Bad Science Behind Campus-Rape Guidance Echoes '80s Trauma Myths

The "neurobiology of trauma" on campus is based more on social-justice goals than science. We've been here before.



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?

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  1. So if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole memory thing down?

    1. Is legitimate rape, rape / rape?

      1. Does rape have to involve the physical body?

        1. No, witness all of the losers last Thursday night / early Friday AM in and around Gillette Stadium. They felt as if they had been psychologically raped by Roger Goodell, the Chiefs, and the Patriots.

            1. He was awesome sauce.

              1. I'm making over $12k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life. This is what I do,...Go this web and start your work... Good luck.. http://www.startonlinejob.com

        2. Can masturbation be rape?

          1. If you change your mind the next morning.

          2. Only if the tissue resists.

  2. based more on social-justice goals than science.

    But these are always noble.

    1. It has Justice right in it's moniker. My cousin actually has a Master's in Social Justice. True story.

      1. I think I bought coffee from him last week.

        1. Nah, it's a she and she just lives off disability from Lupus.

          1. Actually, now that I think of it ever child in that part of the family is on disability. Haha, fucking bullshit.

            1. And I'm willing to be they're all hyperbolic internet keyboard social just warriors.

              1. No, not even that. Really, it just gets sadder. My uncle was a good guy too, sad his kids turned out this way.

        2. Why do you buy coffee from homeless people?

          1. Because I refuse to pay them for blowjobs.

            1. So you pay them to jizz in your coffee rather than directly in your mouth?

              /haz a confuse

  3. 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."

    Love it, sounds so amazingly creepy to accuse a child of being too seductive.

    1. Your honor, the alleged victim was clearly wearing his fuck me onesy.

  4. "The reason the truth matters?the reason advocacy is best based in truth?is that our lies about sexual abuse are not helping victims"

    So...the truth needs to prove itself useful before we get to rely on it?

  5. We are constructing a new trauma myth.

    Absolutely. In fact incoming students are required to view propaganda like this in order to register for classes. "And she's drunk enough for him to get it in."

    1. Did you animate this yourself in Second Life? But, like, Second Life from about 8-10 years ago?

    2. Reason webmaster, please ban Dajjal again. Thank you.

  6. Is it wrong to be flattered when someone sexually assaults you? Even when it's a fat old perv, I mean, he chose you over the guy next to you...

    1. SMV, Tony, SMV.

    2. Well fat old pervs do have famously good taste.

    3. Asking for a friend?

  7. Rather, the "neurobiology of trauma" movement seems to have become popular because it plays so nicely into progressive ideology.

    Bullshit "science" being used to justify a leftist agenda? I'm shocked! Shocked I tell you!

    1. It's actually numerology of trauma.

  8. Anyone else remember when the feminists on campus were all about those self-defense classes where they would get a dude all padded up and then practice kicking him in the nuts?


    1. I remember that episode of King of the Hill. Good advice actually, self-defense classes are a good idea.

    2. Today you're allowed to do that only if he's a Nazi.

      1. To be fair, making someone a nazi is easy enough, especially for persons of maleness.

      2. You're getting cause and effect confused. If an SJW feels like assaulting someone, that person IS a Nazi.

    3. I remember taking back the night and chanting that penis parties have to go.

  9. Rape denialist or feminist?

    Pick one, Liz.

  10. I'm just glad there's science behind retroactive consent withdrawal.

    1. As an aside, retroactive withdrawal is not an effective birth control method.

  11. "I'm gonna rape the shit out of this bad science."

    1. "Damn, that bad science is THICCCCCCCC."

    2. "Damn, that bad science is THICCCCCCCC."

    3. Wouldn't it be funny if, like, five professors raped this bad science right now?

  12. 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?

    Perhaps...just perhaps...parents may consider raising their snowflakes children to be assertive rather than victims. Just a thought.

    1. So in order to not rape you require an assertive no?

      1. No...in order for it to BE RAPE rape requires an assertive no.

        Call me old fashioned.

            1. The mixed drink or the handi-j?

        1. Wtf is a passive no

          1. Something that happened after a Sadie Hawkins dance around 1955, I guess.

    2. Isn't assertiveness maladaptive in a police state?

      1. Yes, my hands are up, so don't shoot me.

  13. Those are some sexy synapses. You always bring the goods, Brown.

  14. If rape was really so widespread on college campuses, you'd think liberals would want to go back to gender segregated schools

    1. Are you suggesting that non-liberals think rape is OK? Good to know.

      1. This comment is wiggity wiggity wiggity wack.

  15. "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,"

    Just think of all the manuals that will have to be re-written. Heartless.

  16. It's odd that Holocaust survivors are able to remember what happened to them. Why wouldn't this supposed trauma defense mechanism work for them, assuming it really exists? Yet it only seems to reveal itself either in therapy or on college campuses.

    1. Some psychiatrists have actually proposed giving drugs that suppress memory formation immediately after a trauma as a way of preventing post-trauma disorders. People get PTSD because they DO remember, not because they don't.

      1. So instead of rapists slipping women the date-rape drug, slip them a forgetting drug?

        1. I knew a lot of women who claimed their college age sex was quite forgettable - - - - -

          1. I knew a lot of women who claimed their college age sex was quite forgettable - - - - -

            We appreciate your honesty. Usually people don't admit to such things.

        2. "So instead of rapists slipping women the date-rape drug, slip them a forgetting drug?"

          Actually, the most common date-rape drug, Rohypnol, does interfere with memory formation, so it's a twofer.

    2. because leftism is a religion

    3. While a lot of the things said about assault either aren't true or are greatly exaggerated, Long term memory loss *can* and *does* happen. Not to everyone, and I can only verify it for long term and repeated abuse of all kinds, but it does

  17. Which is worse; bad science, or science denial?

    1. Bad science is worse. Science denial is the highest form of skepticism.

  18. Sexual activity with someone who is underage, while abusive due to inability to consent, isn't necessarily traumatic or damaging. Our age of consent is arbitrary and even varies state by state. Sexual activity while intoxicated is not inherently a sexual assault. There can be a gray area with implied consent rather than verbal. Sexual assault survivors can heal and do not have to be perpetual victims crippled by the experience. But these realities don't fit neatly into the desired narrative. They don't provide the necessary justification for more and more extreme measures to enforce societal norms. So the science is twisted to fit whatever conclusion is desired.

    1. Yes, the hellish confluence of interest between feminism and the police state.

    2. It's... problematic.

      With kids that are sexual at a very young age, it's never explained how sexual activity with their peers isn't damaging but the same activity with someone older (even very much older) is. Some have expressed fondness about their time with adults, and feeling very hurt and betrayed when the adult broke it off. If you take the consent argument at face value, even 8 year olds can't consent to playing doctor with other 8 year olds. The are just sexless automatons until they hit 18.

      On the other hand, there was an article about some experimental school in the 60s in Germany where kids were taught not to be ashamed of their bodies or somesuch (forced nudity... that kind of thing) that left the kids shaken decades after the event.

      As the law is a very blunt instrument, regardless of what direction, there's going to be multitudes of gray areas where it is simply ill-equipped to deal with.

      As to the neurobiology of trauma, this has echos of the erototoxin "science" that was in vogue during the 90s. Somehow once sex enters the picture, all previous scientific knowledge goes out the window in favor of something far more exotic. It seems nearly all sex is traumatic (except from within the confines or marriage or something). I'm surprised we manage to procreate at all.

      1. Tsk. Everyone knows it's dirty.

      2. There are biological and social risks associated with sex that kids aren't ready to evaluate. We have an age of consent for the same reason we have minimum drinking ages. The power imbalance between a adult and a minor in a romantic relationship also creates problems.

        Even so, things have gotten a bit ridiculous when it comes to kids and sex. I'm not for adults and kids hooking up, but these child porn laws drove a 16 year old to commit suicide. School policies are all fun and games until kids start killing themselves. Why does it take suicide to make officials stop acting like assholes?

        I remember folks in blue states laughing at abstinence education that took place in red states during the 1990's. Now those same left-wing boomers who think it's foolish to expect minors to stay virgins as having heart attacks over the realizations that kids with take selfies of everything they do.

        1. Yeah, I've heard the arguments before and strangely the concerns over what the kids are doing mirror every other moral panic. It's not that a 15 year old can't consent to sex or drinking, but instead there should be some arbitrary age that conveniently coincides not with any scientific criteria (or at the very least, proven harm), but instead should inhabit the same schema as video game ratings and rape epidemics on campus. The crisis on campus is just the logical extension of the previous 18 years.

          You know what else kids aren't ready to evaluate? Going 6 figures into a non-dischargeable debit on little more than a promissory note of potential future earnings.

          It seems to me that teens wont to do as they will despite the best intentions of the well-meaning. And much like most other regulatory approaches, the outcome seems to be more harm than good, and precludes consideration of other approaches beyond ever stricter regulations and more clutching of pearls.

          It might be wise to backtrack from the campus and see what lead to here.

          1. A lot goes back to how we are taught how it is supposed to be. IMO statutory rape and so called "child" porn laws do more harm than good. Some people are ready to have sex earlier. Now we have the "convoy system" that allows social prejudice to be the judge.
            With the technology of today and the growth of urban areas, it is not like everyone in town knows that that hot thing is 13. Worse is the silliness of "Romeo and Juliet laws" Sex is sex. The concept of romantic adolescent fumblings (is it cute) is part of the culture.
            Part is being mammals, part is cultural influences and part is the world has changed. It all depends on point of view.
            The bad is no protection for the parties that are defrauded. A 14-year-old in a 21 and over bar, is how old to other patrons?

            1. You're still going to have cases at the periphery (yea, yea- hard cases make bad law) that intersect numerous other issues. While it is easy to say teens trading back and forth nude pictures of each probably shouldn't be prosecuted or against the law, it's more dubious in the case of a child rapist posting things online. Similarly while 16 may be questionable for statutory rape, how far does that go? 12? 8? 2 (they were a very mature 2 year old)? Having law and prosecutors nimble enough to navigate something like that is the real problem.

              I dunno. A case can be made for over-reach regarding kids, but at the same time that doesn't discount real harm is being done. I'm just tired of a portion of that harm coming from supposed protectors and social engineering masquerading as "think of the children".

              Or college students, as the case may be.

      3. Agreed! It seems that few have noticed that puritanical sensibilities survive today solely within childhood and adolescent contexts. So those whose own sexuality or promiscuousness would have been strenuously condemned in previous eras now hysterically invoke that same prudishness when it comes to kids and sex. I will add that the science behind childhood trauma as a result of sex with each other or with adults is exquisitely vulnerable to attack from actual science. The problem is, no one wants to go on record as challenging that body of pseudoscience which underpins society's views and the law.

        I'm afraid that this taboo will require "generational death" before it can be rationally evaluated.

  19. When I was in college it was more the lack of sex that I found traumatizing. Fortunately I was able to "self medicate" with a variety of therapies.

  20. 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?

    People who make a living helping others recover from trauma. In many cases, the recovery process involves the victim surrendering himself to trained professionals for a lifetime of treatment.

    1. I would say for many people the gender expectations are so opposite. The assumption of "unwanted" is just that an assumption.

  21. Hey Robby.... Nice article.

  22. Affirmative consent can only occur comfortably when the social and cultural teachings are on the same page from babyhood. The expectation that people from very different places with very different social playbooks would all be the same is insanity.

    1. I think some millenials are expecting higher ed to establish those expectations, and enforce them with no regard for due process or evidence.

  23. People may attack me for this, but I sort of get it. I get that many, many people, both men and women, have been getting away with rape because the victim did not scream and shout like we expect him or her to do. Or because the victim initially consented and changed his mind. In fact, I even find the narrative credible, albeit exaggerated, that predators have used flimsy excuses to justify their actions.

    But here is the thing: how helpful is it to victims to be told, over and over again, that what happened to them was so horrible it should traumatise them for life?

    I am speaking from personal experience. I am a gay male, and I went through a promiscuous period in a homophobic country in the Middle East. I had sex with people I hardly knew. Several times I was in the situation that I changed my mind, sometimes after the act had started. On two occasions, my partner did not stop. I did not scream and shout, but I did say I changed my mind, and he did not stop. Rape, even by the most regressive and restrictive of definitions.

    How did I react? I was disgusted with myself and vowed not to meet with guys like that anymore. I blamed myself for my promiscuity and for doing this to my dignity. And the people I told about it agreed, though I did not use the word rape. In fact, I've only recently, in following the campus rape debate, have started to think about what happened as such.

  24. Continued
    Going to the police was not an option. Homophobia was rampant, and although, as a white foreigner, I would probably be heard, the ordeal of telling people something that private would be daunting even if the system was benevolent. I just wanted to learn my lesson and move on.

    What if I had been a woman on an average US university campus? Hearing, day in and day out, how terrible rape is, and that many sexual encounters are actually sexual assault? And what if anyone I told about it would react with outrage and compassion? I think that, far from helping me get past what happened, I would see myself as a victim - it would become a self-fulfilling prophesy. And if I did not feel traumatised, I would probably think there is something wrong with me.

    Add to that, of course, the slut shaming. Women are not supposed to be loose, and the only way I could explain that situation without being a slut would be to call it rape. All of a sudden, taking any responsibility for my actions would be victim blaming and reprehensible without reflection or nuance.

  25. Continued
    Do you think that in constantly proclaiming how horrific and traumatising rape is, in dismissing any nuance as victim blaming, and in broadening the definition so much that opens up the road for reinterpreting many a casual encounter, we may actually create more, rather than less, pain? Or do you think that the fact that I did not suffer is because I learned not to, growing up as a man? And that THAT is a bad thing? I don't know, but something about this supposedly progressive narrative is extremely reactionary - reminiscent of fainting women and smelling salts from a bygone era. Empowering by disempowering.

    1. Yes, and there is a term, with a broader meaning, which has been pressed into service to describe these damaging effects: iatrogenic. In this case, an iatrogenic effect would be guilt and stress experienced by the individual as a result of engaging in sexual behavior condemned by society.

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