Sexual Violence May Actually Alter Women’s Brains

The Real Brain Exhibit @Bristol Science Centre
Getty Images | Matt Cardy

Here’s a sobering statistic: An estimated 1 in 3 women will experience sexual violence.

Whether it be intimate-partner violence, campus rape or an assault by a stranger, there’s no denying that there’s an epidemic occurring. And new research suggests sexual violence might do more than leave lasting emotional scars—it could actually reshape victim’s brains.

According to a recent study, researchers found that in a population of rats, sexual aggression from older males “not only boosted the production of stress hormones in pubescent females” but also marred the female rats’ ability to learn. Various behaviors, such as maternal instincts, were significantly impaired, and the female rats that were incapable of caring for their young also experienced decreased growth of neurons in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that plays a huge role in memory and learning.

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So how does this relate to human women who have experienced sexual trauma? Well, the scientists who conducted the study hypothesized that the lasting impression from sexual violence that women experience is because of  “changes in neuronal processes related to learning and memory.”

Though obviously the study is small and needs to be expanded, it is a meaningful step toward understanding the ways that stress and trauma can change the brain, especially the female brain, which is more susceptible to stressors.

And despite the significant insights gained from the study, lead author Tracey Shors of Rutgers University warns that the results should not be interpreted fatalistically. If a woman experiences sexual violence, there’s no reason to suggest she will later be incapable of learning maternal or other crucial behaviors. Shors’ ultimate goal is that the study will lead to effective interventions in the lives of women who have experienced sexual violence.

“If we’re really going to help women with these experiences, we need to learn about how it’s changing their brain and behavior,” Shors said in an interview. “If we do that, maybe we can design interventions that are more tailored to their needs and lives and experiences.”

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About the Author
Jessica Suss
Current high-school English teacher, native Chicagoan, and nut butter enthusiast moonlighting as a writer.

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