Sexual assault can seriously harm a woman’s learning skills.
Last year, nearly 1 in 5 women in the United States said they’d either been raped or experienced attempted rape. And even though sexual assault is troublingly common, society still doesn’t fully accept or understand the repercussions.
In the letter Emily Doe penned to her attacker Brock Turner, she wrote, “My independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady lifestyle I had been enjoying became distorted beyond recognition.”
In addition to the emotional trauma, new research has found that sexual violence changes how the female brain works. A study published in Scientific Reports concluded sexual aggression can disrupt learning processes from puberty into young adulthood.
Using a model known as SCAR (Sexual Conspecific Aggressive Response), pubescent female rats were paired with either an adult male rat, a female rat or left alone in an unfamiliar cage for 30 minutes a day. When caged with adult male rats, the pubescent females were aggressively pinned and mounted while trying to escape.
The team found that pubescent female rats not only experienced immense stress when the males tried to mount them, but also a disruption in their ability to learn behaviors such as caring for offspring. For example, when placed with newborn rats, the females that were caged with adult males didn’t lick or groom their newborns for 17 days. Plus, these female rats retained fewer newly-generated cells in their hippocampus, an area crucial to memory and learning.
While you can’t necessarily project rat behaviors onto humans, the study noted: “Women who have been exposed to severe childhood sexual and/or physical abuse oftentimes suffer from PTSD, which is associated with decreases in amygdala and hippocampal volumes, as well as learning deficits.”
These findings prove a connection between sexual trauma and mental health, but the study’s authors caution literal interpretation of the results, meaning not all women who experience sexual violence are unable to learn maternal or other behaviors.
There is not yet an established model for studying the consequences of sexual aggression on brain function in females, but Shors says, “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.”