The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims

Executive Summary

Sexual assault is a widespread and serious problem in our society. Yet instead of delivering justice the criminal justice system is too often a source of further distress for victims of sexual assault. 

It is well known that many victims choose not to report the crimes of sexual violence committed against them. For those who choose to report and go through the trial process, sexual assault complainants have frequently experienced the criminal justice system as a place that re-traumatizes and even harms them.

Sexual assault is very often an experience of trauma. Trauma has a neurobiological impact – it affects our brains and our nervous-systems. For this reason, it is imperative that those working within the criminal justice system have a basic appreciation of the effects and impact of trauma in relation to victims of sexual assault. This will help criminal justice professionals process sexual assault cases more effectively and to receive evidence in these cases in a more fair and impartial manner.

There has been an important and significant paradigm shift in our understanding about victim reactions to traumatic events like sexual assault, including the impact of trauma on memory. This understanding has deepened knowledge and led to improved practices, both of which assist with developing more effective criminal justice system responses to sexual assault cases. Insights from the neurobiology of trauma has assisted professionals working in a wide range of fields to better understand the psychological and physiological responses of crimes such as sexual assault, and how these affect victim response. This in turn, has facilitated more trauma-informed service delivery and more appropriate and effective interventions, from first responders like police through to advocates and legal professionals in courtrooms.

The focus of this report is on outlining some of the key findings from the body of knowledge of neuroscience, and applying them to the issue of sexual assault and its impacts on victims. More specifically, we review and highlight some of the significant developments, which have emerged from the field of the neurobiology of trauma as they relate to the unique crime of sexual assault. We apply their relevance to the many challenges surrounding the criminal processing of sexual assault cases. 

Victim reactions to sexual assaults are still not well understood in society and “rape myths” are still common. These misunderstandings, unfortunately, continue to persist in the justice system. In fact, they contribute to ongoing deficiencies in criminal justice system processing of sexual assault cases, leading to imperfect justice for victims and survivors. This has been described as the “justice gap” for sexual assault cases. We argue that this justice gap can, in part, be closed by moving towards a more trauma-informed criminal justice system. This will lead to more just outcomes for sexual assault complainants and also allow for the fuller realization of the impartiality and fairness that criminal trials can and should provide for all participants.