The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims

PART I – The Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault on Victims


All professionals working in the criminal justice system – Crown attorneys, judges, police officers, and defence lawyers – want to see justice done and do their work as effectively as possible without harming anyone. Both their professional duties and ethics require this of them. Yet it is well known and well documented that sexual assault complainants have too often experienced the criminal justice system as a place that retraumatizes and even harms them. (Lonsway & Archambault, 2012; Temkin & Krahé, 2008) How can this problem be remedied?

Law reform and policy changes have brought about some necessary improvements to the way the criminal justice system processes sexual assault cases. However, much work remains to be done. Recently, a significant paradigm shift in knowledge about victims’ reactions to traumatic events like sexual assault has led to a deeper understanding of the neurobiological impacts on the brain’s defence circuitry and on memory encoding and recall. This has allowed for improved sensitivity to the range and diversity of victim trauma responses. It has already generated some improved police practices and has the potential to assist with developing further effective criminal justice system responses for processing sexual assault cases.

Society at large still does not understand victims’ reactions to sexual assaults. Unfortunately, these misunderstandings also continue to persist in the legal system and contribute to serious ongoing deficiencies in how the criminal justice system processes sexual assault cases. These deficiencies have been most starkly felt by Indigenous women in Canada, who experience disproportionately high rates of sexual victimization and who have also experienced the most tragic gaps in police and criminal justice system responses.Footnote 1 Other groups of racialized women, disabled women, young women, women who have used alcohol or drugs, are impoverished or homeless, or have other circumstances of marginality, are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault as well as decreased access to justice.Footnote 2

This leads to imperfect justice for victims and survivors, also 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, that is, one based on a neurobiological understanding of how the brain processes trauma. This will lead to more just outcomes for sexual assault complainants. It will also move us towards the fuller realization of the impartiality and fairness that criminal trials should provide all participants, including the victims of sexual assault.

This report outlines highlights from this body of knowledge, and applies them to the issue of sexual assault and its impacts on victims. The report also reviews and highlights some of the key findings about the neurobiology of trauma that are relevant to the unique crime of sexual assault. We apply these findings to the many challenges surrounding the criminal processing of sexual assault cases.Footnote 3, Footnote 4

How Myths and Misunderstandings about Sexual Assault Affect How Victim Testimony is Heard

Sexual assaults are both pervasive and unique crimes. As Justice Peter Cory of the Supreme Court of Canada has noted, a sexual assault is “an assault upon human dignity and constitutes a denial of any concept of equality for women.” (R. v. Osolin, 1994, para. 165) Sexual assault is overwhelmingly a gendered crime and women’s responses to sexual assault are deeply shaped by gender socialization. Sexual assault is also an intensely private crime that is caught up in and reflects social expectations about gender roles and sexuality. For all these reasons, sexual assault is highly challenging to prosecute. (see, for example, Cameron, 2003)

Because the victim-witness in a sexual assault trial is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the primary or even exclusive source of evidence, her testimony is of crucial importance. Yet it is precisely in how this testimony is heard, received, and understood, including misunderstood, that many of the difficulties in how the criminal justice system processes sexual assault cases arise. This is because many of the misunderstandings continue to arise from still commonly held rape myths, failures to understand common trauma reactions, and mistaken assumptions about small and apparent inconsistencies in recall about upsetting and traumatic events. These lead to the mistaken belief that victim-witness testimony lacks credibility or reliability.

There are a number of rape myths about women and sexual violence that have been formally rejected by the Supreme Court of Canada and by important law reformFootnote 5. Yet these rape myths still persist. These are the mistaken and pernicious ideas that a woman who is “promiscuous” or of so-called “unchaste” character is untrustworthy and more likely to have consented to the sexual acts in question (which are the subject of the sexual assault charge); these are the “twin myths” the Supreme Court repudiated in enacting s. 276 of the Criminal Code, otherwise known as Canada’s “rape shield law”. Another persistent rape myth is the baseless idea that women who do not promptly disclose or report sexual assaults are lying, or the mistaken idea that women who do not want to engage in sex will physically fight back and/or attempt to escape the situation to “prove” they really did not consent. Many still cling to the erroneous idea that women who use drugs or alcohol are responsible for sexual assaults perpetrated against them, or mistakenly believe that consent is continuous in intimate relationships and does not need to be explicitly given, even between partners. 

Research literature extensively documents that women who are sexually assaulted are still subject to social pressures to respond in particular ways to “prove” that they are “real” and “credible” victims. (see for example, Busby, 1999; Randall, 2010) While the justice system recognizes that there is no single “ideal victim” of sexual assault, social attitudes are nevertheless slow to change. Women who deviate from expected scripts are still treated by police and the courts with suspicion and skepticism – about whether or not they were really sexually assaulted, or whether or not they were to blame for what happened to them.

Social expectations to conform to the stereotype of what real or “ideal” victims (Randall, 2010) look like mean that women who are sexually assaulted are expected to do the following:

These are, of course, unrealistic expectations. They do not represent how most women who are sexually assaulted actually cope and respond. As a result, these myths, biases, assumptions, and expectations interfere with how victims’ testimony about their experiences is heard and understood in sexual assault trials, and with how legal actors in the criminal justice system assess their credibility.

Traumatic Impacts of Sexual Assault Experiences

Sexual assault is an experience of trauma, and trauma has a neurobiological impact – that is, it affects our brains and our nervous systems. For this reason, it is imperative that those working within the criminal justice system understand the impact of trauma on victims of sexual assault so they can process sexual assault cases more effectively and hear evidence in these cases fairly and impartially.

The impact of the sexual assault depends on many factors. These include (but are not limited to) (Boyd, 2011; Daane, 2005):

Victims may experience the impact of a sexual assault physically and psychologically over both the short and long term. (Chivers-Wilson, 2006):

These impacts can include (Littleton, Axsom, Breitkopf & Berenson, 2006):

The sexualized nature of the violation of sexual assault adds a particularly traumatic aspect to the experience. In fact, being sexually assaulted or raped can be one of the most traumatizing experiences a woman can go through. When the victim knows the offender (Conroy and Cotter, 2017), especially a person the woman believes should be trustworthy and safe, and who she never believed would violate her, her sense of betrayal is a profound element of the harm and the trauma she experiences. This only compounds her sense of shame and self-blame, along with her reluctance to disclose what happened, all of which increase trauma.

Some studies have suggested that victims of sexual assault often fear that while they are being sexually violated they will be seriously physically harmed or even killed. This fear of death or severe physical injury is correlated with similar or more severe post-traumatic harm, like that in prolonged military combat. (Dunmore, Clark & Ehlers, 2001) Even when a sexual assault occurred without a weapon, almost half of all victims in one study stated that they feared serious injury or death during the assault. (Koss, 1993; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006)

What Is Still Misunderstood about Victim Responses to Sexual Assault

Why are victims’ responses to sexual assault often so difficult to understand? Many of the most common rape myths in our society reflect a failure to grasp the realities of the dynamics of sexual violence. Moreover, these rape myths reinforce unreasonable expectations of how victims should respond to sexual assaults – specifically that victims should react to experiences of sexual violation, which are often unnerving, humiliating, and destabilizing, with calm, strategic planning, and decision making. These misunderstandings may be held by members of the public, by professionals within the criminal justice system, including triers of fact, and by women who are themselves victims of sexual assault about some of their own reactions.

Though it is important to recognize that there is no uniform or predictable victim response to sexual assault, there are common reactions. These are well documented in the research literature, and they are important for triers of fact in the criminal justice system to understand and recognize. (Campbell, Sefl, Barnes, Ahrens, Wasco & Zaragoza-Diesfeld, 1999; Herman, 1992; Koss, Goodman, Browne, Fitzgerald, Keita & Russo, 1994; Koss, Figueredo & Prince, 2002; Koss & Figueredo, 2004)

Some of the most common ways that victims react to sexual assault are precisely what people often have difficulty understanding. Women who experience sexual violence may not always be able to make decisions to protect themselves. In fact, they might:

In the aftermath of trauma, victims may make statements that appear to be incomplete or inconsistent. They may also seek to hide or minimize behaviors they used to survive, such as appeasement, or flattery, out of fear that they will not be believed or that they will be blamed for their assault.

But what might appear to be an “inconsistency” in the way a victim reacts, or tells her story, may actually be a typical, predictable, and normal way of responding to life-threatening events and coping with traumatic experiences. Many responses that seem inexplicable to those who are unfamiliar with normal trauma responses can be appreciated by understanding the brain’s way of coping with and processing overwhelming psychological events.

These reactions to sexual assault have been characterized as “counterintuitive” in some of the literature aimed at enhancing the understanding of those working within the criminal justice system. (Gentile Long, 2005)

A significant number of sexual assault victims experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, research suggests that sexual assault is by far the most frequent cause of PTSD in women. (National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, 2005)

Social Context of Sexual Assault and Increased Trauma

Women who have been sexually assaulted are more than twice as likely as men victims of sexual assault to develop PTSD, with PTSD symptoms lasting up to four times longer even when controlling for the extent of trauma exposure and type of trauma experienced. (Blain, Galovski, & Robinson, 2010; Kessler, 2000; Tolin & Foa, 2006) Women also report greater degrees of emotional numbing, less range of feeling, and avoidance responses, and experience higher levels of psychological reactivity to traumatic stimuli. (Litz, Orsillo, Kaloupek, & Weathers, 2000; Orsillo, Batten, Plumb, Luterek, & Roessner, 2004; Spahic-Mihajlovic, Crayton, & Neafsey, 2005)

Shame, blame, and the attendant experience of social isolation that sexual assault victims feel create a significant barrier to receiving much needed social support. In some cases, that isolation and the negative emotional responses a victim receives increase the feeling of threat and lack of safety. A social context of victim blaming, therefore, has a neurophysiological consequence for the victim of sexual assault, by keeping her in a protracted state of anxiety and fear.

The most compelling explanation for this significant difference in PTSD is that women victims of sexual assault experience lower levels of social support.  More importantly, in a society that continues to blame sexual assault victims for their conduct it is not surprising that so many women are reluctant to disclose or report. Victims often feel a great deal of shame and this can hinder access efforts to support and can increase negative reactions such as rejection and blame. These have been linked to increases in the number of PTSD symptoms that survivors experienced. (Brewin, Andrews, & Valentine, 2000)

Judith Herman (1992) explains that trauma enhances the need for protective relationships, but that one of the harms of trauma is that it also violates human connection. This can make such relationships difficult to establish or maintain. (Herman, 1992)

Neurobiological theories of trauma now predominate the trauma literature. They offer considerable insight into both potential trauma responses as well as the critical role and necessity of sensitive and well informed understanding of these complex responses in delivering services to victims. (Fosha, Siegal, & Solomon, 2009; Levine, 1997; Ogden, Minton, & Pain, 2006; van der Kolk, 1994, 2006)