Does rape alter the female brain?
Sexual assault, personally, I hate the phrase. It sounds much more tame than rape and I think we should call it like it is, rape. Sure that might make a person’s skin crawl just slightly — and that is frankly the point. Rape is ugly, it’s evil, it leaves an indelible mark on a person and unfortunately a new study shows that it may be worse. Researchers have discovered that prepubescent female rodents paired with sexually experienced males had elevated levels of stress hormones, could not learn as well, and expressed reduced maternal behaviors needed to care for offspring.
“This study is important because we need to understand how sexual aggression affects all species,” said lead author Tracey Shors.
“We also need to know the consequences of this behavior in order for us to determine what we can do to help women learn to recover from sexual aggression and violence.”
Thirty percent of women worldwide experience some kind of physical or sexual assault in their lifetime and adolescent girls are much more likely than the general public to be victims of rape, attempted rape or assault, according to the World Health Organization. Recent surveys indicate that as many as one in five college women experience sexual violence while on campus.
Women who experience sexual violence are more likely to suffer with depression, PTSD and other mood disorders. Still, despite the undeniable connection between sexual trauma in women and mental health disorders, little is known about how aggression affects the female brain. That’s because there has been no established laboratory animal model for studying the consequences of sexual aggression and behavior on brain function in females.
“Laboratory models used to measure stress in animals have traditionally looked at how stress affects males and have not reflected the kind of stress that young women experience,” she said.
Bringing gender balance to research, is why the National Institutes of Health is now requiring both male and female animals to be included in research studies in order to receive federal funding.
In this new Rutgers study, Shors and her colleagues developed the Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR) model to determine how stress associated with sexual aggression affected female rodents.
Even though it is normal for female rats to care for their offspring, as well as the offspring of other rodents, the females in this study that were exposed to the adult male throughout puberty did not exhibit as much maternal behavior as females that did not have the social interactions. Fewer newly generated brain cells were present in the females that had minimal maternal behavior when compared to females that did learn to care for offspring.
While scientists don’t know if this type of sexual aggression would have the same effects in humans, studies have shown that sexual aggression and violence is one of the most likely causes of PTSD in women, which is associated with decreased brain functions related to learning and memory. The children of women who experience sexual violence are also at greater risk for suffering traumatic experiences themselves as they grow up.
“We know very little about the brain mechanisms that account for the increase in depression and mood disorders among women who experience sexual trauma and aggression,” Shors said.
“But with new approaches and attention to this issue, we can find out how the female brain responds to aggression and how to help women learn to recover from sexual violence.”
To be clear, rape isn’t a “woman” issue, any subgroup can — and unfortunately is — a victim of rape, men, women, and children. What is difficult to understand is that while murder can be a cold and distant act, rape is a very intimate act — in the sense that it has to be done up close, in person, and very deliberately. So while you can accidentally kill someone, there is certainly no such thing as “accidental rape” — despite what perpetrators might argue.
Maybe things need to change, but just how we do that — and how well it is received — has yet to be seen. We like to think that we are more evolved than other life on our planet, when in fact, we might simply be more pompous.
Shors, T., Tobόn, K., DiFeo, G., Durham, D., & Chang, H. (2016). Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response (SCAR): A Model of Sexual Trauma that Disrupts Maternal Learning and Plasticity in the Female Brain Scientific Reports, 6 DOI: 10.1038/srep18960