How Brain Science Can Help Explain Discrepancies in a Sexual Assault Survivor’s Story

“I believe that you believe something happened to you.” The young woman repeated the detective’s statement to me again. It had been the detective’s response to her question of whether he believed her account of the brutal sexual assault she had experienced the past weekend.

As a counselor on the local rape crisis hotline, it was not the first time I had heard such a demoralizing story of an individual’s attempt to report sexual violence to law enforcement. Because her story had been disjointed, and she had stumbled over several sections of it, the detective had thought that she was confabulating, creating a crime where none had occurred.

When I hear of this dynamic, my thoughts often turn to the neuroscience of trauma. The brain’s response to trauma is complex, and human behavior in response to trauma, particularly sexual violence, is not well-understood but recent research does offer some important insights.

The rate of false report in sexual violence is actually low, estimated by most studies to be around 7 percent (to compare, this is considerably lower than the rate of insurance fraud). Moreover, research shows that sexual violence is in fact underreported: Many more incidents of violence occur than are reported to law enforcement or other legal authorities. Studies show that there are many factors that may predict whether an individual will report, including level of acquaintance with the perpetrator and whether alcohol was consumed.

Taken together, research findings on the factually low rate of false report and on the underreporting of the crime itself demonstrate a clear contradiction in people’s conceptions of sexual violence and that violence in reality. There is a mismatch between media portrayals of “ideal victims” — young, sober women attacked at knifepoint in parking lots at night — and —> Read More