There are few phrases in the English language more abhorrent, more insidious, more absolutely goddamn infuriating than these five words: They were asking for it.
Rape is never, ever, the victim’s fault. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so – as everyone from assholes on social media to tennis stars to cops play into rape culture, often questioning the victim while giving the benefit of the doubt to the perpetrator.
When politicians like Todd Akin utter the words “legitimate rape,” he is operating on an idea that rape exists in 50 shades of gradations. As The Socialist Worker says, “The assumption that rape is murky and hard to identify underlies the normal response – in which the rights and feelings of men accused of rape are elevated above the rights and needs of rape survivors.”
There are a myriad of sociopolitical explanations for why rape culture and victim-blaming are so horrifically ingrained into the fabric of our society. So is there a scientific reason that might be potentially illuminating?
Tom Tremblay of Burlington, Vermont worked at the local police department for 30 years, working as an investigator in the sex crimes unit. He found that he and his fellow officers were often dubious about the accusations that rape victims brought forth, mostly because of the way they were presented. “Unlike any other crime I responded to in my career, there was always this thought that a rape report was a false report…I was always bothered by the fact that there was this shred of doubt.” Tremblay knew that this doubt affected the victims’ decisions, as they often decided not to pursue legal action because they were afraid that nobody would believe them.
This skepticism is not supported by the facts. In a survey by the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, it’s estimated that only 2 to 8 percent of rape accusations are false. Why, against the odds, do we not believe rape victims?
Recent studies in neurobiology have shown that the brain processes trauma in convoluted, often indirect ways, providing some rationale for why police officers many not believe victims.
“Neurobiology has evolved to explain why victims respond in ways that make it seem like they could be lying, even when they’re not. The brain’s prefrontal cortex – which is key to decision-making and memory – often becomes temporarily impaired. The amygdala, known to encode emotional experiences, begins to dominate, triggering the release of stress hormones and helping to record particular fragments of sensory information. Victims can also experience tonic immobility – a sensation of being frozen in place – or a dissociative state. These types of withdrawal result from extreme fear yet often make it appear as if the victim did not resist the assault.”
Basically, traumatic experiences like rape are often encoded in fragmented ways in the brain, making it so that victims cannot recall their assault in a clear, linear manner, often focusing on minutia (such as the attacker’s smell) that may seem insignificant to law enforcement. This can lead to discrepancies in victims' stories, as they’re not able to recall everything perfectly, causing officers to be suspicious about their entire report.
Officer Holly Whillock of the Houston Police Department was confounded by how victims often showed no emotion when talking about their trauma. “She expected victims to be enraged or visibly anguished, but instead they spoke coolly…while Whillock thought the muted response might be the result of a trauma, she also knew it would be a weakness in court.”
Thankfully, this perceived weakness may be overturned as key scientific studies demonstrate that dissociative emotions, nonlinear memory, and attention to minutia are actually proof of a rape victim’s trauma. Clinical psychologist and forensic consultant David Lisak recommends better police training. Using a more narrative approach, focusing on sensory details rather than chronology would actually benefit the criminal and legal process – and it seems that the International Association of Chiefs of Police plans to implement training based on these findings in 20 cities.
In the past, science may have provided some explanation for the harmful pervasiveness of rape culture, but as we look towards the future, it holds the very information that can help dismantle it.