#WhyIDidntReport: Using Science to Debunk Common Myths

Louise Harder (with the help of Grace French), Survivors

I really struggled to understand my response to my sexual assault. Why am I missing details of the abuse? Why didn’t I stop it from happening again? Why did I act how I did? Why didn’t I report it sooner? These thoughts have only been amplified by the national response of public allegations. It is only after learning about the neurobiology of trauma that I have been able to understand my story and heal.  

Myth #1: If I cannot remember every detail of the trauma, I must be making it up.

For these purposes, I will break up the brain into three (3) parts. The first, being our reptilian brain. This part of the brain is found in the very core and connects to the brain stem. It is responsible for our most innate functions, such as heart rate and breath. Surrounding the reptilian brain is our limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for motivation, emotion, memory, and our “fight or flight” response. Finally, we have the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain is in charge of executive functioning: thinking, attention, decision making, and other complex cognitive behavior. 

When a traumatic event occurs, the body needs to kick into action immediately. This means the limbic system releases hormones to prepare the body for fight, flight, or [the commonly forgotten] freeze. In addition, the pre-frontal cortex takes a backseat, as decision making can take too long. 

One part of the limbic system that releases hormones is the hippocampus. Normally, the job of the hippocampus is to file memories. However, when the body senses a threat, the hippocampus stops filing memory in order to release hormones. These stress hormones enhance the memories of central aspects of the assault, but may be disorganized. 

A respected psychologist, Rebecca Campbell, uses the Post-it note metaphor to explain the result of this (2012). When the body is filled with hormones and the hippocampus cannot properly file memory, they become similar to a bunch of Post-it Notes scattered across the world’s messiest desk. From research, we know the memory itself and recall are accurate, but may take time to figure out.   

If the research does not convince you, the rate of false accusations is between 2-10% depending on the research (National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 2012). These rates may be inflated due to other reporting factors. Those who do false report, typically have a motive and are discovered early in the investigation – well before the case is brought to a court.

Myth #2: I didn’t fight the person off, so I must have been asking for it. 

When our body identifies a threat, such as sexual violence, it goes into survival mode. There are three (3) survival reflexes: disassociation, tonic immobility, and collapsed immobility.

Disassociation is the brain disconnecting from what is happening. If the body feels threatened and there is a perception that the victim cannot escape, the brain disconnects in order to cope. 

Tonic immobility is when a person is physiologically unable to talk or move. In these cases, the survivor may reference the inability to move or feeling frozen. This is why a person may not fight back; they may not physiologically be able to. Some disassociate during the assault, but not everyone. Research suggests that tonic immobility occurs in anywhere from 12-52% of sexual assaults (Galliano, Noble, Travis, & Peuchl, 1993; Heidt, Marx, & Forsyth, 2005).

Collapsed immobility is when a person goes limp or “plays dead”. This is commonly explained by child survivors as pretending to sleep during a sexual assault. This also includes being unable to speak or move, as well as slowing of heart rate and breathing. 

Myth #3: I can’t cry after an assault, so it must not have been that bad.

Many times after an assault, a person will share their story without any emotion attached. Some see this as an inappropriate response and mistake it for lying about the assault. Survivors may feel guilty for their reaction and others may not believe them. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Sexual violence is very traumatic and painful to recall. To cope with the physical and emotional pain, the body will release natural opioids into the bloodstream. This helps dull the pain, similarly to the way morphine dulls the pain after an injury. 

Myth #4: If the assault really occurred, I would have reported immediately. 

There are many reasons a person may not report immediately (or at all). 

A few reasons people don’t report include fear of retaliation, feeling it was a personal matter, believing it was not important enough, or not wanting the perpetrator to get in trouble (RAINN, 2018). About 70% of sexual assaults occur by someone we know (RAINN, 2018). To understand this, it helps to understand our circulatory system. Our circulatory system carries energy and oxygen to the brain and carries away hormones and neurotransmitters, including those that increase feelings of trust and friendship. A perpetrator doesn’t announce their intentions to victims, but rather grooms them to thinking they are the “nice guy”. These grooming techniques increase our production of those trust and friendship hormones, which blocks stress hormones that help get us out of dangerous situations during a sexual assault. With the conflicting hormones attached to an assault, the brain becomes confused. The brain does not understand why someone he/she knows or someone who has been kind is now sexually assaulting him/her. The trust and connection hormones are why someone may blame themselves, want to protect the perpetrator, or feel conflicting emotions towards the perpetrator. 

For more reasons on why a person chooses not to report, search #whyididntreport online. 

Myth #5: It was my fault. 

No matter the situation, it is NEVER the victims fault. The violence is always an active choice on behalf of the perpetrator. It does not matter what the victim was wearing, if they fought back, if they said “no”, if alcohol was involved, how smart they are, or any other reason. The perpetrator purposefully took advantage and control. The victim’s behavior can be explained using biology. Victim blaming can add to shame and silence. It can also re-victimize the survivor. Instead, place the focus on preventing perpetrators from acting. 

Myth #6: My story is not like {fill in the blank}, so it doesn’t matter as much.

You story matters! YOU matter. There is a range of emotions and reactions survivors may experience. That is ok! We believe you. We support you. We are here to listen when you are ready.   

If you are a victim of sexual violence, please know that you have options. You can report the event to law enforcement and pursue the matter legally if within the statute of limitations. You can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) or the Michigan Sexual Assault Hotline (1-855-VOICES4) to connect with a victim advocate if you are not ready or wish not to go through the justice system. What you chose to do does not reflect the seriousness of the crime or the impact it has on you. It is not your fault. You are not alone.    

The best way to support a survivor is by letting them share in their own time. Try to avoid pressing for a full story. Just listen to their story. Believe them fully. And supporting them in what feels best in the current moment. 

The Army of Survivors