Colleges around the country are getting hip to the "neurobiology of trauma," thanks to federal initiatives and state laws encouraging campus personnel get trained on the topic. The idea is for schools and police to respond more appropriately to the victims of student sex crimes. But peer beyond the jargon and you'll find little evidence to support these suddenly popular neurobiological theories. The results may wreak harm on the very populations those initiatives purport to protect.
Journalist Emily Yoffe dove into the "neurobiology of trauma" nonsense last week as part of her series of articles at The Atlantic on campus rape. This phrase has appeared in federal legislation, state legislation, Department of Education guidance to colleges, and campus sexual assault proceedings. It is used to explain why victims of sexual assault might not resist or even say no at all; why their memories of the incident might be spotty; and why changes to their stories over time are normal.
Under this theory, hormones and other neurotransmitters go mad and can cause temporary brain damage; memories of an assault are stored perfectly somewhere in the brain but are "fragmented" at first, so it might take victims time to piece together the true story of what happened. College Title IX coordinators—the folks responsible for adjudicating claims of campus sexual misconduct—are told that "the absence of verbal or physical resistance, the inability to recall crucial parts of an alleged assault, a changing story—none of these factors should raise questions or doubt about a claim," explains Yoffe. "Indeed, all of these behaviors can be considered evidence that an assault occurred."
But science offers little evidence to support these claims. In fact, they fly in the face of almost all recent research on memory and trauma. (See Yoffe's piece for plenty of backup on this front.) Rather, the "neurobiology of trauma" movement seems to have become popular because it plays so nicely into progressive ideology.
We have been here before.
In the 1980s, the idea that childhood sexual abuse caused later psychological troubles, substance abuse problems, and repressed memories grew quite popular. The medical mechanism through which this occurred was supposedly trauma, or more specifically, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Activists alleged that child sexual abuse victims experienced PTSD in the same way soldiers did.
Much of this movement to reconceptualize such abuse was vital and urgent. Until the late 1960s, the intellectual establishment viewed childhood sexual encounters with adults to be morally wrong, perhaps, but not much of an issue in terms of long-term cognitive and emotional development. Many weren't even quite convinced on the moral front, believing that sexual abuse was sometimes children's own fault for being "seductive" or "pathologically needy." What's more, the sexual abuse of minors was seen as exceptionally rare, so victims were very often presumed to be making things up.
"The professional conclusion for most of the 20th century was consistent and clear," writes psychologist Susan A. Clancy in her 2010 book The Trauma Myth. "When victims reported sexual abuse, reactions included disbelief, blame, and minimization."
So it was a necessary to correct earlier views that children who reported abuse were usually lying, that child molestation was incredibly uncommon, that the abuse might be the child's own fault, and that it would likely cause little long-term damage. But in their zeal to rewrite the popular paradigm on sexual abuse, feminist and children's welfare activists were quick to embrace biological theories not based in good evidence—and to dismiss and denounce any facts that didn't fit in.
The trauma theory arose in response to questions about why many victims didn't recall or report abuse until later. Trauma, PTSD, and repressed memories provided an explanation that avoided any emphasis on victims' actions or behavior. To suggest that they waited out of shame, because they didn't understand the meaning of the abuse until later, or for any other reason involving the remotest bit of agency on the victims' parts was seen as too close to victim blaming. Any questioning of quack psychologists who "uncovered" repressed memories was viewed as saying most accusers were making their stories up.
PTSD also provided a semi-plausible biological mechanism for how childhood sexual abuse could directly cause mood disorders, drug abuse, excessive drinking, relationship and sexual problems, eating disorders, personality disorders, and other issues later in life—problems that were proclaimed to arise in almost every case.
Yet "the theory of PTSD did not readily adapt to the experience of sexual abuse as described by victims," writes Clancy, who began focusing on the issue as part of her doctoral research at Harvard in the 1990s.
At the start, Clancy expected her interviews with survivors of childhood sexual abuse to confirm conventional wisdom: that this type of abuse was always traumatizing to children as it occurred, that this trauma could cause them to block it out or detach from it until years later, and that the result was always lifelong psychological, sexual, and relationship problems. But what she found was more complicated. Most of those she talked to—as patients and as part of her research project—knew their abusers, were not physically harmed by them, and recalled feeling more confusion than fear at the time.
In other words, they had not experienced the abuse as particularly traumatic when it occurred. The negative psychological effects of the abuse came later, in adolescence or early adulthood, when a victim could fully conceptualize and understand what had happened. That didn't fit the PTSD model.
To be clear, she does not suggest that sexual molestation isn't traumatizing—just that it traumatizes victims in a different way than was commonly understood. But when she began putting this out there, it was not taken well by her peers in the psychology community or by feminist activists. Clancy was accused of victim blaming and of being a "friend of pedophiles." At the very least, critics asked, why did it matter? If the new trauma paradigm had mobilized mass attention and opened Uncle Sam's pocketbook for research studies, child abuse hotlines, training programs, and awareness campaigns, then why quibble over the psychological particulars?
The answer, to Clancy, is simple: "To truly help victims, our theories need to be based on the empirical knowledge—and not on assumptions, politics, and lies."
As she interviewed more and more survivors of childhood sex abuse, Clancy realized that misinformation about trauma was further victimizing them and causing even more psychological harm. For most—those who had not "fought back" against the abuse or reported it until later, those who hadn't developed crippling psychological problems in the aftermath, etc.—the conventional wisdom on trauma only compounded feelings of insecurity, shame, and self-loathing. If they weren't terrified in the moment and traumatized forever after, they took that as a sign of their own complicity, deviance, or flaws.
"The reason the truth matters—the reason advocacy is best based in truth—is that our lies about sexual abuse are not helping victims," writes Clancy.
On campuses today, we may be making things worse for young people by embracing "science" because it feels right rather than because it reflects the empirical evidence. As before, this comes in reaction to a real problem—a historical disbelief in rape victims' stories and a tendency to treat any minor memory inconsistencies as proof they are lying—but it has veered into a damaging overcorrection.
Once again, the people in power seem content to allow this so long as it keeps yielding "awareness" events and federal funding. Dubious ideas about the "neurobiology of trauma" are now built into an elaborate infrastructure of federal mandates, school bureaucracies, paid lectures, government-funded studies, training manuals, and more.
"The notion that the mind protects itself by repressing or dissociating memories of trauma is a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support," writes the Harvard psychologist Richard McNally. As he noted in his 2003 book Remembering Trauma, "neuroscience research does not support [the] claim that high levels of stress hormones impair memory for traumatic experience." Rather, "extreme stress enhances memory for the central aspects of an overwhelming emotional experience."
It's true that fear can make a person "freeze" briefly while their brain decides how to react. But this is nothing like the catatonic, zombie-like state described in the neurobiology-of-trauma literature. For instance, Bowdoin's Title IX site, which claims that when someone is confronted with unwanted sexual advances, the "flood of hormones can even, and often does, result in a complete shutdown of bodily function" and the victim "may exhibit fragmented memory recall due to the disorganized encoding that occurred during the incident."
One leading "expert" on the subject, who gives talks to school administrators across the U.S., told Yoffe that "tonic immobility"—a way of "playing dead" or snagging a mate among some animals, but not a phenomenon among human beings—afflicts around 50 percent of sexual assault victims.
"This information sends the message to young people that they are biologically programmed to become helpless during unwanted sexual encounters and to suffer mental impairment afterward," writes Yoffe. "And it may inadvertently encourage them to view consensual late-night, alcohol-fueled encounters that might produce disjointed memories and some regret as something more sinister."
In today's climate, this can lead to some major miscarriages of justice for those wrongly accused. But it's also no boon for preventing sexual victimizaiton or for encouraging sexual safety and fulfillment among young people more broadly.
In survey after survey, students speak of incidents where they never communicated a desire to cease sexual activity because at that moment they felt "frozen," even though the perpetrator was not (by their own accounts) violent, threatening, or otherwise acting in a manner that should inspire terror. Read about recent campus sexual assault investigations and you'll find all sorts of cases where the sexual activity started consensually—often under the influence of alcohol—and then one partner had enough but didn't say or do anything to indicate that. The other party, who cannot read minds, then continued…and later was accused of rape.
An attorney who defends students accused of Title IX violations told Yoffe: "I don't think I've seen a complaint in the past year that didn't use the word frozen somewhere."
Of course people should take responsibility for ensuring a sexual partner's consent. But in the absense of this affirmative consent—i.e., in the vast majority of sexual encounters today, on campus or off—it helps for people to speak up when they don't want sexual activity to go on, to be forceful about it, and to physically attempt to leave if necessary. Obviously this isn't realistic in every situation: Attacks involving strangers, violence, threats, etc., do not lend themselves to polite conventions and conversation. (And no victim should be disbelieved or blamed simply because he or she didn't respond in some idealized way.) But the vast majority of campus sexual assaults that get reported do not involve violence or threats, do occur between people who know each other, and seem to involve some degree of genuine confusion over consent.
Rather than wade into what sorts of cultural messages and factors could contribute to all this, activists have invented a biological explanation and started teaching it through college pamphlets and websites, Title IX training modules, and more.
We are constructing a new trauma myth.
To challenge it is to be accused of victim-blaming, of putting the onus "on women not to get raped instead of on men not to rape," of being a "rape apologist."
To not challenge it is to deprive a lot of young people of skills necessary to avoid being assaulted.
Freezing up should be understood as something that's understandable in the face of an unwanted sexual advance. It should not be our presumed default. Yet we're teaching a generation of people new to sex that if they feel any hesitation about someone's advances, it's perfectly natural to say nothing and, because it's the other person's job to ask for affirmative consent, later report them for rape. Who is this helping?