in that moment.

Your body SHUTS DOWN, you can’t move, you can’t speak, you can’t run, your body actually immobilizes you out of, literally, all-consuming fear. And the best the perpetrators can come up with is “boys will be boys”?


Boys will be held accountable for their actions and will not sexually assault women (or other men), they will not intimidate women in the workplace, they will not follow women home, and they will not touch women without their permission or consent.

And women will ensure this happens. Not by prosecuting men, but by insistently being a beacon of support to other women (and men!), by building women’s self confidence, by listening, by watching, by writing, by speaking, by not downplaying, by believing, by questioning, by forcing change.

And in due time, boys will be boys held accountable for their fucking actions.

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