Your Brain on Sexual Assault


L0013119 Testa anatomica; man's head made up of writhing male figures. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Testa anatomica; profile view of male human head composed of writhing, apparently tormented naked men. Pre-conservation image shows a crack down the centre of the painting. See image L0069617 for post-conservation treatment. Oil By: Filippo BalbiPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
This recent revelation about Donald Trump and crotch-grabbing has triggered an outpouring of stories and memories. I posted something on the matter on Facebook and people’s deeply sunken tales came out comment after comment. The same has happened on a national scale. People are stepping forward with their stories. A friend of mine, a touring musician, wrote a song, picked up her guitar and put it out there in a video. Down inside our tangled nests of personal denial, self-blame, and fragmented recollections, a sharp twang has struck from many pasts. This is no imagined twang, it has a physical and lifelong component.

In moments of fear or terror, combat or sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is overridden by stress chemicals. You don’t need your prefrontal cortex to get out alive. In essence, you switch to the reptile brain, which means nuances like hair color, clothing, shoes, or exactly what was said are harder to access. Fine details may be burned into the brain, but many others are cross-wired and even backwards or misremembered. The hormones released during an assault make it hard for the amygdala and hippocampus to work together, meaning information can be encoded incorrectly.

I recall being grabbed myself at an early age by a man in a bookstore. He rubbed against me uncomfortably and I moved away, then he moved in. I had a big book in my hands, I don’t remember the title. I have ever since thought of whamming it into his face, where I know he would have wept and cursed and run away. I see blood, a look of shock. But I didn’t do it. I stood in complete surprise and confusion. In fact, it feels as if part of me is still standing there, frozen in disbelief, a statue of a boy with a book in his hand that does not weather, does not erode, a ghost I left somewhere long ago.

The moment itself is ruled by the limbic system between the brain stem and the cerebral cortex, flooding the body with hormones for defense, or at least action, or frozen inaction. Meanwhile, social norms weigh in. Or social abnormalities. Sexual predators rarely behave like predators in the wild. They come in under the radar. The man who grabbed me didn’t do it aggressively. He reached for my crotch as if reaching for a book on a shelf. The epinephrine and norepinephrine flying into my muscles telling my brain to swing the book into his face were interrupted by my not being sure what was going on, what I was doing, what he was doing. My body was charged, clogged, everything ready to fly, but without any flight to be seen.

A study of the brains of 51 women, reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found that the 28 who had reported a childhood history of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, had physically different brains from the others who reported no obvious trauma. The human brain is a plastic organ. It grows differently depending on an individual’s history. Researchers concluded, “exposure to childhood adversity is associated with pronounced neuroplastic changes in the cortex in the form of cortical thinning that occurs in a regionally highly specific manner, determined by the type of maltreatment that was experienced.” The effect of sexual abuse appears to be a thinning of the somatosensory genital field. This is not something imagined, it is physically present in the brain, like a scar.


A year after the bookstore episode, I was molested repeatedly by a male student teacher ten years older than I. He asked me if he could, I said no, and he did it anyway. While my body threw out fight or flight hormones, he told me that he hates it when people blame others in their past for their problems. As a mentor, he laid landmines inside of me to make sure I kept my mouth shut. Even writing this, I feel the click underfoot, the trigger going off. Boom!

The plasticity of my brain is wrapped around what happened with him, parts of me left blank, left suspended. If information was improperly encoded in my brain, this was doubled by the words I listened to from him. This is how to tear people apart, how to undermine a society person by person.

Sexual assault is used as a war tactic to terrorize civilian communities, a stepping stone for ethnic cleansing. Without bombs or chemical attacks, people’s brains can be tangibly damaged, the impact echoing for generations. Human Rights Watch, an international NGO, investigated rape as a military tool in the former Yugoslavia, Peru, Kashmir, and Somalia, finding it used as “an integral part of conflicts.” It is, in other words, a war crime.

There is nothing flimsy or insubstantial about people’s claims as they step forward one by one. Each is stepping on a landmine in order to speak. Based on numbers Christie Aschwanden will be posting on LWON tomorrow, this refers to most of us, not only women but men. It is a way of entering chaos into a society, a pain and mental quandary that keeps on giving.

Which is why I am careful who I vote for. This is not a behavior that deserves empowerment. It impacts the whole of a people for longer than we can imagine.


Images: Testa anatomica by Filippo Balbi; Wellcome Library, London; brain image from “Decreased Cortical Representation of Genital Somatosensory Field After Childhood Sexual Abuse.”

Share Button

25 thoughts on “Your Brain on Sexual Assault

  1. While reading this my mind goes to all places of abuse I try to bury. How to keep these intrusions on well-being away from the children of my children (as I’m finding out my own children have their personal terrors) is the nightmare I face. Let me restate this…this is the nightmare we all face.

  2. Thank you. Thank you for the links, thank you for the trust, thank you for making a stand when the backlash might be horrendous!

  3. I have a BA in Women’s Sexual Abuse Issues & Writing Survival and some of this information, most of it, agrees with my findings from the 90’s (which sounds like a long time ago, now). The permanent brain chemistry changes were inevitable when looking at the results of essentially cortisol-poisoning from this assault. Having myself been molested before I could speak, I wonder almost daily what my life would have been like without the first 17 years of assaults.

  4. Thank you for sharing. I am remembering my own incidents from the past where there wasn’t an answer to advances, only disbelief and shock when it happened. When I did confront a supervisor who was a predator, I was fired from the job in 1961.

  5. Thank you, this article explains parts of my life. I use yoga and writing to attempt managing flight response in relationships. I ran into Grand Life Risking Adventures that I wrote about in “Thrashed,” a memoir of surfing, whitewater rafting, rock-climbing and horseback, with graphic abuse and sex scenes. And now, after my eldest daughter’s death at age 27- a whole new realm of confusion arises, to try to figure out, with love.

  6. Fired from two different jobs in the 1960s/70s because of bosses who expected me to provide sexual favors and made it hard to avoid their physical advances….and one was at the biggest bank in a large city. I and many, many, many women will be heartbroken if a serial sexual predator becomes president.

  7. At 16 I was, what is now called ‘date raped’ I got pregnant, went to a home for unwed mothers and gave my baby girl up for adoption. I never accepted societies view of what happened and I raged against the double standard for men and women. When I returned to school after delivering my baby, and was asked (rather cattily) where I’d been I, defiantly replied “I thought you knew, I was having a baby”.
    All of that said, all of the refusal to accept that it was my fault,, my rage at the double standard, had as much of a negative effect as if I’d taken it all on. It made me feel ‘putside’ of, never like I was a part of. I knew other women had had similar experiences, but they were as locked in their own protective ‘story’ as I.
    The bottom line is, we have to open up and shed light on these dark places. Old wounds can heal when exposed to the light of the sun.

  8. I hate it. I hate that someone comes along and messes up a human’s sexuality. It is insidious and makes me rage inside for the innocent. I want to kill these people. I have no compassion. I am training myself to be non violent. NO judgement, condemnation, punishment. And yet I feel they mean us incredible harm.

  9. Thanks for sharing Craig. Brave of you to put the details of your life out for public review. I wish you the best. The image of the head filled with people is very disturbing!

  10. All i know is sexual assault messes the brain up big time, its an imprint that lasts long, just like porn it alters the chemistry of your brain almost permanently

  11. Amazing vulnerability. I believe this debate has exposed many latent issues that could help heal us individually and as a nation if we continue to dialogue and support one another as this blog and many others are now doing – speaking up – recognizing how prevalent this issue is – this is as much about how little supper we offer to children (all those with less power) and how much power is still abused by those who have it. My children are well aware of predators and I told them you may go into shock and freeze up – and may even get aroused – that does not make it ok or your fault ever and even if they tell you things like they will hurt your family it’s all lies – come tell mommy and daddy – never blame yourself or think you have to keep it secret. This is how we empower children and I’m so happy to see more open discussions about this vs it being so taboo!!!!

  12. Thanks, Craig. You do a great service to everyone by describing what happened to you. I always thought “fight or flight” was not the only deal, because “frozen” is yet another response, one many of us have, including me.

  13. Fantastic, brave, thoughtful piece of writing shared with the public at such an important time. The science angle grabbed me; the personal angle deeply moved me. Thank you Craig!

  14. So interesting to read the physical changes that occur during sexual abuse. I suffered from sexual, physical and psychological as a child from age 5 to age 14, when I finally ran away and started a newer, safer life…although I could not escape the damage that had been caused. now at age 73, when I heard Gabrielle’s sing and read your article, it was as if it were yesterday. If we change nothing else in the world, in The 21st century, I hope and prays we can change the prevalence for sexual abuse…for men and women. That Allen will empower so managed to do so much more good, for years and years to come.

  15. Reading your piece, plus all these incredible responses, makes me feel lucky that my encounters with sexual predators has been so limited. The number of people coming forward with their stories is jaw dropping. It seems almost the norm to have been abused. I had an uncle who had me sit on his lap while he went to the toilet, and while I remember it well–and that’s all I remember of him–I never thought it had much of an impact on my life. Even if it did, my heart goes out to all of those who suffered much worse offenses. What a world we live in.

  16. You know the painting, The Silent Scream? A Norwegian painter, names escape me, minor problem at 84. I read your story, Craig, because it was by Craig Childs, a writer I admire, so it caught me unaware, and I screamed, uncontrollably, on and on, as I read, and cried from the brain and the heart, remembering only the psychiatrist who entrapped me at 23 and I was complicit, already beyond the mores of the 50’s and desperate for love/sex without having to marry just to be close to another human, which eventually I did in mid-life, after I escaped from the psychiatrist. I’m aware now that this man stole my youth and annihilated my normal natural sexual feelings that I had as a child and a young woman till age 18, when everything went downhill. In the comments I’ don’t see anything about actually losing the capacity to have an orgasm, about accepting mechanical sex from men even when I knew I wasn’t getting love/affection/respect. I don’t know how to explain this except to say sexual abuse can be so subtle, it’s like getting beaten by a parent, a priest, a nun, a bully you just get used to it.
    Something inside me made me scream, I don’t know what. It was frightening, I was close to fainting but I knew at this age I’m tough, and I could get through it. I did and felt cleansed, purified and after a while got the courage to write this, expose the shame, fear and despair of the past, hoping it might help someone else. Even more, I never gave up and very late in life met someone who gave me so much happiness, he made every hurt in life irrelevant. That gave its own inevitable problems, but I was willing to deal with them.

  17. thank you, craig, for this courageous and heartening essay. it helps me to know that my trust issues and general anxiety have a physical counterpart in my brain, after the frightening experiences i’ve had. this is such an important issue.

  18. Thanks for sharing this, not sure I could have done it but glad you did. This needs to be out there.

  19. Trump’s comments have brought so many of us from the shadows into the light while he continues to victimize through denial. Thank you Craig, for your story and your honesty.Beutiful.

  20. These comments have stopped me in my tracks. I feel no sigh of relief here, only work to be done, each of us trying to find our way. Thank you for opening such tender and hard places. I wish you all illumination, and the best routes ahead.

  21. Once those first layers of protective cover come off, the others will fall away willy nilly and leave one gasping for air at times. One often wonders what life would have been like without the deep distrust of everyone. Kind words discounted as things one might say to anyone, they couldn’t be sincerely said. Compliments deflected by thoughts that screamed “the only reason you are saying those things is because you want something…what do you want?” Using intimacy as currency to control those around and manipulate situations. Living with depression, sometimes crippling, knowing ones own family asks “why did you say anything after all this time”, or “it happened to me too, why didn’t you just keep it to yourself?”

Comments are closed.

Categorized in: Behavior, Commentary, Craig, Mind/Brain

Tags: , ,