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Your Brain on Trauma: The Neurobiology of Sexual Violence

By Brooke Burnett

Something that you often don’t think about is how the brain reacts to sexual assault. Sure there are different feelings or emotions that come and go, but let’s break some myths of sexual violence as we get down to the nitty gritty of the neurobiology of assault. You can’t argue with science.

Rebecca Campbell Ph.D, professor of Psychology at Michigan State University, speaks on something called Tonic Immobility and the science behind it or the role it plays in situations of assault. Here we arrive at our first myth: “Why didn’t you just scream and yell ‘no’? Did you at least try to get him/her off of you?” Tonic Immobility, a documented neurobiological condition, is also called rape-induced paralysis. What does this mean? It’s an autonomic (uncontrollable) mammalian response in fearful situations. In simpler terms, this means that in situations of rape and assault, the brain can shut down and enter a paralyzed state where the victim lay immobilized during.


Campbell states that 12 to 50 percent of assault victims enter Tonic Immobility during assault, so to answer the question of “why didn’t you just yell and scream,” the answer is because they couldn’t. They physically could not push them off or scream. Next.

The Cognitive Neuroscience Society helps me out to break our next myth: “What do you mean you don’t remember everything?” CNS tells us that the cascade of hormonal changes that happen during assault affects the pathways for important memory function, which means that an individual can fail to correctly encode and store memories experienced during trauma. While an individual generally will remember the event itself, these memories will more than likely be fragmented and will take time to peace together. In essence, time isn’t relative to the legitimacy of an assault and the survivor’s inability to recall every event that happened and the order it happened in does not disprove that it actually did occur.


Rebecca Campbell’s webinar from earlier discusses what memory fragmentation might look like if there was alcohol involved: “What we've been able to figure out from research, is that alcohol interferes with encoding in a pretty specific way. It impairs the brain's capacity to encode context details. What are context details? Being able to remember the specific time something happened, the place, the physical scene in which it took place and being able to remember events in sequence.” Not being able to remember details of the assault does not, ever, not ever, invalidate someone’s assault.

To conclude, there’s a lot of neurobiological evidence behind why some survivors don’t scream and yell while they’re assaulted, or why they don’t have all of the details of what happened. Everyone reacts differently and lastly, there’s never a reason to invalidate someone’s story of assault. There is nothing to gain from going through sexual violence or assault. Believe survivors first.

An easier solution would be to ask someone if it’s okay to interact with them sexually and if they say no, don’t.

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