As debate has begun over whether the rules governing sexual-assault adjudication have gone too far, one subject has received almost no attention, although it has become central to the way that many schools and many activists view sexual assault, reports The Atlantic. The federal government has required that all institutions of higher education train staff on the effects of “neurobiological change” in victims of sexual assault, so that officials are able to conduct “trauma-informed” investigations and adjudications. Some schools have come to rely on the work of a small band of self-styled experts in the neurobiology of trauma, who claim that sexual violations provoke a disabling, multifaceted physiological response. Being assaulted is traumatic, and no one should expect those who have been assaulted to have perfect recall or behave perfectly rationally. This argument, which the Atlantic called “junk science,” goes much further. It goes like this: People facing sexual assault become terrified, triggering a potent cascade of neurotransmitters and stress hormones.This chemical flood impairs the prefrontal cortex of the brain, impeding victims’ capacity for rational thought, and interferes with their memory.
They may have significant trouble recalling their assault or describing it coherently or chronologically. The fear of imminent death may further elicit an extended catatonic state known as “tonic immobility,” rendering them powerless to speak or move—they feel “frozen.” As a result, those adjudicating sexual-assault allegations are told, 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. Indeed, all of these behaviors can be considered evidence that an assault occurred.
Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, has taught the science of trauma to law-enforcement officials and Title IX administrators. Campbell acknowledged that she is not a neuroscientist, but rather is translating others’ work.