Sexual Assault and Memory

“I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t remember as much as I would like to. But the details about that night that bring me here today are ones I will never forget. They have been seared into my memory and have haunted me episodically as an adult” (“Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh Opening Remarks Transcripts,”).

Sexual Assault and Memory Blurriness

A Centers for Disease Control definition of sexual Violence is provided to clarify the varied parameters of this sexual activity committed against a person without that individual’s freely given consent. Aspects of this unwanted activity include:

  • Completed or attempted forced penetration of a victim; completed or attempted alcohol or drug-facilitated penetration of a victim.

  • Completed or attempted forced acts in which a victim is made to penetrate someone else.

  • Completed or attempted alcohol or drug-facilitated acts in which a victim is made to penetrate someone else.

  • Non-physically forced penetration which occurs after a person is pressured to consent or submit to being penetrated.

  • Unwanted sexual contact.

  • Noncontact unwanted sexual experiences (does not involve physical contact). (Definitions|Sexual Violence|Violence Prevention|Injury Center|CDC)

As noted in the 2012 Center for Disease Control – Sexual Violence - Facts at a Glance, 30 percent of female sexual assault victims were first attacked between the ages of 11 and 17. One in five college women experiences unwanted sexual contact with freshman at the greatest risk. Additionally, 1/3 of women and 1/6 of men undergo uninvited sexual violence in their lifetime. A 2017 meta-analytic review found that sexually assaulted individuals were at increased risk for psychopathology including post-traumatic stress and suicidality. (Dworkin, Menon, Bystrynski, & Allen, 2017)

Disruption of long-term memory appears to be one of the most common aspects of sexual assault as well as PTSD. It is now a well-accepted fact that traumatic experience alters the brain’s ability to encode information as well as to retrieve it effectively. This phenomenon includes changes in the specific recall of emotionally charged events such as missing aspects of what occurred or intensification of selective components of the experience. A variety of defenses come into play related to events of this kind including dissociation as well as repressed memory. In the former, emotions become disconnected from the verbal description which may include amnesia for the event. The latter term (repressed memory) includes aspects of the event removed from the conscious mind due to strong emotions such as fear, humiliation, guilt or shame.

Another aspect of long-term memory distortion is the emergence of intrusive thoughts which can become disturbing and severe. Heightened emotionality is a large part of trauma, especially when it is that of perceived near-death experiences. Typically, traumatic events become intertwined with these pervasive and strong negative emotions. Survival becomes a prominent theme as the fight; flight, freeze response becomes associated with multiple aspects of functioning.

What is not discussed openly or forthrightly is the long-term effects that sexual traumatization has on intimacy. For example, sexual assault is quite common among military personnel. “According to the Pentagon, thirty-eight military men are sexually assaulted every single day” (“38 Men Raped in U.S. Military Each Day,” 2014)

Among our combat veterans with PTSD, it is likely that they are 3 to 6 times more likely to divorce because of marital distress. Also, among veterans themselves, self-stigmatizing labels such as crazy, dangerous and violent, are perceived as a constant among those who have PTSD (Dinesh, 2013). Unsuspected triggering events can resurface a larger-than-life sense of vulnerability that becomes activated within 40-60 milliseconds. When this occurs, survival-based reactions dominate. To attempt to avoid this reaction, emotional numbing and avoidance of a sense of helplessness may take center stage.

The critical question is to ask, is possible to alter this relationship destroying shift in demeanor? To answer this issue, let’s take a look at a case of a veteran attacked while serving on a U.S. Navy warship. ARP (initials) was assigned to obtain supplies in a distant storage space of the ship. While carrying out his assignmen