Whether you were riveted by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, have followed the #MeToo movement or the Bill Cosby trial, or all of the above, you’ve seen that sexual assault is being publicly discussed now more than ever.
While that can bring up painful memories for survivors, it can also be empowering and encourage them to share their stories.
However, just because the topic of sexual assault is in the spotlight, that doesn’t automatically dispel harmful myths about it.
“Survivors aren’t wrong when they think that if they go along during an assault and don’t speak up, they are less likely to be injured. Only the victim can evaluate the risks of active resistance or fighting back. But afterwards, others may judge the victim for their behavior before, during or after the assault. Sadly, it is still true that victims are often disbelieved, blamed or the experience is minimized. Speaking up is always brave,” says Lucy Berliner, M.S.W., director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress.
Fear of not being believed could be part of why only 32.5 percent of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’s National Crime Victimization Survey. That’s a lower percentage than any other type of violent crime.
Yet, sexual assault is not a minor problem: The survey also estimates there were more than 431,000 cases of rape or sexual assault in the United States that same year.
Challenging misguided ideas about sexual assault — like the belief that survivors who wait to report are lying or mistaken — ultimately helps survivors heal and prevents problematic norms from propagating, says Emily Dworkin, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Health and Risk Behaviors.
Most of us are familiar with sexual assault myths, one of which is that people who were assaulted, especially women, will be unable to completely recover from the experience. Here, we’re taking a deep dive into that assumption and explaining how trauma can rewire the brain — and how a combination of support, therapy and determination can heal it.
How sexual assault changes the brain’s fear response
Several parts of the brain that regulate emotion and memory go on high alert during and after a traumatic event, says Michele Bedard-Gilligan, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who treats patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt.
This is just your brain doing what it evolved to do in order to keep you alive. For some survivors, this response may not last long. But for others, it may lead to fear leeching into their lives. As many as one-third of women who are assaulted will develop PTSD, says Dworkin.
In fact, people who have been assaulted or affected by other types of interpersonal violence experience mental illness at higher rates than people who have been through other types of trauma, like car crashes or natural disasters, Bedard-Gilligan says.