I’ve thought about this post and I’ve overthought this post. I’ve avoided it, I’ve written it, and I’ve re-written it. And then I repeated all of that just a few more times. I tend to steer clear of politics and hot button topics, especially when writing en mass rather than having a one on one conversation.
But this post isn’t about the politics involved. It isn’t about who is telling the truth and who is lying. It isn’t about which side you affiliate with or what should or shouldn’t happen next. This post is about correcting misinformation. It’s about providing education in an attempt to stop the ongoing shame that continues toward real survivors in real life situations… Every. Single. Day.
Now is probably a good time for a…
I’ve spent the last decade working in the field of mental health, focusing the last few years in particular on helping people heal after sexual assault. I’ve spent 6 years of study to learn how to do what I do and a crap ton (there’s my mountain roots coming out) of continuing education hours learning an even deeper understanding of trauma, sexual assault, and how to help people heal. Because of that, the vast majority of my experience has been working with survivors, hearing their stories, bearing their pain with them, and trying to help them work through the various layers of trauma they experienced as a result of what someone did to them.
It’s because of these beautiful people who I care so much about that I can’t stay silent. If you haven’t experienced sexual assault, it may not be obvious to you that some of the things being thrown around so carelessly in the media would be so shaming and further traumatic to someone who’s survived such a trauma. That’s why I have to speak up. To help others understand and to help protect the innocent who may otherwise be further traumatized.
When a person experiences a sexual assault, it’s important for people to understand that one of the most common responses a person has is to freeze. We’ve all heard of fight or flight but few people realize that there is a third biological response that people experience in the face of any traumatic event. To freeze is perhaps more common than either of the other two. When this happens, it’s an indication that the person is so overwhelmed by what is happening that the logical thinking part of their brain basically short circuits, goes offline, whatever analogy works best for you here…Many have described this almost like being in shock: their body went numb, their brain felt like it was swimming in mud, they couldn’t comprehend what was happening, and some have described feeling as if they aren’t even real in that moment.
So when people say, “Well, if that had happened to me I would have..(insert self protective ninja move here)” they are saying that with full access to the logical part of their brain in a situation in which they are not in danger and have not been traumatized. Thinking that a victim can’t be a victim if they didn’t try to fight is a very shaming thing to say about something that you don’t fully understand (and are thus very wrong about). Add on top of that the fact that victims often blame themselves for not fighting back and have a hard time understanding how they could have just frozen like that adds to the trauma. Hearing other people questioning how it could be rape if she didn’t fight just makes it worse.
Let’s say you’re at a party and you go looking for the bathroom, only to be grabbed by someone and well, you know the rest… As that happens, you find yourself in shock, feeling like you’re going to pass out or throw up and you aren’t sure which one is going to happen first, meanwhile you can’t seem to comprehend what just happened and suddenly nothing feels real. Emotionally, you’re confused, terrified, overwhelmed, and already beginning to feel shameful and dirty. Disgusting, like you need desperately to take a shower but still just can’t seem to make sense of what just happened. Your first thought isn’t likely to be “hey, I’m going to go tell people what just happened to me.” Out of the hundreds of people I’ve worked with, I can count on one hand how many people told someone immediately. The majority waited years before telling anyone. Even children don’t often tell someone what has happened to them right away. We tend to hide things that hurt us, make us feel ashamed or dirty and we’re often terrified that if we say anything, someone is going to tell us that it was our fault. So we just don’t tell.
Many of the survivors I’ve worked with didn’t tell anyone until they had a strong enough reason to brave the fear. First time moms suddenly experience terror that the perpetrating family member will harm their little one and so they tell. A person has spent years running from the reality of their experience in the hopes that it will just go away and at some point realize that they will need help facing it in order to overcome it. So they tell. They experience a situation that has them so scared that they will be abused again that the terror of that prompts them to tell. I can’t tell you the number of times a person told me that I was the first person they’d ever told about an assault that happened when they were a child.
People don’t always tell their parents, their friends, or even their spouses. Parents who think, “Oh, my child and I have a great relationship, they’d tell me if that ever happened” are often floored to find out that it did happen and their child didn’t tell them. It happens every day. I’ve experienced it more times than I can count.
Many, many, many of the people I’ve worked with never went to the police. Of the ones who did, that part of their story was often a part of the trauma we had to work through. Don’t read this as an attack on police, it isn’t. This is actually a symptom of a much greater problem in society be it police, friends, school professionals, uninvolved bystanders…Too often survivors are met with the assumption that they must have done something to deserve it. What clothes were you wearing? Why were you out this late, anyway? Oh, you were drinking? What did you expect to happen…From a police/court standpoint, the questions asked are often tinged with an element of blame. What were you wearing? Because the way you dressed might have been suggestive that you were looking for it. If you were drinking, you were obviously putting yourself in danger. Being out late at night is a stupid decision if you didn’t want to be raped.
I asked AJ the other day, “If you were sexually assaulted do you think the question of what you were wearing, as a man, would ever be part of the conversation in court?” He kinda laughed and said, “I doubt it.” And yet it is one of the most commonly asked questions by police, lawyers, judges, and even friends and family. For some reason, we still hold women accountable for their “role” in keeping men stay “pure.”
Those I’ve worked with already struggle with feeling like what happened to them must have somehow been their fault and being asked questions like that in which the intention is to find a way to make it their fault is just another layer of trauma. When you add in the vast majority of rape cases are ruled in favor of the accused, there’s no real reason to ask why most survivors never pursue justice. They know that doing so opens them to more layers of trauma, more pain, and a very low likelihood of justice. Most accused are let off. The ones who are convicted are often given light sentences. Take Brock Turner for instance. Or even Bill Cosby. A measly 2-4 years after drugging and raping women for decades? Sure, sounds like justice (that was sarcasm in case you couldn’t tell).
People seem to start with the assumption that your memory of trauma must follow the same storage process that any other memory follows. Bad assumption.
When a person experiences trauma, their brain becomes overwhelmed and it often disrupts the storage of that memory. Parts of it may be very vivid; parts of it may be missing entirely. Sometimes those missing parts are randomly triggered with a simple everyday event, smell, gesture, facial expression…It’s not uncommon for a person to remember distinctly what they were wearing but have absolutely no memory of how they got to the place where it happened. They may remember the kind of drink their friend was drinking but have no idea how the traumatic event ended.
Our brains are complex and amazing organisms. Often these gaps are our brain’s attempt to protect us. The brain has determined that an experience is so overwhelming that it cuts out part of it in an effort to reduce the stress we experience from it. Unfortunately, that also contributes to the difficulty a survivor has in healing from the ongoing effects of that experience until the brain is able to organize the experience into a cohesive and adaptive narrative so that it can let go of what is no longer useful to us (like being triggered at the sight of a certain kind of drink, smell, sound, etc…or feeling sick every time the memory comes up).
Traumatic memories aren’t stored like regular memories. It’s almost like taking a story, cutting it up paragraph by paragraph and putting each paragraph in a different file scattered throughout multiple filing cabinets rather than having a summary of the whole story in front of you. You should expect that a traumatic memory is going to be spotty and many of the important details will often be missing.
Every 98 seconds a person is raped. Conservative numbers say that 1 in 6 women have been victims of rape or attempted rape and some estimates put that number at more like 1 in 4. Chances are, every person reading those knows multiple people who have been assaulted whether they realize that or not. When we are discussing events in the media (be they these current events, past events, or the unfortunate ones we will likely experience in the future) it’s really important to keep in mind that people are watching and may be affected by the way we choose to discuss current events. You may think you are only talking about some public figure, but the way you discuss it may be very triggering to someone else who has a painful story.
Our children and teens are watching and listening. Statistics show us that many of them will experience their own painful stories. If you want them to come to you for support and love, knowing that the tendency is for most to keep that pain to themselves, it is even more important that you watch the way you discuss rape and sexual assault in the media. You may think your kids know you’d never talk to them the way you talk about a case in the media, but in that moment of pain and shame I promise you that fear will be on their minds. Be careful what they hear and see from you.
Statistically speaking, false accusations of rape make up approximately 5% of allegations. That’s about the same number of false accusations as any other felony crime. Meanwhile, 99% of perpetrators will walk away free.
Even if you don’t believe someone’s story, don’t treat them as if they are lying or being manipulative. I’ve worked with so many survivors who have been publicly humiliated by friends and even family who have degraded them, blamed them, accused them of lying, name called them, and every other painful thing you can imagine. I can tell you that so often people are so consumed with thinking that they “know” what really happened and feel completely justified in picking a fight with someone they are convinced is lying that they never stop to ask “What if I’m wrong?” And end up hurting someone who has already suffered more than a person ever should.
I developed this idea that I wish people would adopt. It goes like this:
I’d rather find out that I was too nice to someone who didn’t deserve it than to find out I was too condemning and shaming toward someone who didn’t deserve it. No matter how confident you are that you “know,” what if you are wrong?
I always welcome and invite comments. My only requirement is that we keep it respectful and safe for everyone. This blog will ALWAYS be a safe place because I will make sure of that. With that in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experiences, questions, concerns…
Thank you for writing on this heavy but necessary topic. This will encourage victims to say more when they are ready. I appreciate the work you are doing. It is SOOOO important.
Wow… “it is better to give someone undeserved compassion than undeserved shame.” Wonderfully written article that is clearly from your heart… and mind! I love the points you bring up About how our thinking in a traumatic situation cannot be compared to times when our brains are functioning as they normally would. Thank you!
Wow… “it is better to give someone undeserved compassion than undeserved shame.” Wonderfully written article that is clearly from your heart… and mind!
“I’d rather find out that I was too nice to someone who didn’t deserve it than to find out I was too condemning and shaming toward someone who didn’t deserve it.” I have been preaching this for years. I don’t understand why people don’t get it. It’s simple logic to me. Thanks for teaching this.
It is so important to be able to talk openly about this. Sadly, the stigma around mental health and even sexual assault still exists.
Jennifer Rodriguez says
Perfectly written. Thank you for this very much needed information. This type of trauma can’t be easily explained. Take care!
“When a person experiences trauma, their brain becomes overwhelmed and it often disrupts the storage of that memory. Parts of it may be very vivid; parts of it may be missing entirely. Sometimes those missing parts are randomly triggered with a simple everyday event, smell, gesture, facial expression…It’s not uncommon for a person to remember distinctly what they were wearing but have absolutely no memory of how they got to the place where it happened. They may remember the kind of drink their friend was drinking but have no idea how the traumatic event ended.”
“The majority waited years before telling anyone.”
how you can be certain that the traumatic event told is actually the traumatic event that happened?
By example, if someone clearly traumatized tells that she was raped by A some decades ago, how could you be certain that the encounter with A was actually not rape and instead she was raped by B shortly before or after whatever happened with A and that the trauma did not cause such a disruption of memory that she honestly has memory of A being the rapist, while maybe memory of B being completely unaccesible?
This question might to some people sound insensitive, but it is where i get stuck, when i follow:
Believe victims; and
Traumatized victims can have imprefect memory.
What exactly i am to presume to realy have happened, if the one i should believe is said to have a disrupted memory?
And of course that question gets even more pressing and unavoidable if there are to be consequences for A due to the testimony of the traumaticed victim with a disrupted memory many years after the event.
Tia Marshall says
You’re asking a good question, though a pretty involved one. I’ll do my best to give a full answer here but it’s very nuanced and there’s quite a bit to it.
The biggest thing here is you are confusing a disrupted memory with false memory. The memory of a traumatized individual is almost like a dvd with scratches on it. When you play it, it cuts in an out and certain parts may be fragmented and still images, then skip ahead the way a scratched DVD would. My husband was in a car accident recently. His brain was so focused on staying alive that when emergency personel asked if he simply overturned his truck or if he flipped it, he had no idea. All he knew was he could feel himself air born and every thing else was a blur. That’s what you can expect from a traumatic memory. It does not implant wrong information. So that scratched DVD may skip over a fragment images but it’s not going to suddenly start playing a different movie. Thinking that a traumatized person was actually raped by person B but their memory tells them person A is not what we are talking about here. That would be like the scratched DVD suddenly playing a totally different movie. A traumatized memory would be more like a fragment of person B raping them, coming in and out, still images and being so focused on staying alive or safe that they don’t remember whether the room they were in was upstairs or downstairs or what color the bed spread was. I hope that makes sense.
It is possible for memories to be totally inaccessible to a person. Basically, when a person’s brain is so overwhelmed it can decide that access to that memory is too dangerous and cuts it off entirely…or it cuts it off consciously. But even though the mind doesn’t remember it the body does and greats a whole host of other challenges. But I don’t think that’s exactly what you are asking because a person who has totally blocked out a memory isn’t accusing anyone of anything–they have no idea anything has happened to them. What you are really asking, it seems, is about false memories. While false memories are sort of possible (kind of and that’s still debated), the mind doesn’t really do that on it’s own and that’s not what is meant by disrupted memories (disrupted memories being the dvd explanation above).
I hope that makes more sense. If not, please let me know and I’ll find a clearer way to explain this complicated answer :P. Great question and I’m really glad you asked!
Thanks for the explanation.
But even with the “scatched DVD” picture, there might be problems with reliability as a witness; while it might be less often than in case of false memories, scratched memory might comprise information crucial for the court decisions.
As a very caricature example to explain what i mean:
V(ictim) enters a room with A; they have consensual sex; A leaves; B enters the room; and V is raped.
In V’s memory the information “enters the room with A” and “V is raped” remains, but suprressed, while the information “consensual sex” and “B enters the room” gets “scratched”. Then when the information surfaces later, it is combined in a way not good for A.
I am well aware that this is probably very caricature like compared to actual cases and actual effects of trauma on memory; but it still seems that proving rape based only on victim testimony some considerable time after the event is tricky at best.
Cause i am trying to view this from the legal perspective/perspective of the court; innocent until proven guilty is a pretty high bar, if the potential victim is nearly guranteed to have a partly “scratched” memory, as a conviction would in the strictest sense then would require arguments why it could be excluded that the “scratched” parts comprised any information in favor of the accused.
I cannot perceive how the often decried problem of few convictions in case of sexual assaults can be really resolved given this problem; of course one can try to lessen the problem by making courts understand about these memory issues; but i fear it will remain.
Tia Marshall says
Rape has a strong stigma attached to it, so for a moment lets take the conversation to a different context. Let’s say you give $25 to your friend and someone across the street is watching this and comes over and robs you at gun point. As your memory struggles with the trauma that has happened to you, you might realize that you remember seeing the man watching you but you don’t remember where he was actually standing and you remember him coming up to you but you don’t remember from which direction and you remember he was wearing a hat but you don’t remember anything else about what he was wearing. Is there still the same concern that you will suddenly think it was your friend who robed you at gun point? Your mind doesn’t discriminate against traumas–the same problems that exist for traumatic memory in the case of rape exist in being mugged, assaulted, shot at, in a car accident, in combat, etc… This is why high profile cases of traumatic incidents often have expert witnesses that explain why traumatic memory seems to be unreliable but it isn’t the concern that the victim will remember the wrong bad guy, the problem is their testimony is often disorganized and they didn’t remember something and then they did remember it and it makes it look like they are making the whole thing up and just can’t keep their story straight when in reality that is an indication that the story was likely as traumatic as it seems.
Court systems never really take a victim’s word as the only proof, that’s why a lot of cases get thrown out–there’s not enough evidence to say whether or not it happened. That’s true across a multitude of crimes. The problem with rape is that the same proof that would seal a case of being mugged is turned on the victim in a case of rape. For instance: You are robbed at gun point and they take your wallet. Police find your wallet and a gun with the bad guy’s finger prints in his car. Case closed. But a woman is raped, she goes to the hospital and has a rape kit performed and his dna is found and she’s interviewed by police and can prove he was there at the time she said he raped her but the conversation moves to, well what were you wearing? and you probably gave him consent and then took it away. Meanwhile there was evidence of a date rape drug in her body and bruising on her body that show it was violent and yet he still gets off with his crime. You might think that’s an exaggeration but I’m describing a real scenario, one that I’ve worked with before.
Innocent until proven guilty is what our court system is built on in general, I’m glad it is. I would hate to be accused of murdering someone, have no real trial, and it just be assumed I did so I get life in prison at best. Definitely a fan of innocent until proven guilty. But, as with everything else, it’s flawed and our best shot at justice which isn’t 100% just sometimes. And that sucks. We will never perfect it but we should always strive to improve it. One way that it struggles and needs to be improved is these stigmas still impact whether or not a person gets justice. So even though traumatic memory is the same regardless of the trauma, it’s looked at differently in our society with rape than it is a mugging or combat and people are less likely to believe the victim even with the same amount of evidence as any other crime. In the rare cases of conviction with rape, someone caught with drugs will serve a longer prison sentence than someone found guilty of rape.
To boil your original question down to an answer: the concern with traumatic memory isn’t that it will confuse a non traumatic memory with a traumatic memory (your scenario above being that the non traumatic memory was concensual followed closely by the traumatic memory of rape). That’s no more a problem with rape as it would be my scenario of being mugged and thinking it was your friend. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to the scenario you posed is remembering the consentual sex and having the general sense that something bad came after it but not remembering any details of it. That person however, has no confusion that that she gave consent to person A and she’s not accusing person A of doing something bad to her. The good news is that certain types of therapy can really help a person recover from trauma and integrate their memory into a cohesive whole. The entirety of the traumatic memory is stored within the brain, it’s just not all stored together. Therapies like EMDR (of which I’m a huge proponent) help the brain organize the information and process it. This is great for getting the information needed and also great for helping a victim heal from whatever they’ve been through. And with something like EMDR, there is no leading by the clinician, no suggesting by the clinician, no leading questions, etc…so the risk of “false memory” isn’t there.
“it makes it look like they are making the whole thing up”
Even if people are aware to not draw that false conclusion, the problem remains.
E.g. a potential victim among other things reports that the attacker smashed her head against the hard edge of the bed; victim reported claim to late for physical evidence; and the bed in the room where the attack happened has no hard edge; but the issue whether the attacker used actual physical violence is legally relevant, e.g. for the severity of the sentence.
That part of the case is nearly irrevocably lost, even if one thinks it possible, that the vicim’s head was smashed against the hard edge of a table which is near the bed; cause the original account is clearly untrue and passing a more severe sentence based on a witness changing the story to fit to the facts is a no-go.
But that doens’t of course invalidate that there are serious problems with how potential victims of sexual assault are treated.
“You might think that’s an exaggeration”
I do not think you exaggerate.
“Is there still the same concern that you will suddenly think it was your friend who robed you at gun point?”
In one respect this comparisons fails a bit. The vast majority of robbery happens with attacker and victim not knowing each other; on the other hand the majority of sexual assault happens with attacker and victim knowing each other.
So while the scenario of my friend pulling a gun to rob me of the money i did not give him when he asked, is rather unlikely, my friend pulling a gun – or at least applying some physical or psychological coercion – to get the sex i denied is only unlikely cause i am a man and therefore less often victim of sexual assault; but for women this is not an rather unlikely scenario.
And I actually see a further problem, complicating the issue a lot.
That is so to say that due to the numerous different preferences regarding sexuality, it is far more likely that someone might think there could have been consent.
To describe it simplified:
If my friend approaches me and asks me for money and i say “No” and he pulls a gun/threatens me/etc. and i give him the money, few people would ever consider that i consented to give him the money.
But if the same thing happened with sex and my friend claimed, that this is some sort of game between us and i actually liked it, cause i got turned on by being threatened with a gun, being hit, etc., this is different. Cause there is unlike the handling of money no norm in sexuality which would convince anyone at once that this defense is just bogus, as there actually are people who have such strange sexual preferences.
So that there is regarding sex no “norm”, which tells us for example like in matters of money that B giving A money after being hit by A and threatened with a gun is in itself nearly sufficient evidence of a crime. With the result that B and A having sex after B was threatened and got hit by A is far from sufficient evidence of a crime, cause maybe B and A are just into that thing and maybe they just found out that day that it was there thing.
And of course the lack of “norm” also means that the prior history of potential attacker and victim also make no hard case that there was no consent, as some people act on spontaneous and unexpected desire.
Combined with memory issues of victims, lack of knowledge about these memory issues on the side of courts and police and combined with the 1 in 20 to 1 in 100 false accusation, this is a truly difficult mix to improve the situation.
(Note: this is not a suggestion, that sexual “norms” should be reestablished; i just try to describe what i see as a consequence of a lack of sexual norms; whenever A hits B and takes afterwards money, we must presume a crime happened, cause the “norms” about money are making lack of consent nearly certain; whenever A hits B and they afterwards have sex, we cannot presume a crime happened, cause there is no “norm” indicating that such behavior is usually without consent, as it is known to happen with consent at least sometimes)
(and apologies, i something i say sounds insensitive; i just try to get my mind around the many problems regarding the issue; also i am from Germany and here convictions on only the account of the victim are possible and sometimes happen; there was a case in which a conviction was overturned cause the potential victim was due to other proceedings found to be somewhat lenient with truth and due to actual evidence disproving her testimony – the potential attacker got free after 5 years in prison and committed 2 years afterwards suicide)