The recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings and related media coverage have raised many questions about the nature of sexual assault, post-traumatic stress, and memory for traumatic events. As experts in the cognitive and behavioral reactions to life events, we offer an overview of some of the related science, to assist the public and media in their understanding of these issues.
How Common is Sexual Assault?
Sexual assault is unfortunately a very common event. In the U.S, approximately 13% of women have reported being raped at some time during their lives. Approximately 44% of women and 23% of men have reported a history of sexual assault other than rape (i.e., sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent).
Despite these high rates of assault reported in research studies, the actual prevalence of sexual assault is likely much higher, as individuals are often unwilling to discuss such traumatic experiences.
Why Don't People Who Are Sexually Assaulted Immediately Report This to the Police?
Most survivors tell someone about the sexual assault; however, reporting to police is low. The very highest estimate is that about 28% of female survivors report the incident to police (this is from the 1999 National Crime Victimization Survey). Among college students, research typically finds that only about 5% report to police.
There are many reasons that sexual assault survivors may not report the assault. These include fear that they may not be believed, fear of negative reactions from other people in their lives, fear of retaliation from the assailant, and belief that the assault was somehow their fault. Further, as we discuss below, a common reaction to traumatic events is avoidance of discussing the trauma, as this can bring on strong emotional reactions. Thus, one may attempt to protect themselves from the pain of re-telling the experience by not reporting the assault.
Effects of Trauma
Though the trauma of sexual assault is common, not everyone who is sexual assaulted will experience the same effects.
- Some people have only mild symptoms after a traumatic event and these can fade quickly.
- Some people have moderate symptoms right after the event, but then recover after a few weeks or months.
- For others - typically 10-20% - the symptoms do not resolve with time and disorders such as Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Acute Stress Disorder may result. Panic attacks, depression, and anger may also be reactions to trauma.
Post-traumatic stress symptoms often include:
- Anxiety and panic when exposed to reminders of the trauma (e.g. sights, sounds, smells, people, places present during the trauma or retelling the events of the trauma)
- Avoidance of reminders of the trauma
- Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
- Difficulty trusting and feeling close to other people
- Easily startled
- Feeling on guard and hypervigilant
- Lack of interest in usual activities
Trauma and Memory
In addition, post-traumatic stress reactions typically include symptoms related to memory and attention. These are difficulty concentrating and/or an inability to recall certain aspects of the event. In times of trauma and danger, the body's fight or flight system is activated. This system serves to protect those who experience trauma. One hallmark of fight or flight is that attention becomes focused on the sources of the danger and other aspect of the event may not be given much attention at all. It is impossible for people to remember what they don't attend to, and thus, certain aspects of a trauma may be remembered very clearly, while others are not remembered at all.
Further, as noted above, sleep is often disrupted after a trauma. Sleep is necessary to process short-term memories and transfer them into long-term memory. When people don't sleep, that does not happen and the trauma continues to be experienced as if in the presentmoment.
Trauma effects on others
In addition to the effects on the individual who has experienced a trauma, there are commonly effects on others in this person's life. An individual with trauma often withdraws from the family and relationships become strained. In the case of sexual assault, sexual functioning and sexual satisfaction may be affected. The community is also affected as people suffering from post-traumatic stress symptoms may find it difficult to work, difficult to keep their job, and may use medical resources at a higher rate. Some individuals with trauma histories may use alcohol or other substances to try to escape traumatic memories and unpleasant emotions.
Why has there been a large increase in calls to rape and sexual assault support hot lines?
Anniversary dates, public discussion about sexual assault (such as the discussions in the media over the last several weeks), or another traumatic event, like a crash or a mugging, can result in an exacerbation of post-traumatic stress symptoms among survivors of sexual assault. Even if survivors feel that their symptoms are under control, attention by the media may cause symptoms to re-emerge or become more severe.
Survivors need to take care of themselves during these times. Suggestions include limiting the amount of media coverage they watch and reaching out to a trusted family member or friend. Survivors need not share their story but might ask the trusted person to go with them to a movie, go out for coffee, or something similar in order to distract them during this difficult time.
What can you do if you or a loved one is experiencing posttraumatic stress symptoms?
Cognitive-behavioral treatments have been found to be effective in helping people with post-traumatic stress symptoms. Learn more about these treatments here
For help finding a cognitive-behavioral therapist nearby, click here
The American Psychological Association has posted information on this topic as well, including for instance on why women may not report sexual assault, click here
Many thanks to Deborah Beidel, Amie Newins, Sandy Pimentel, Shireen Rizvi, Gail Steketee, Risa Weisberg, and Bradley White, who contributed to this document