There is a vast array of events that can fall under the definition of trauma. Some are, for the most part, unavoidable such as natural disasters. Trauma experienced after a natural disaster can affect anyone within the scope of the disaster regardless of age or gender. Then there are traumas that happen because of abuse. Like with natural disasters, trauma because of abuse can affect anyone of any age or gender. But these are largely preventable, though not usually by the victim.
And then there is sexual trauma. “Sexual violence and aggression are some of the most stressful of all human life experiences” (Shors et al., 2016). Although anyone can experience sexual trauma, the vast majority of victims are women. It is estimated that 30 percent of women worldwide and 27 percent of women in the United States have experienced some kind of sexual trauma (2016). But these numbers are likely to be higher as many women do not report sexual violence or aggression.
Women who have experienced sexual trauma are more likely to develop PTSD (2016). They are also likely to experience depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts (2016). Sexual trauma also increases the likelihood of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke (2016).
Many victims of sexual violence or aggression are asked what they did to prevent it from happening:
“Did you say no?”
“What did you do?”
“Why didn’t you call for help?”
“Did you fight back?”
But recent research is showing that the commonly known fight or flight response is incomplete when it comes to trauma (Hope, 2018; Myers, 2018).
Humans have an instinct to freeze in the face of trauma, which completes the fight or flight response. This is known as tonic immobility and is an involuntary response, which can last a few days or weeks (Shors et al., 2016). Carla Bertsch, the University of Calgary’s sexual violence support advocate, states, “In the animal kingdom, this is essentially playing dead in the hope that a predator will lose interest and move on. But this does not work against human sexual predators” (Myers, 2018). The victim cannot choose how she will respond to the trauma; the brain decides (Hope, 2018). During a traumatic event, there are significant changes in the brain that lead the victim to do things she would otherwise not do (Myers, 2018).
These changes also cause memories to be stored differently and therefore at times less accessible (Hope, 2018). During this time, the victim may be unwilling or unable to talk about the event. The disruptions can be heightened because of rumination, or the rehearsing of the event over and over again and possibly blaming herself (Shors et al., 2016).
Memories of the traumatic event often contain high amounts of sensory detail, but lack what outsiders might think of as important details, such as the time of day of the attack or the color of the suspect’s hair (2016; Myers, 2018). A victim might remember the smell of the deodorant of the attacker, or a song in the background, but is unable to recall other details. This is related to the survival instinct.
People experience the impact of trauma differently. Josh Bronson, director of training for the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, says, “What’s important to know is that the signs and symptoms are counter intuitive” (Hope, 2018). People expect that a victim of sexual aggression or violence will be sad, upset or angry, but some show no signs of emotion or may even laughing at their situation (2018).
Police and others who investigate cases of sexual assault need to be aware of the unique effects of sexual trauma and the changes that occur in the brain during and after the attack. This is especially important when questioning the victim.
Bronson explains, many useful techniques to help officers have a successful interview with a victim of sexual assault. It is very important to develop trust and rapport (2018). The victim won’t open up if she doesn’t feel that she can trust the interviewer. The interviewer should let the victim stand if she wants and tell her everything that is going on, such as note taking at a computer; be clear about her rights (2018). Bronson suggests starting with belief before asking questions. Express sadness that she went through this, regardless of whether or not the interviewer thinks it happened. Compassion removes more boundaries. Evidence will take the lead, but start out treating the person as innocent, not as a suspect (Hope, 2018).
When it’s time to start asking questions, begin by asking if it’s okay to ask a few questions. Starting with open-ended questions such as “What can you tell me about your experience?” gives the victim the chance to talk freely. This will give investigators useful information, but they shouldn’t expect the story to come out in a logical order (2018). Because sensory memories are strongly tied to traumatic events, asking about these memories can lead to helpful information (2018). Bronson suggests asking, “What are you able to tell me about the one thing you can’t stop thinking about what happened to you?” (2018). This can lead to information that investigators may not have thought to ask about.
Bronson also suggests following up with the victim a few days after hormone levels have returned to normal. (2018). The story may seem different from one interview to the other, but that is not uncommon in trauma victims. If the case goes to court, Bronson suggests bringing in experts in trauma who can explain why the victim’s story may have changed (2018).
When interviewing the suspect, Bronson suggests remaining calm and asking open-ended questions, looking for inconsistencies and trying to catch him or her in a web of lies (2018).
When investigating a case of sexual trauma, it is important to create an atmosphere of trust and safety and to avoid blaming the victim. Society is shifting what is viewed as appropriate behavior with regards to sexual assaults. With the help of police officers and other investigators, more women will feel comfortable reporting misconduct and will be able to get support, furthering the efforts of others to make the world safer for everyone.
Hope, J. (2018). Adopt a trauma‐informed response to sexual assault investigations. Campus Security Report, 14(11), 1-5. 10.1002/casr.30349 Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/casr.30349/abstract
Myers, S. (2018). How do survivors of sexual violence cope with trauma? Retrieved from http://ucalgary.ca/utoday/issue/2018-02-08/how-do-survivors-sexual-violence-cope-trauma
Shors, T. J., & Million, E. M. (2016). Sexual trauma and the female brain. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 41, 87-98. Retrieved from http://www.healthemotions.org/HealthEmotionsReadingList/Shors/Shors%20and%20Millon%202016%20Sexual%20Trauma%20and%20the%20Female%20Brain.pdf