Does Science Shed Light on Why We Don't Believe Rape Victims?


It’s a sad fact about living in the universe during the present day that a lot of humans — law enforcement officials, the media, teenagers with Twitter accounts, professional tennis players, etc. — have this strange compulsion to attempt to discredit and or/to refuse to believe the testimonies of sexual assault victims. We have a very specific cultural idea of what a sexual assault victim should look like and how she should behave. This goes beyond the realm of “did she ask for it?”: we also tend to expect that victims should be visibly distressed when recounting rape and that they should be able to provide investigators with a clear, chronological account of what happened.

According to Tom Tremblay, a former investigator in Burlington, VT’s sex crimes unit, “there was this shroud of doubt” constantly clouding rape investigations. He found that his fellow officers rarely believed a rape victim (even though it’s estimated that only 2 to 8 percent of rape accusations are false):

Tremblay could see why they were doubtful once he started interviewing the victims himself. The victims, most of them women, often had trouble recalling an attack or couldn’t give a chronological account of it. Some expressed no emotion. Others smiled or laughed as they described being assaulted.

According to a number of recent neurobiology studies, this behavior seems perplexing because we have a limited understanding of how the brain processes and recalls trauma. Using imaging technology, scientists have mapped the brain activation patterns involved in contemplating traumatic memories and found that the brain encodes traumatic events in a highly fragmented manner:

The brain’s prefrontal cortex—which is key to decision-making and memory — often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility — a sensation of being frozen in place—or a dissociative state.

This is why it’s sometimes difficult for sexual assault victims to provide a linear account of what happened — when police press victims in order to establish a timeline and key facts, it can cause them to come up with misleading information as they struggle to piece together their fragmented recollection. As such, clinical psychologist and forensic consultant David Lisak recommends utilizing a more open-ended approach that focuses on sensory details rather than chronology. Encouragingly, within the next three years, the International Association of Chiefs of Police plans to implement training based on these findings in 20 cities across America.

This is definitely a step in the right direction. However, while these findings are undoubtedly significant — and helpful in reforming the way sexual assault testimony is treated! — it’s worth noting that fragmented memory formation is not unique to sexual assault trauma. This is the same neurological process the brain undergoes when forming memories of other violent, scarring incidents (car jackings, muggings, beatings, armed robberies, etc.). So, while these studies successfully explain why we perceive the behavior of sexual assault victims as strange and therefore not credible, it fails to account for why it is that the trauma responses of rape survivors are unduly scrutinized and judged in the first place. That’s something that has far less to do with neurobiology and far more to do with the fact that we live in a society that often doesn’t take seriously, tacitly condones, or overlooks sexual assault entirely.

“Why Don’t Cops Believe Rape Victims?” [Slate]

Image via mangostudio/Shutterstock.

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