Warning: the following article discusses rape and sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available.
“You never screamed for help?”
“Why didn’t you fight back?”
These are questions that lawyers asked E. Jean Carroll in her rape case against former president Donald J. Trump this spring. These kinds of questions reflect a myth about rape: that it’s only rape if the victim puts up a fight.
A recent review of the research, “Neuroscience Evidence Counters a Rape Myth,” aims to set the record straight. It serves as a call to action for those in the scientific and legal professions. Ebani Dhawan completed this work at the University College London with Professor Patrick Haggard. She is now my classmate at Duke University, where she is pursuing an MA in Bioethics & Science Policy.
Commonly accepted beliefs and myths about rape are a persistent problem in defining and prosecuting sexual assault. The intentions of all actors are examined in the courtroom. If a victim freezes or does not attempt to resist during a sexual assault, perpetrators may claim there was passive acquiescence; that consent was assumed from an absence of resistance.
From the moment a victim reports an assault, the legal process poses “why” questions about the survivor’s behavior. This is problematic because it upholds the idea that survivors can (and should) choose to scream or fight back during an assault.
This new paper presents neuroscientific evidence which counters that misconception. Many survivors of sexual assault report ‘freezing’ during an assault. The researchers argue that this is an involuntary response to a threat which can prevent a victim from actively resisting, and that it occurs throughout biology.
Animal studies have demonstrated that severe, urgent threats, like assault or physical restraint, can trigger a freeze response involving fixed posture (tonic immobility) or loss of muscle tone (collapsed immobility). Self-reports of these states in humans shed light on an important insight into immobility. Namely, that we are unable to make voluntary actions during this freezing response.
An example of this is the “lockup” state displayed by pilots during an aviation emergency. After a plane crash, it’s hard to imagine anyone asking a pilot if they froze because they really wanted to crash the plane.
Yet, quite frequently victims of sexual assault are asked to explain the freeze response, something which is further made difficult by the impaired memory and loss of sense of agency which often accompanies trauma.
The legal process around sexual assault should be updated to reflect this neuroscientific evidence.
THIS MYTH HAS REAL CONSEQUENCES.
The vast majority of sexual assault cases do not result in a conviction. It is estimated that out of every 1,000 sexual assaults in the U.S., only 310 are reported to the police and only 28 lead to felony conviction. That is a conviction rate of less than 3%.
In England and Wales, just 3% of rapes recorded in the previous year resulted in charges. According to RAINN, one of the leading anti-sexual assault organizations, many victims don’t report because they believe the justice system would not do anything to help — a belief that these conviction rates support.
E. Jean Carroll named this in her trial. She said, “Women don’t come forward. One of the reasons they don’t come forward is because they’re always asked, why didn’t you scream? You better have a good excuse if you didn’t scream.”
This research serves as a much-needed call-to-action. By revisiting processes steeped in myth, justice can be better served.
I asked Ebani what she thinks must be done. Here are her recommendations:
- The neuroscience community should pursue greater mechanistic understanding of threat processing and involuntary action processes and the interaction between them.
- Activists and legal scholars should advocate for processes reflective of the science behind involuntary responses like freezing, and the inability of victims to explain that behavior.
- Neuroscientists should contribute to Police officers’ education regarding involuntary responses to rape and sexual assault.
“I’m telling you: He raped me whether I screamed or not.” – E. Jean Carroll
Post by Victoria Wilson, Class of 2023