Redacción Ciencia (EFE).- One of the arguments most used in rape trials is that the victim did not avoid the aggression (she did not flee or fight against her aggressors). Today, a study from the University College of London (UCL) warns that this reaction has a neuroscientific basis.
In light of the results, the scientific study calls for laws to take into account neuroscientific evidence suggesting that in rape or sexual assault, fear and threat can render victims physically incapable of responding to the assault. .
The research, published this Monday in Nature Human Behavior, has been carried out by Professor Patrick Haggard and Ebani Dhawan, a former student at University College London (UCL).
It is believed that 30% of women are sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime.
70 per cent of women who have gone to emergency services after being assaulted said they felt “frozen” during the ordeal, unable to move or scream.
The study cites legal precedents such as the R v Lennox case (2018), in Australia, in which the defense lawyer questioned the victim because she did not resist or show signs of fighting. For this lawyer it was clear: the victim allowed the sexual assault, it was his fault.
However, researchers argue that the victim’s immobility may be entirely involuntary, in which case blame is inappropriate.
A neural response to danger
Research has shown that when threatened, the brain’s response can include blocking the neural circuits that voluntarily control body movement.
Many animals are briefly paralyzed by a mild threat, leaving them better prepared for a quick fight-or-flight reaction. However, upon immediate and serious threat, behavior may change to prolonged immobility in which the body becomes completely frozen or limp.
Similar processes occur in humans, and questionnaire studies have shown that victims of sexual assault often report being unable to move or scream during the assault, even when not physically restrained or immobilized.
But this lack of struggle is often used by defenders of abusers and rapists who argue that this lack of resistance amounts to consent. But if the victim is “involuntarily immobile,” that argument is incorrect, the study warns.
For Haggard, Professor of Psychology and Language Sciences at UCL, “the law has long recognized the defense of ‘loss of control’ and can grant mitigated liability in specific situations in which it is shown that the actions were carried out without control volunteer”.
“After reviewing the neuroscientific evidence, we suggest that the same consideration be given to involuntary immobility during rape and sexual assault” and that inappropriate victim blaming be stopped.
“It is essential to draw society’s attention to the crucial importance of ‘active consent’”, concludes the scientist.
Devastating consequences for rape victims and for society
Rape and sexual assault can have devastating consequences for both individuals and society.
In 2021-2022 police in England and Wales recorded over 70,000 rapes but only 3% resulted in a charge.
“The legal definitions of rape and sexual assault are based on lack of consent.” But, courts often question this and “present untested stereotypes about how a ‘real’ victim would supposedly behave,” laments Dhawan.
And with this strategy, “the aggressors can claim that they assumed that the victim was consenting because she did not resist,” he emphasizes.
“We must use neuroscientific findings to prevent these myths from serving as a defense argument and to ensure that justice is served for the victims.”