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Davis, California

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Rape? Yes, I do want to talk about it: The “normal” response to sexual assault

Let’s play a game. I’m going to give you two scenarios. I want you to guess which one is the more likely response to being sexually assaulted. Ready?

Option A:

Amy was raped by a stranger a few weeks ago. During the assault, Amy was completely terrified, but reacted quickly and cleverly. She escaped the situation right away and called the police. Amy told her friends, family members and even a therapist about what happened to her and has found comfort in the incredible support she has been given. Amy tends to hide in her room for fear of running into her attacker (she knows how unsafe it would be for her to see him ever again), and has decided to remain abstinent from sex until marriage. While things have been tough for Amy, she seems to be dealing with her situation in a healthy way.

Option B:

Sara was raped by her boyfriend a few weeks ago. She loves her boyfriend – everybody does. He is charming, charismatic and the kind of guy everybody wants to be around.  Sara stayed with her boyfriend even though he raped her. She continued to have sex with him, but also had sex with other guys. She liked to feel in control again. She loved to go out, get drunk, and wind up with a random stranger. Sara refused to talk about what happened to her, and how would anybody know? She continues to be a straight-A student and an amazing athlete. Nothing can bring Sara down.

Did you guess A? I thought you might have. Seems like a pretty reasonable response.  I mean, if you were just raped it’s not like you’re going to be sleeping around or going out to parties. It’s not like you’re going to keep spending quality bonding time with your attacker, right?

Wrong. While I can’t say for certain that Amy isn’t out there somewhere, every survivor I’ve encountered has behaved a lot more similarly to Sara.

People have a distorted understanding of how a victim of rape should behave. Think about it. If you’ve never experienced rape, or real trauma of any sort, you’re going to assume that when people are traumatized, they’re just experiencing normal feelings of fear (but to a greater degree). You’re going to think, “Okay, so if I’m terrified of talking dolls (after watching Chucky), then a rape victim must be terrified of their rapist… or men… or the outside world… after being raped.” It’s more or less a logical conclusion to jump to. It’s why our society assumes that every victim’s response will be as “normal” as Amy’s response was.

But here’s the thing: our brains process severe trauma differently. Rape is not on the same level as your fear of heights. It’s on the same level as attempted homicide. And that process is something you have not experienced until you have. It’s something you do not understand until you have to.

Listen up. There are two main structures in the brain at play when processing a traumatic event: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is the brain structure that processes and forms memories. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes emotional stimuli – including fear. The amygdala and the hippocampus must work together to process information. Normally, this process works pretty well.

However,  the hippocampus and the amygdala are sensitive to hormone fluctuations, and during a traumatic event, your body basically goes crazy with hormones. It produces adrenaline to help with a “fight or flight” response. It produces cortisol (the stress hormone) to aid in your body’s energy, to give you strength to fight back. It produces opiates to relieve some of the emotional and/or physical pain you experience during and after the assault. And it produces oxytocin – a hormone designed to increase positive emotions – in attempt to help  numb the severity of your pain.

These hormones are essential for your body’s survival during an assault, but they completely interfere with your normal processing. Your body is simultaneously releasing so many different hormones when it is in ultimate survival mode. It’s trying its best to save you. It is acting out of desperation—and this means sacrificing certain key parts of your functioning.

Which brings me to my point. These activated hormones in your body, released during rape, hinder your brain circuits controlling rational thought (located in the prefrontal cortex).  This means that victims literally CANNOT think rationally. Not during the trauma and not for a long, long time after the trauma. It means that a survivor is solely functioning through their amygdala – the emotional center – and is temporarily not capable of making any rational decisions. Any.

If we understand the real biology behind what happens during severe trauma, we can understand that Sara isn’t so crazy after all. No, she’s doing her BEST to function while her brain returns to its normal processing state. Her reaction isn’t going to make sense to anyone, it doesn’t even make sense to her. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong or not “normal.” As weird or confusing as her reaction might be, it IS understandable. Hell, if she walked around campus wearing a gigantic bear costume and only communicated via growling it would be pretty understandable too.

There is no “normal” response to rape. There is only surviving – which more often than not means doing really ridiculous and stupid things. Make a conscious effort to understand what real rape victims look like and why. Because sometimes they look like crazy gigantic bears. And sometimes those bears could use a hug.

Like her bluntness? Contact Maddy Pettit at mepettit@ucdavis.edu


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