Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Memory and Sexual Abuse

Image from Medical XPress.


Last week Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate judiciary committee about allegations of sexual abuse. This sparked discussions about sexual abuse in news and social media across the United States. (Several victims even called into C-SPAN to share their stories after watching Dr. Ford’s testimony.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Dr. Ford about holes in her memory of the alleged assault. Why didn’t she remember what day it happened, exactly who was there, or even how she got home afterwards?

The way Dr. Ford presented her memories is consistent with my experience working with men and women who have been sexually abused. Some details of the abuse–the smell of the carpet, a dog that won’t stop barking, a song playing in the background–are clear, while other seemingly important details are more fuzzy.

Dr. Tracey Shors, a neuroscientist and professor at Rutgers University, wrote:

“It is interesting to me that Ford says she remembers the context and the layout of the bedroom, the bathroom where she hid and the stairwell to the room. We just published a study showing that women with sexual violence history experience vivid memories of the spatial and temporal context of their most stressful life event.

And what the other people who were supposedly there? Kavanaugh denied attending the party, as has one of Dr. Ford’s friends. Doesn’t that mean Dr. Ford made it up?

Not necessarily. Consider this bit of information from Dr. Shors:

[T]he people at the party who were not assaulted or stressed by the event are not as likely to remember it. For her, it was a memorable event; for them, it may have just been another time hanging out with few friends hanging at a house. This applies to the people downstairs but perhaps even for the two boys, especially if they were intoxicated.

But why can’t Dr. Ford remember the date of the event? This may seem like a huge clue to the veracity of her claims, but memories surrounding sexual abuse are not very tidy.

Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the book Remembering Trauma, gives an example of being a clerk at a convenience store and robbed at gunpoint.

Which parts of that memory get encoded into the brain?

Not all the details, even important ones. Here’s what McNally wrote in an article for NPR:

The person may often encode the features of the weapon, the gun pointed at him, but not recall whether or not the person was wearing glasses…When somebody has an experience such as this, they’re not necessarily saying, ‘I better get down the address.’ They’re preoccupied with trying to escape this terrifying experience.

Why Don’t People Report Sexual Abuse Right Away?

Image from TinyBuddha.com.

There’s a debate swirling in American politics right now about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a woman who alleged that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her at a party when they were both teenagers.

The arguments have been fierce on both sides: is Ford lying? Is Kavanaugh lying? If it’s true, does it matter? Why didn’t she speak up sooner? Doesn’t that mean she’s lying?

I’m not sure if Ford’s claims are true; time will tell. But I do know how common it is for victims of sexual abuse not to report. It may take years for the truth to emerge.

Just a month ago, a grand jury in Pennsylvania compiled a report of six Catholic dioceses where 1,000 adults had come forward to testify against 300 priests who had sexually abused them. Some of these victims had waited decades to speak of their abuse to anyone.

The statistics on sexual abuse are grim.

  • One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18.
  • One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime.
  • In eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the perpetrator.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of those victims will tell anyone what happened to them (see the full statistics on the National Sexual Violence Resource Center site).

Why don’t victims speak up sooner?

There are many reasons a victim may stay silent. Here are some I have seen in my career:

  • The victim was abused as a child, sometimes repeatedly, by a family member.
  • The abuser is the victim’s spouse.
  • Victims are ashamed of the circumstances surrounding the abuse, such as underage drinking or drug use and they didn’t want to get in trouble.
  • The abusers tell the victim the abuse was their fault, and the victim believed them.
  • The abusers threaten to kill the victim or their family if they said anything.
  • The abuser was in a position of power over the victim, such as a clergy member, a boss, a coach, etc.

How can I report sexual abuse?

Tell someone you trust if you’ve been sexually abused. (If you’re not sure what sexual abuse entails, you can read more about types of sexual violence here.)

It can be frightening and overwhelming to report sexual abuse. The process may dredge up painful memories. You may think that no one will believe you. But telling your story is an important first step to healing.

If you or someone you know has been sexually abused and you want to get help, please contact me. If you are not comfortable sharing your story yet, you can call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) at (800) 656-4673 or live chat with them at https://www.rainn.org/.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. If you would like to discuss the information in this blog further with her, please call 208-918-0958. She sees adolescents and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.