After the Webinar: The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault. Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Victoria Riechers and Lindsay Ashworth of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence answered a number of your questions after their presentation, The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault. Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question: How often do prosecutors share information about immobility or collapse in sexual assault cases? Is that something you would recommend for a prosecutor? 

Lindsay Ashworth: There are two ways to answer that depending on what that person is asking. Did I hear maybe like do prosecutors get training on this? Or/and do they inform the jury on how trauma affects behavior. For the first piece, I know at least in Arizona there are trainings, and organization dedicated to informing prosecutors on what trauma. Justice Clearinghouse is, of course, one of them because prosecutors tune in as well. For the second piece, we would recommend prosecutors educating the jury on trauma, if appropriate. This could be using expert witnesses, advocates that have been in the field for a long time, and academics explain to the jury. If that survivor cannot remember certain things it’s probably because of the neurobiology of the trauma.

Victoria Riechers: I also wasn’t sure if you meant prosecutors sharing information with the survivor about these trauma experiences. One thing that we would very much recommend for the prosecutor is to make sure that the survivor or the victim is assigned an advocate. We know a lot of prosecutors’ offices have advocates in their offices and the advocates are all trained in the neurobiology of trauma and can explain these traumatic impacts to survivors.



Audience Question: Does the opiate hormone have anything to do with the rate of opioid use by sexual assault victims?

Victoria Riechers: I haven’t seen any research into it. I also haven’t looked into it so I can’t answer the question. I did read an article that said that opioid use can cause a dissociative state in trauma survivors, but I’m not sure of about the relationship between dissociation and opioid use. We do know that many survivors and victims will use drugs and alcohol to cope. It would make sense. Rationally, it would make sense in my mind that if the body produces opiates to handle the situation it makes sense that someone might seek out opiates to deal with the situation. Not that that’s a good thing, but I can see it making sense. I’m not sure. I don’t have the research on that.


Audience Question: Are you familiar with any studies or research that have looked at how many sexual assault cases do not get prosecuted due to a lack of understanding of the neurophysiology of trauma? 

Lindsay Ashworth: It’s hard to pinpoint what happens in a case. The majority of sexual assault cases aren’t reported. From there, only a select few are investigated further. A select few of those are referred to prosecution. A select few of those actually end in incarceration or have some type of consequences. I haven’t seen any research but I know anecdotally from working with survivors and prosecutors that even with an expert witness explains the neurology of trauma jurors will still not believe the survivor. That might be a little difficult unless we would pull the jury.


Audience Question: How can partners at home support the survivor? 

Lindsay Ashworth: We will talk more about this in our next webinar. I think maybe the number one thing is to be understanding and to listen. We know that survivors oftentimes don’t need any tangible things, right? Maybe they don’t need an order of protection, housing, or shelter but they need someone to listen and believe them. I think understanding and listening are two of the most important things to do to support a loved one.

Victoria Riechers: Another thing to keep in mind is to let the survivor or victim make their own decisions. I know especially when it’s a friend or a loved one we might be like you have to report this, you have to go to the hospital, you have to do all of these things because we want what’s the best for them. Reporting or getting a forensic exam can be re-traumatizing for many folks, and they might not want to do that. They might want to just try to move on and put it past them as best as they can. Allowing them to make their own decisions is really important because it can help empower them and give them a piece of that power that they lost when they were sexually assaulted.


Audience Question: If the victim is a child, is it common for their parents to also experience some of the traumatic effects such as trouble sleeping or gastrointestinal issues? 

Victoria Riechers: Absolutely. So one thing we didn’t touch on today is secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. This is something we can see both with advocates or law enforcement folks who work every day with victims of trauma but also with family members and loved ones of the person who experienced trauma. Vicarious trauma and secondary trauma can look very similar to the traumatic impact of the person who actually had that experience and the brain does change in different ways because we’re also on hyper-alert when someone we loved has been traumatized.

Lindsay Ashworth: I think something that we have found is the gap in services for those secondary survivors. Twice this week already, I received phone calls asking where secondary survivors can go to receive support and services. I think that’s why our community-based advocates are so important because often times they are able to provide those services.



Audience Question: Do sexual trauma victims have symptoms of traumatic brain injury? 

Victoria Riechers: I’m not super familiar with this research but sexual assault survivors can develop traumatic brain injury if they also experience that physical trauma to the head. Trauma symptoms and traumatic brain injury symptoms can be similar and people can have PTSD and TBI at the same time. There is also some evidence that people who have a history of trauma may have different or worse symptoms if they also experience TBI. Like I said I’m not super familiar with the topic, and I will have to look more into it.



Audience Question: Will a survivor who is naturally detail-oriented be more apt to focus on details of the sexual assault rather than the sounds and smell and so on? 

Victoria Riechers: Potentially, but there’s no guarantee. It’s impossible to predict what someone will focus on during a sexual assault. Like we mentioned, habits can play a significant role. If someone has a very detail-oriented habit, it could potentially allow them to focus on certain things. However, because sexual assault is often out of the ordinary in someone’s life, it’s unclear what habits may play a role. There is never a guarantee about what someone’s response to sexual assault will look like.



Audience Question: Do you feel victims may have a harder or longer time recovering if they don’t get justice? 

Lindsay Ashworth: I think that depends on the victim and what justice looks like for that victim. Justice looks different for everyone. For some victims, reporting to law enforcement might be enough. For some victims, they might want that guilty verdict. They might want some kind of a prison sentence. Some victims might just want to ask the perpetrator why they did it, what made them do that. One thing that’s really important especially for advocates is explaining different forms of justice and maybe strategizing what to do if the victim can’t or doesn’t get the form of justice. We know that it’s very difficult to prosecute sexual assault cases. If someone is very focused on a guilty verdict and that’s the only form of justice that they want and don’t get it, that can

Click Here to Watch a Recording of The Neurobiology and Traumatic Impact of Sexual Assault.


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